New report: other factors than helmet legislation led to declines in head injuries in NSW

A new research article published this week documents the rate of head injuries among cyclists from 1988 to 2008. It concludes that “It is likely that factors other than the mandatory helmet legislation reduced head injuries among cyclists.”


The article by Voukelatos and myself is to be published in the Journal of the Australian College of Road Safety, at


and a copy is available now at


There is a story about it in today’s Sydney Morning Herald at


To take this issue further, I would like to see the legislation repealed in one jurisdiction (say, for example, Newcastle or Wollongong) and the effects studied for a couple of years. It is highly likely that there’d be no adverse effects. This would be a realistic step forward, and would provide some much needed local evidence.


Bicycle NSW would have to support a proposal like this, but the new CEO believes that 80% of cyclists support helmet legislation. An informal and unscientific poll I conducted of a group of cyclists at dinner on Saturday polled 75% (6 out of 8) against helmet legislation. Does anyone know what percent of cyclists support or appose helmet legislation?

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CM said "letting enforcement fall by the wayside should result in the same positive outcomes as abolishing it"

But what about liability?
If helmetless cycling continues to increase so will collisions between helmetless cyclists and automobiles. Motorists will be held less accountable for their actions because cyclists will get hit with the "you weren't wearing a helmet and thats against the law" loop hole.
Yes, good point. Mind you, can they get any less accountable than they are now?
How odd. What is the point of a law if there is no enforcement. Sounds like a token gesture.

Still, I could live with that!
"What is the point of a law if there is no enforcement?"

It allows the proponents of the MHL to save face. We do it for other laws too. I live near the injecting centre in Kings Cross, and the police have a policy to not search/arrest anybody for heroin within a certain radius of it. The prohibitionists get to save face, hundreds of lives are saved, and Kings Cross is a far more pleasant place for everybody.
Ah... I see. Interesting.

That's good news about the injecting centre.
I have found all the discussion so far really interesting. Chris's report has obviously opened up sensible debate in a way we haven't seen for a long time in Sydney.

I live and work where there is no mandatory helmet laws although there are some people pushing for it. I oppose these moves based on the type of public health evidence showing that such laws have not reduced risk to cyclists. The situation in NSW is very different, we have had laws for almost 20 years and the assumption that helmets are necessary for cycling has become embedded as a community norm.

Repealing the law and overturning the myth that cycling is so dangerous that helmets are essential, or that helmets are an effective protective aid, will take many years. Few politicians will take this on at this stage.

The idea that the law need not be enforced and should be allowed to drop down the list of police priorities may be an effective way forward. People have reported that helmet laws are not enforced in Finland, Israel, Spain and Ontario. There are already a few towns in NSW where there is very little enforcement and helmet wearing is below 50%. I like Chris Rissel's idea of trying out lack of enforcement in a large town or city and monitor what happens.

Another opportunity to experiment comes with the new cycle hire schemes as in Melbourne and Brisbane. The Melbourne system is obviously failing, the more expensive Brisbane scheme starts next month. The London Cycle Hire system has been open, to members only, for two weeks and already has had 14,500 bike trips in a single day, at a rate 20 times higher than in Melbourne. Is it the helmet law and likliehood of a large fine making the difference? These hire bikes are generally slow and heavy, why not allow the police not to enforce helmet laws for users of these bikes? The Mayor of London, an avid cyclist, has said that they did not think helmets were necessary for the type of trips people would make in Central London.

The failure of the Melbourne cycle hire scheme is causing much amusement in the rest of the world, where people believe that cycle safety is not closely related to what you wear on your head.
It's not true that helmets are compulsory "in twenty states of the USA", unless you are talking only about kids. Not one of the fifty states requires adult cyclists to wear helmets. Many states require child cyclists to wear helmets, but even those laws are not strictly enforced.

In Canada, four of the ten provinces have helmet laws that apply to adults. The two biggest provinces, Ontario and Quebec, do not.
but the new CEO believes that 80% of cyclists support helmet legislation

Since when is legislation justified because “it is popular”. Such a criteria leads to pandering to ignorance and prejudice. With such wisdom, you could introduce laws such as:
Ban motorcycles, as most people are uncomfortable with motorcycles and believe they are dangerous.
Ban hang-gliding. Too dangerous. Too few hang-gliders to protest against a ban.
Pick on minor ethnic groups, forcing to conform with “the norm”.
Introduce racist policies.
Ban pink T-shirts with green dots. Most people find them ridiculous. Why should weirdos be allowed to wear them?

Ignorance and prejudice is what Alan Jones thrives on.
Civil rights is what prevents the ignorant & prejudiced majority from imposing its “standards” on minorities.

Australia has mostly escaped the tyranny of ignorance & prejudice, except for the bicycle helmet law.

Before introducing the helmet law, the govt commissioned a poll. It found that 92% of people favoured a helmet law for children and 83% favoured a helmet law for all riders. Although it didn’t have any scientific evidence to support the law, the govt knew that popular belief was on its side. It didn't have a clue whether it would work, but it knew it was popular. Its political risk was low.

Thanks to this brilliant thinking, we’ve been stuck for 20 years with a counterproductive law that discourages cycling.

When somebody suggest to repeal the law based on evidence, our bicycle body says keep the law because it believes it is popular. It doesn’t seem to even care that the law doesn’t work or discourages cycling.
How can these people claim to represent the best interest of cyclists?
I completely agree, SC.

It is excellent to see how much coverage the topic is getting, particularly with that ABC article that LateStarter has linked to above. I only hope Chris Rissel is allowed to respond to Frank McDermott and not let him have the last word on the matter. I wish they'd interview me. I haven't fallen off my bike in 20 years.

The fact of the matter is that it should be a matter of choice, given the evidence, not mandatory. End of story.

How is it that after mandatory helmet laws were introduced people are being saved just about every other day by their helmets? What on earth are Australian cyclists doing so badly that results in them falling about all over the place when in other parts of the world they manage to stay in the saddle?

Another part of the problem is we're not comparing the same 'types' of cyclist. The vast majority of the cyclists out and about are geared up for the Tour de France and feel that going to work should be a timed event.

I'm in favour of at least a trial exemption and what better location than the upcoming Brisbane CityCycle bike share scheme. I've written to Brisbane City Council and JCDecaux and suggested just that.
Paul, I emailed the journalist at the ABC that quoted Proff McDermott (the original proponent of the legislation) and asked to respond. She organised a response which I'd sent to her
Thanks, Chris. Good comment.
I wish they'd interview me. I haven't fallen off my bike in 20 years.

Ah but if you did, your helmet would guaranteed save your life.

I'm in favour of at least a trial exemption and what better location than the upcoming Brisbane CityCycle bike share scheme. I've written to Brisbane City Council and JCDecaux and suggested just that.

That is such a blindingly obvious and brilliant initiative ... that I'm sure the council will find it almost inpossible to comprehend.


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