A New Direction?

3 December 2013

Cycling in Brisbane, Australia (image courtesy of BicycleDutch)

Last week the Queensland Inquiry into Cycling Issues finalised its report entitled “A New Direction for Cycling in Queensland” and tabled it in parliament.  The report was commissioned following the high profile death of a talented musician, Richard Pollett, two years ago in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

Richard was hit & killed on a multi-lane road by the driver of a cement truck who ‘believed’ he had plenty of room to pass safely within the same marked lane. Clearly he didn’t have enough room but a jury found the driver not guilty of dangerous driving.

The foci of the Committee included the notion of implementing ‘Bicycle Registration’ and a ‘Safe Passing Distance Law’ as well as other existing and alternative road rules. To its credit the Committee looked at the issue of cycling more broadly. It’s a sensible approach because making the world a better place for cycling requires making it a better place for people and for that you have to look at the broader issues.

Of the 68 recommendations in the report, the Committee made two recommendations relating  to bicycle helmets: that people over 16 years old can choose whether or not to wear a helmet if they are riding on footpaths, bike paths or roads speed limited to 60 km/h or below; or if they are hiring a bike like Brisbane’s public bicycle hire scheme, CityCycle.

We here at Helmet Freedom have often been accused of being a single focus group, ignoring other ‘more important’ issues that improve cyclist safety and that discussing bicycle helmet laws is a distraction. Superficially this appears to be the case and in some respects it is true: there ARE more important things for cyclist safety than bicycle helmets… which is precisely why we are fighting to not make it a legal requirement for all cyclists to wear them, at all times. It’s safety theatre which has a number of negative consequences: in particular it reduces cyclist numbers and it sends the message that cycling is so especially dangerous you need safety equipment.

We are actually all very active in the broader bicycle advocacy world. Our core membership includes a range of different ‘types’ of cyclist, including many athletes, but we all have one thing in common: we are strong advocates for transport/utility cycling. This is the very type of cycling which has been neglected in this country over the past 20 years & which was most negatively impacted by bicycle helmet laws. While we all oppose mandatory bicycle helmet laws we also have strong views on other cycling advocacy issues and, as individuals, have made submissions to the Inquiry covering many topics including infrastructure, sustainable safety, speed limits and the safe passing distance laws*.

It is no surprise that most current ‘avid cyclists’ in this country care little about the helmet law when it doesn’t influence the sort of cycling they do – they simply don’t cycle to get from A to B, they drive. We cycle for almost all of our transport trips. These days, almost all cyclists in Australia cycle for sport or recreation, with a small percentage cycling to work. This includes the large state advocacy organisations and some national ones, who almost exclusively represent sport & recreational cycling, despite pretending to be more inclusive.

Some of these large advocacy organisations do not even support the safe passing distance law as there is ‘no evidence’ that it will improve safety – the big offenders here are Bicycle Network (Victoria) and Bicycle Queensland. This is an astounding statement to make because they’re strongly in support of mandatory helmet laws for cyclists despite there being no evidence to support them and considerable evidence which shows that they’re bad for cycling.

The one large national organisation which does support the safe passing distance law, The Amy Gillett Foundation, also has come out in support of helmet laws for cyclists. The organisation gets its name from Amy Gillett, a talented track cyclist who was hit & killed while training in Germany by a young driver. Amy was wearing a helmet.

Despite arguing between themselves about the safe passing distance recommendations, both Bicycle Network (BNV) and the Amy Gillett Foundation (AGF) recognise that the best way to achieve greater safety for people on bikes is to have many more people on bikes. While Garry Brennan [BNV] and Marilyn Johnson [AGF] disagree on much of the strategy behind and the execution of A Metre Matters, they do agree on the cycling community’s biggest weapon when it comes to increasing safety on the roads: getting more cyclists on the road. Here’s Garry’s take:

“There’s plenty of evidence to show that where we get the numbers of bikes up so that drivers are regularly encountering bikes on the road, they expect therefore to see bikes on the road and then they do see bikes on the road. That is the simple most powerful factor we have at the moment, working in our favour.” – Source

Interestingly, the reflexive helmet law support is being driven by the likes of the AGF with MUARC (Monash University Accident Research Centre) and their associated academics Marilyn Johnson, Paul Biegler, and Jan Garrard of Deakin. Melbourne Bike Share is running at about 0.8 trips per bike per day this year and they are looking at expanding. But Brisbane’s is still struggling with about 0.35 trips per bike per day.

