Intended for healthcare professionals

News

Cycle helmets should not be compulsory

BMJ 1999; 318 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.318.7197.1505a (Published 05 June 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;318:1505

Re: Encouragement Might be Worse

It is difficult to tell whether Ian Ker has concluded that mandatory
bicycle helmet legislation is good or bad, but various corrections should
be made re his citation of cyclist numbers in Perth.

The only continuous official surveys of Perth bicycle numbers
commenced in October 1991, nine months before the legislation was
enforced, at two locations - the Causeway and the Narrows bridges. It
should be pointed out to those unfamiliar with Perth that these two sites
are unique... they straddle a broad river and are thus focused and
unavoidable survey locations. Another bridge was opened about two
kilometres upstream from the Causeway in, from memory, 1996. There is no
alternative river crossing near the Narrows, unless the cyclist has scuba
gear. The closest upstream bridge is the Causeway and the closest
downstream bridge is more than 10 kilometres away. Both bridges lead
directly into the heart of the city. WA has had a population increase of
240,000 since 1992 (all cyclist number estimates ignore this) and - under
government planning, sewerage and other infrastructure policies adopted in
the early 90s - much of Perth's population growth has been inner city to
middle suburban. That is, most of Perth's strata-title, subdivision,
medium/high density population growth has occured in the vicintity of the
two bridges, with no alternative means of crossing the river, and this
should have resulted in a significant increase in cyclist numbers.

Contrary to Ian's claims, these survey locations are monitored in
detail by the WA government's road authority on a day to day basis - right
down to a precise number of, for example, 843 cyclists on a given day -
and the statistics are available to any researcher who knows how to make a
phone call (or who knows how to click to my URL, where the stats are laid
out in monotonous detail). Here is an extract:

___

The number of cyclists on the Narrows fell from an average 1200 per
day in 91/92 to 1028 in 92/93, 700 per day in 95/96 (-42%), 866 in 96/97,
962 in 97/98, and 810 in 98/99. This means there were approximately 33%
less cyclists on the Narrows in 98/99 compared to 91/92.

Four day comparisons conducted by Main Roads WA in Oct 91 and Oct 92
showed a 37% reduction in cyclists on the Narrows and Causeway combined.
Sunday cycling was down by 57%.

Between Oct 91 and July 92, there were an average 997 cyclists on the
Causeway every day. In the same months of the 97/98 financial year, the
average had recovered to 869 - still 13% less than in 91/92. The total
1998/99 average daily cyclist count on the Causeway was 720 - a reduction
of approximately 27% compared to the 91/92 Oct/July pre-law benchmark.

In Dec 91, 10,596 bikes were counted on the Causeway on weekends; Dec
92 - 6719; Dec 93 - 5295; Dec 94 - 4564. This was down from a mean daily
count of 1177 in Dec 91 to a mean of 507 in Dec 94.

___

My site - www.iinet.net.au/~property/bicycle_helmets.html -
has accurate and unaltered records from the government road authority, and
they show similar downturns whichever months or seasons are compared. The
most recent figures (1998/99) show the average daily cyclist count at the
two bridges was still about 33% less than 91/92. This is coincidentally in
line with the Perth bicycle retail sector's estimate of a 30% reduction in
bike sales, and the anecdotal fact that about one in three people say
they've either stopped cycling or cycle much less because of the
inconvenience and discomfort of mandatory helmets. Police accident
statistics, telephone surveys and results from all other Australian states
also show about 1 out of every 3 cyclists stopped riding after 1992.

How about Perth locations apart from the two bridges? I have been
allowed into the government road authority headquarters to go through all
records ever compiled and, to quote my site:

___

Timescale figures for other metro sites are scarce. However, a survey
on Mitchell Freeway north of Powis St in November 1991 showed an average
179 cyclists per workday. A survey on the freeway at the nearby
Scarborough Beach Rd crossing in November 98 showed an
average of 79.

Surveys in October 1991 at the freeway site showed the workday
averages at 202, 230, 207 and 226 cyclists. The average for October 1998
was 61 per day.

___

Ian Ker is simply wrong to claim that WA data is not comprehensive
and that the most recent figures only go to 1994. After a 10% annual
growth in cyclist numbers throughout the 1980s and with such a marked
downturn after the law was enforced, it is a patent absurdity to blame
other factors. Ian is correct in saying about 50% of school children gave
up cycling (the government's bike promotion authority estimated more than
half of all kids had stopped riding to school in the five years preceding
1996). Yes, parents might have stopped some children from riding bikes,
thanks to a government intent on convincing people that one of society's
lowest-risk recreation pursuits is dangerous, but the evidence suggests it
is elderly folk in particular who have given up.

The estimated cycling population of Western Australia in 1994 was
762,000. This Australian Bureau of Statistics figure was derived from a
household survey conducted on bicycle usage and safety representing almost
half the Western Australian population. Let's be generous to helmet
advocates and pretend this post-law figure was actually pre-law. A 33%
reduction equals approximately 250,000 West Australians. WA has
approximately 11% of Australia's total population so it might be
extrapolated that about 2 and a half million Australians have given up
bike riding - a figure in unison with surveys showing reduced numbers in
each statute.

International medical experts estimate regular cycling adds between
two and ten years to the cyclists' longevity. A recent trial organised by
the WA Government (to try to convince people to get back on their bikes)
demonstrated that four short cycle rides a week for a year could reduce
elevated cholesterol levels by 50%, that the trial volunteers (aged 21 to
65) showed reduced risk of heart attack and stroke, and that cycling
reduced the risk of debilitating backache. Whether the officials like it
or not, 2.5 million Australians are not enjoying these health benefits.
They will suffer greater pain and die younger as most people don't seek
alternative exercise since they only ever regarded cycling as fun. They
instead drive their cars, further endangering other motorists, pedestrians
and cyclists. Meanwhile, WA recorded the highest cyclist injury toll in
its history in 1997, only to be surpassed by a whopping 10% increase for a
new record to be established in 1998. Head injuries were higher than pre-
law as of 1995 (despite the significantly smaller cyclist pool), upper
body injuries almost doubled, hospital recovery times for intracranial
injuries stopped their decade-long decline, skull fracture recovery times
worsened considerably, and a litany of evidence concerning the impact of
the law uniformly shows disastrous results.

In short, Australia's various governments have effectively condemned
an unprecedented number of Australians to poor health and
early death. If the figures are even remotely accurate, the imposition of
mandatory bicycle helmet laws represents one of the greatest public health
disasters in Australian history.

Competing interests: No competing interests

15 March 2000
Chris Gillham
Journalist
press/radio/self-employed