On patrol ... officers speak to an unhelmeted cyclist near Pyrmont Bridge, Sydney. Photo: Lee Besford
The past couple of months have seen a number of crackdowns affecting cyclists in Melbourne and Sydney.
In Melbourne it was Operation Halo, a blitz on all unsafe road users with a reported 613 cyclists fined for a range of offences.
In Sydney two weeks ago, a day of police action targeting cyclists and pedestrians near Pyrmont Bridge saw some 30 cyclists get fined.
The Sydney operation appears ongoing. Police are stationed in Pyrmont most mornings; cyclists on the Bourke Street cycleways also note increased police presence.
That’s good, one thinks. It’s about time cyclists who break the road rules got pulled into line. Until you see what so many people are being fined for.
Helmets. Or rather, the failure to wear a helmet.
In Melbourne’s Operation Halo, 351 of the 613 cyclists got pinged for not donning a lid. On one day in Sydney, 15 of the 30 cyclists fell foul of the same law.
I’ve been staying away from helmets in this forum because it is a uniquely divisive subject in Australia. As such, everyone tends to have a firm view on the subject, but I implore you: at least read to the end of this blog before venting in the comments section.
It’s more than 20 years since mandatory helmet laws were passed in Australia. A generation of us have grown up thinking it is only safe to ride a bike if you wear a stack hat. New Zealand followed our example and there are similar laws in a few Canadian provinces. But nowhere else.
So it’s only when one is confronted with the astonishing sight of hair blowing in the wind in other countries that one realises – hey, people can ride bikes without helmets!
Surely the helmets mean that cycling here is safer? As if! The immediate effect of the helmet laws was that 30 per cent or so of people gave up riding their bikes. Motorists got less used to looking for – or tolerating – cyclists on the road.
Simultaneously, it fed into the stigma that cycling was dangerous. It must be if you have to wear a helmet. “A helmet saved my life,” is the favourite (albeit unscientific) claim of many cyclists who’ve had a spill. It makes us feel we’re in control of our fate. That a lump of foam can shield us against a one-tonne car.
But even if there were fewer cyclists, at least their rates of injury were lowered, yes? Well, researchers and scientists have been duking this out ever since. Curious – if mandatory helmet laws were such a lifesaving idea, you’d think the benefits would be easily quantifiable. It appears they’re not.
And I’ve never heard a European say: “You lucky country. I wish we had your helmet laws.” Mostly, they are bemused or aghast.
Despite an attempt to be progressive, Australia is going backwards, while other cities around the world have wildly popular bicycle share schemes. I spent a happy few days nipping around Paris on a Velib – best way to see the city, no helmet required.
Meanwhile, Melbourne and Brisbane’s schemes are failing, despite expensive attempts to make helmets available. The problem is so blindingly obvious that Sydney recently floated the idea of its own scheme – so long as helmet rules were waived.
So back to those laws. I’m not saying don’t wear a helmet. I probably always will, when riding as fast as I can on a racer.
But many people find helmets to be an unnecessary encumbrance for the type of cycling they do.
Should you have to put one on to cycle down a separated cycleway to the shops?
Should a seaside resident really have to don a lid to cycle five blocks to the beach?
Why is it that in Victoria the fine for not wearing a helmet is upwards of $145, but if a motorist opens a door on a cyclist, critically injuring them, they’re looking at $122?
Our cities and suburbs are rediscovering commuter and utility cycling. As the petrol price soars above $1.50, as obesity rates rise, everyone should be encouraged to get on a bike.
Not hampered by counterproductive laws.
Are helmets getting in the way of cycling in Australia? Do the laws need to be enforced?