 

 

The AGF appears to also oppose recommendation 16 [an exemption for bike share] so it appears we have Melbourne academics making decisions about the viability of Brisbane’s CityCycle scheme. Far easier for them to do this when theirs is getting twice the usage of the Brisbane scheme, despite being paltry by world standards. Will the AGF come up with the false line that “there are factors other than helmet laws which lead to the low usage” for our bike share schemes? If so, this has no basis in fact. It’s obvious to international experts like Oliver O’Brien what the reasons for the low Australian usage are.

 

Depressingly, since the beginning of the Queensland Inquiry there have been a number of high profile deaths of cyclists. In every single case they were wearing helmets, as they are told to do by law. In every single case this supposed ‘important safety measure’ failed them. The was one significant common element in almost all of these deaths: trucks.

Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the cause of the danger?

Why are we so focussed on making crashing ‘safer’ instead of making crashes less likely to occur in the first place?

Why are we not looking at world’s best practice to build a safe environment for cycling & walking, using Sustainable Safety Principles? When it comes to collisions that cause the most danger, why are we not listening to the experts and removing/reducing the danger instead of blaming the victim (with calls for hi-viz, more helmet promotion and ‘cyclist education’)?

The Queensland Inquiry addresses some of these issues, particularly recommendations to help protect vulnerable road users and they’ve also overwhelmingly rejected bicycle registration – will that genie ever stay in its bottle? There are certainly some questionable recommendations such as ‘equalising of fines with motorists’ and ‘mandatory lights on bicycles 24/7′ but on the whole, it is positive for cycling in Queensland and in Australia.

What can you do?

Read the report here (the 68 recommendations are summarised from page ‘xv’)

Show your support for the recommendations of the committee by writing to the Queensland Transport Minister, Scott Emerson. Even if you’re not residing in Queensland, even if you’re from overseas, consider showing your support. Don’t simply support the helmet law changes, support those measure which you personally agree with. There is much to be done, but this is the closest  we have ever come in getting real change happening for every day cycling in Australia, and it may be the only opportunity we have to let the politicians know how important these changes are. 

 

EDIT
* While not our focus, the safe passing distance law is important. We believe that it will only be used in cases where there is a clear breach (dangerously close passes or where a cyclist is hit – see Craig Cowled’s case). It’s designed to give some teeth to authorities in cases like the Pollett case, such that a driver can no longer get away with saying they ‘thought they had enough room’. That’s the significance of it.

Helmets & Helmet Laws? It’s Chalk & Cheese

7 March 2013

“Both read the Bible day and night,. But thou read’st black where I read white.”
- William Blake, “The Everlasting Gospel”

 

A group of academics from Sydney, the capital city with the lowest cycling rates in the country, have recently been engaging in an extensive debate about the effectiveness of mandatory helmet laws (MHL) in Australia. Their articles may be found in academic journals and their op-eds appear on such sites as the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, ABC News, and The Conversation. Another commentator, Alan Davies, examines the research and history concerning the laws on his blog (now part of Crikey.com), The Urbanist. From the University of NSW, the main pro-MHL academics are Jake OlivierScott Walter, and Raphael Grzebieta - statisticians and road safety academics.

On the helmet choice side of the debate, from the University of Sydney, is Chris Rissel, a public health academic. Elsewhere in Sydney, at Macquarie University, Piet de Jong, a professor of actuarial studies and statistics, has written on the costs and benefits of a mandatory helmet law. Dorothy Robinson from the University of Newcastle and Simon Batterbury from the University of Melbourne are also actively involved in the online debate at The Conversation.

The problem with the UNSW studies is not in the statistics; a huge amount of work has been done in the paper (Bambach et al, 2013) to cross-reference injury and police data. Bambach et al note that previous case control studies have had limitations such as small sample sizes. The studies are purely observational and conducted in a mandatory helmet law environment where fines are enforced. Sydney is 64% of the population of the state of New South Wales and 2011 Census data shows that 0.9% of Sydney workers commuted to work by bicycle – 15,000 out of 1,646,000 on Census Day 2011, the lowest of all capital cities.

New South Wales as a state had the same 0.9% bicycle modal share of commuters in 2011, the lowest of any state except Tasmania. The study was conducted using data between 2001 and 2009 when cyclists were even more marginalised than today.  American cycling expert John Pucher in 2010 “found the level of the hostility of enough Sydney motorists worse than I had seen anywhere in the world”. The vice president of Cycling NSW, Richard Birdsey, said in 2010 concerning Sydney that “[upright bikes are designed ... for women] … If you are moving in the serious traffic here you need something a bit quick, something you can throw around, something more performance oriented.”

