The Age has an article on Australia's bicycle helmet laws and how they are impeding share cycle schemes here that have been successful in Europe - Change of tune. I agree with the author's view that helmets should be optional for "utility" bikes but remain mandatory for racing or mountain bikes - having put my helmet to good use during a recent bike race I'd say they are worth there weight in gold in those situations.
A few months ago I wrote about my views on helmet use after a friend of mine spent 13 days in intensive care with a head injury after a bike accident. At that time I was slightly sensitive to the topic, but since then I've changed my sweeping opinion on helmet regulations.
At the tail end of my Tour de France journey I spent some time in Paris and London, exploring the cities using public hire bikes. No planning, no lycra, no clip-in shoes, and no helmet. It was liberating. I put my credit card in and 30 seconds later I was riding.
As a tourist this was an incredible way to get around and see the sights. It was spontaneous, convenient and inexpensive. After experiencing the system for myself (as more than a novelty in my home town), I would love to see the bike hire schemes flourish in Australia. Unfortunately I can’t see it happening.
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I’m sure I’ll cop it, but I renege on some of my words back from my Fairfax post. No, I didn’t wear a helmet while riding these bikes in Europe, but I didn’t feel unsafe doing so. (Why do I feel so guilty for saying that?) These bikes are obviously not immune from accidents, but the geometry is much less aggressive than a mountain or road bike, the tyres-width is ample, and the absence of a top tube means that you are very manoeuvrable if you need to get off in a hurry. They are no less safe than walking across the street. Besides, riding safely has much more to do with paying attention to what is happening on the road rather than wearing a helmet.
In my view, the biggest possible threat is traffic. To be honest, I can’t say for sure if there was any difference in the space that drivers gave me in Paris and London while riding helmet-less on a hire bike. I don’t have much of a problem in Melbourne with motorists, but more than anything I think that motorists treat varying genres of cyclists differently. A helmet-less rider on a utility bike is much more "human" to drivers than a bunch of us lycra clad warriors racing at 45km/h. It’s sometimes called the Mary Poppins effect.
I cannot see how the bike-hire schemes will succeed in Australia without relaxing our helmet restrictions on these particular bikes. These hire bikes are an excellent idea that are attempting to alleviate transport problems, make our cities more enjoyable to live in, and a making positive social change. We only have one chance at making this work.
I’m not the first person to say this, but a solution to this problem is simple. This class of "utility" or "upright" bike should be exempt from our current helmet laws. I still believe that helmets are beneficial to the type of riding I do 90 per cent of the time, but the use of these hire bikes is at the absolute bottom end of the risk spectrum.
The Conversation also has a look at this topic - Have helmet laws put the skids on Australia’s bike share scheme?.
Public bicycle hire schemes have the potential to generate the well-known health benefits that come with increased exercise.
But while Australia has bravely adopted such schemes, mandatory helmet laws continue to deter would-be cyclists.
Worldwide, more than 135 cities have developed bicycle share schemes to help reduce vehicle congestion and car parking problems, including Paris, London, Hangzhou, Montreal, Mexico City.
Melbourne and Brisbane started similar but smaller schemes last year to encourage bicycle use for short trips.
But unlike other schemes, Australia is the only country to mandate the use of helmets.
Benefits and risks of cycling
In this week’s British Medical Journal, researchers looked at the health risks and benefits of users of the “Bicing” public bicycle sharing scheme in Barcelona, Spain.
The researchers considered the 181,982 resident users of the bike share program and looked at deaths related to physical activity, road traffic incidents and exposure to air pollution.
Overall, they concluded that the additional physical activity from cycling instead of driving played a role in preventing 12 deaths.
They estimated the health benefits of riding a bicycle outweighed the risks of injury by a huge ratio of 77:1 – even if the bike was only ridden for comparatively short journeys.
The main reason for such a large benefit-to-risk ratio is the relatively low injury risk of cycling, despite minimal bicycle helmet use.