The paper refers to a “debate regarding the effectiveness of cycling helmets in preventing head injuries”. To some extent, the sides are arguing at cross purposes; the paper refers to the debate being about helmets but the commentary on the paper in the media is about helmet laws. Evidence that the focus of the paper is on helmets rather than helmet laws per se is that it does not cite any papers by Rissel, de Jong or Robinson.

The conclusion of the paper was that

“This case–control study of 6745 cyclist casualties resulting from collisions with motor vehicles has indicated that helmet use is significantly associated with reduced risk of head injury by up to 74%.”

and

“Given the large protective effect of helmets demonstrated in the present study, this issue should be addressed with preventative action.”

Presumably the preventative action would involve the stricter enforcement of existing mandatory helmet laws in NSW, as well as segregated cycling facilities. However, a well-known result in the Netherlands (Rijkswaterstaat, 2008), a country without MHLs (and helmet use among all cyclists <1%) found that “13.3% of cyclists admitted to hospital were wearing helmets when they were injured.”. Instead of drawing the conclusion that helmet use leads to injury, the most reasonable conclusion would be that the legal environment determines the behaviour of cyclists. Thus, in the Netherlands, the helmeted cyclists are the “risk takers”, the sports cyclists who are more likely to be injured, not the everyday cyclists.

The problem with the studies is more in the interpretation of the paper’s results; the “post-processing”. The media remarks made by the authors involve huge leaps of logic.

 

Grzebieta:

“…we had the information as to how it occurred, so in other words from the crash data we were able to determine whether a person was at fault or not.”

This fails to account for the possibility of the assignation of blame by the police being biased due to a lack of helmet wearing by the injured cyclist, as well as bias due to cycling no longer being a “normal” form of transport in Australia.

 

Olivier:

“The evidence says helmets work: they minimise the risk of injury.”

Again, as explained repeatedly by helmet freedom advocates, enforced mandatory helmet laws change the cycling population. Some potential cyclists will give up cycling.

Professor Rissel commented

“You’ve got helmets creating a barrier to cycling, particularly spontaneous, short-trip cycling”.

Thus, in an enforced MHL environment, cycling becomes associated almost exclusively with commuting and sports, or recreational cycling – the opposite of the Netherlands. In turn this has led to lower numbers cycling and may have to led poorer cycling facilities than would have existed without the law. This supposition is backed up by the statements of Pucher and Birdsey above.  In particular, the spontaneous trips associated with bicycle sharing schemes are drastically curtailed, and this can be seen in the trips per bike per day figures for the Brisbane and Melbourne schemes. A 2012 study by Forrest (Table 9) showed that helmet laws were the biggest barrier to the use of the schemes among non-cyclists, regular cyclists and bike sharing scheme users. Brisbane’s CityCycle scheme has 150 stations and at least 1800 bikes and has the potential to revolutionise inner-city travel, but is being held back by a misguided law and lack of dedicated facilities.

Remarks on The Conversation web site, where both Olivier and Grzebieta responded to their critics, smacked of “argument from authority”. Grzebieta challenged one of his critics asking about his academic papers in the area and cites the “head of the Dutch road authority” as saying at a Canberra conference that “if they could get MHL through they would do it in an instant”. **

This conflicts with the 2012 recommendation cited in the same thread that it is more important to build safe cycling infrastructure than impose a helmet law. Wegman, the head of SWOV, the authority, does not mention helmets in a 2011 column. Indeed another SWOV paper from 1994 draws a careful distinction between “everyday cycling” and “recreational cycling” which is a key omission from the UNSW academics’ entire output. 

** We have done some investigating and no such person visited Australia. Grzebieta is referring to a presentation given by Ms Nel Aland entitled, “What a small country can be good at (besides football)”, and she is on Linkedin. Her position is  the ‘unit head of a department for analysis and development, of the air transport inspector at the governmental inspection for the environment and transport’. She is not the ‘head’ of a ‘Dutch Road Authority’ at all and if you search for ‘bicycle’ or ‘bicycle helmet’ (in Dutch, of course) on their site you will find no mention of them. The Dutch Minister for Transport recently confirmed in the news that she does not support a mandatory bicycle helmet law and the only organisation that is pro-helmet (but not pro-helmet-LAW!) is the SWOV… but they were also against priority for cyclists on roundabouts! In The Netherlands, this is an outlier viewpoint. No Dutch organisation supports mandatory bicycle helmet laws. None.

In a mandatory helmet law environment, there are all sorts of confounding factors when examining the accident rates and severity of accidents, comparing helmeted and non-helmeted cyclists. The study attempted to account for alcohol use and disobeying traffic signals. This issue has been commented on extensively at The Conversation. In an MHL environment, it may well be that a lack of helmet use is associated with other factors which were not measured in the police data – for example cyclist speed. And how exactly does a “footpath cyclist” have an accident with a motor vehicle as in the study’s controls? In megacities such as Tokyo footpath cycling is considered the norm and does not require helmet use.

In summary, both sides rely on the same data but reach different conclusions.  The pro-helmet-law academics, who seem to be most prevalent in countries with existing helmet laws, rely on observational studies and make large leaps of logic to try to show the law is justified.

Helmet freedom supporters, in contrast, take a more international approach and concentrate on the public health benefits of cycling outweighing the costs and civil liberties issues.

The critical questions never answered satisfactorily by the coterie of UNSW academics are as follows:

 

  • How is it that after more than twenty years of MHL in Australia and NZ, the other 191 countries in the world have not rushed to copy the laws? Aren’t good ideas supposed to travel? In fact, apart from these two examples, adult bicycle helmet laws are almost unique to regions of English speaking countries such as the United States and Canada, with the exception of Dubai. Naturally, these countries also have high car ownership rates.
  • Why do foreign cycling experts such as John Pucher, Jan Gehl, and Mikael Colville-Andersen urge against bicycle helmet laws? Sure, this is an argument by appeal to foreign authority, but listening to foreigners can help overcome our blind spots.
  • Why do Australian bicycle sharing schemes have such low usage rates compared to schemes worldwide? In fairness, one of the UNSW academics, Tim Churches, suggested the “tiny size” of the schemes at The Conversation but this is incorrect as Brisbane’s scheme is one of the larger schemes, with 150 stations.
  • Would the academics recommend helmet use by pedestrians or car drivers? Do they wear helmets as car drivers themselves? If not, why not?

Coming Soon: Mandatory Life Jacket Laws

8 October 2012

If a law only saves one life it’s worth it… right?

If that were the case, then all driving would be banned immediately. Like most things in life the answer isn’t always as obvious as many have us believe.

Public health & safety is serious but it is important to weigh up all the risks and benefits so we may put them into perspective. Too often the issue is patronisingly simplified, with plenty of emotion, to justify a law. This is particularly the case when that law is imposed by people unaffected by it.

Mandatory bicycle helmet laws are one such example. It’s about time Governments looked at the issue more broadly, from a public health perspective. If they looked at the evidence it would be quite clear that mandatory bicycle helmet laws are a public health disaster, not to mention the disastrous effect it is having on our public bicycle hire schemes.

Don’t forget to add your support to the Freestyle Cyclists petition. Helmet choice is about just that: choice. It’s not about forcing you to wear helmets and it’s certainly not about banning helmets as some helmet law supporters would have you believe.

 

Study confirms helmet laws killing Australian bike share

27 September 2012

A recent study into the reasons for the disappointing usage of Australia’s two bike share schemes has confirmed what many people already know: public bike share will not work with mandatory helmet laws.

Usage rates of Brisbane’s CityCycle and the Melbourne Bike Share are terrible. This new research confirms what we have previously reported; that Brisbane and Melbourne are receiving only 5-10% of the usage we should expect of successful bike share schemes.

The authors note:

“Both schemes have approximately 0.3–0.4 trips per day per bike according to information supplied by the operators to the authors…..most other schemes internationally report usage rates of around 3–6 trips per bike per day.”

Every bike share scheme in the world except for Brisbane and Melbourne allows people to ride without helmets (which is perfectly safe). It is this compulsory helmet requirement that most people say is the main factor preventing them from using the Melbourne Bike Share, as shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1. Source: E. Fishman et al. (2012), Barriers and facilitators to public bicycle scheme use: A qualitative approach, Transportation Research Part F

Over 60% of respondents cite helmet restrictions as being the main reason stopping them from using bike share.

When you exclude those who claim bad weather as their main obstacle (which is surely beyond the power of any government or transport authority to influence), helmet laws become even more obviously predominant.

The study found similar reasons for the poor patronage of Brisbane CityCycle. Analysis of CityCycle was done through “focus group discussions” rather than a survey, so the results are descriptive rather than statistical. But a familiar story emerges.

The authors write:

“Participants who had not used CityCycle frequently described mandatory helmet laws as a reason for not using the scheme. Focus group participants felt the requirement to use a helmet reduced the spontaneity often associated with public bike share scheme use.”

Despite having some compelling evidence in front of them, the authors recommendations are weak and disappointing. They suggest Australian bike share needs:

  • a more accessible, spontaneous sign-up process
  • 24/7 opening hours
  • greater incentives to sign up new members and casual users

While there is no doubt that these things are useful suggestions, they do not even come close to explaining why Brisbane and Melbourne are operating at one-tenth the usage they should be.

Melbourne Bike Share already has an instantaneous sign-up process (credit card swipe) and it doesn’t have significantly higher usage than CityCycle which has a longer, more complicated sign-up.

24-hour operation would be beneficial but it’s inconceivable that it would lead to anything more than a marginal increase in usage, certainly not the 10-fold increase that the schemes need.

Why do the authors not make any suggestions about what is clearly the main reason for the failure of Australian bike share: mandatory helmet laws? Why is there no consideration of an exemption from helmet laws for bike share users, as has been suggested by Fairfax journalist Michael O’Reilly and others in the media and community?

This seemingly strange omission becomes understandable when we note that the three authors of this study are from the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety – Queensland (CARRS-Q), based at the Queensland University of Technology. CARRS-Q was the group that last year produced a publication in support of mandatory bicycle helmet legislation which was commissioned and paid for by (and included editorial input from) the Queensland government.

We have written extensively on the deficiencies and biases of this publication, including some general criticisms here and here and a seven-part in-depth critique beginning here.

Given the preconceived views of it’s authors it is unsurprising that this latest research fails to suggest that it might be time to rethink our stance on compulsory helmets. This is disappointing because their own evidence clearly shows that helmet laws are the primary reason for the failure of bike share in Australia.

OECD Cycling Safety Report

19 September 2012

The International Transport Forum (an intergovernmental OECD organisation of which Australia is a member) has recently released a publication on cycling safety, entitled Cycling Safety: Key Messages.

Amongst other things, the report considers the effectiveness of promoting or mandating helmet use for increasing safety.  It finds:

Helmet usage reduces the severity of head injuries in cycle crashes but may lead to compensating behaviour that otherwise erodes safety gains.

Studies addressing the safety impact of helmets can generally be split into two groups: those that focus on the way in which bicycle helmets change the injury risk for individual cyclists in case of a crash and those that focus on the generalised safety effect of introducing measures (typically campaigns and/or legislation) to increase helmet usage among cyclists.

The first group generally finds that wearing a bicycle helmet reduces the risk of sustaining a head injury in a crash (head injuries are among the most severe outcomes of cycle crashes) though recent re-analysis of previous studies suggests that this effect is less than previously thought (Elvik, 2011).

To be clear — these studies indicate the possible reduced risk of head injury for a single cyclist in case of an accident. The effects must not be mistaken for the safety effects of mandatory helmet legislation or other measures to enhance helmet usage.

The safety effect of mandatory helmet legislation as such has been evaluated in far lesser studies than the individual risk in case of an accident. The safety effect of mandatory helmet legislation is a result of a series of factors:

  • reduced injury risk (due to increased helmet usage)
  • increased crash risk (due to an often claimed change in behaviour amongst cyclists who take up wearing helmet)
  • less cycling (leading to a reduced number of accidents and injuries, but also to a higher accident risk for those who still cycle)

Whether bicyclists change their behaviour when they start to use a bicycle helmet seems very uncertain (and difficult to prove) but it is evident that mandatory helmet use might reduce the total number of bicyclists. It is also possible that cyclists who continue to bike might represent a behaviour which is different from the behaviour of those who stop biking. In the end this could very well lead to an overall change in behaviour.

Although the report makes 11 recommendations of ways for governments to improve safety for cyclists, there is no recommendation to make helmets compulsory.

The publication also presents a number of other interesting findings and recommendations:

  • On balance, the positive health impacts of cycling far outweigh negative health impacts
  • Cyclists should not be the only target of cycling safety policies – motorists are at least as important to target
  • Cycling is safer on roads with bicycle specific infrastructure such as segregated lanes than on roads without

These are the sort of points that Australian governments should be basing our cycling policies around. Any measures, such as compulsory helmet laws, which reduce cycling numbers are likely to produce a net detrimental effect on the overall health of the community.

Efforts to reduce serious injury for cyclists must focus on the main source of the danger itself – namely collisions with motor vehicles. Mandatory helmet legislation does nothing to prevent these collisions occurring in the first place and the reduction in population-wide injury risk is non-existent or at best very small.

This is why the OECD forum has found there is no case to recommend compulsory helmets and as such it would be prudent for the few jurisdictions like Australia that do have these laws to repeal them.