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To Wear a Helmet or Not Wear a Helmet?

The Freestyle Cyclists have been hosting protests around the country against the laws of helmet requirements while riding a bike. They’ve already held ‘helmet optional’ group rides in major cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Gabrielle Kneipp had a chat with Alan Todd, National Spokesperson for the Freestyle Cyclists Organisation, to see what they are aiming to achieve.

Image Credit: Gabrielle Kneipp









Q: In a brief spell can you please explain what you want to change and why?

A: We would like to see the mandate law for cyclists to wear a helmet reviewed and at the minimum, we are fighting for a change to allow adults the choice of wearing a helmet or not.

Q: Helmets are such a simple mechanism, why not look at how we promote cycling better with helmets rather than remove such a simple safety mechanism?

A: We have tried that for 25 years now in Australia and cycling participation is lower than before the mandatory helmet law was brought in. Thus cycling has declined significantly so it is time for a paradigm shift, a change away from being a high-risk speed sport and toward the European model. In these circumstances there will be more people taking it up again.

Q: Europe is well known for its accommodation for cyclists, yet Australia operates a little differently. Shouldn’t we be seeking better cycling infrastructure before fighting to dismiss the need for a helmet?

A: We are doing them at the same time. Despite our previous efforts for changes to be made to the infrastructure, new measures were not introduced so we are taking the next step. The demand of infrastructure will come by increasing the number of bike riders who need the safe paths.

We have footpaths for pedestrians and we need more cycle paths, physically separated from motor vehicles, for bike riders. Where roads have low motor traffic volumes, they can be shared without separate cycle paths. Shared roadspace needs to be properly designed, with appropriate speed limits.

Research undertaken by the University of Sydney indicated that since helmet laws were introduced there has been a drop in the number of head injuries, but helmets were not the main reason. By removing the law to wear a helmet it will show a bigger presence and need for improved infrastructure.

Image Credit: Gabrielle Kneipp

Q: The other big difference between Australia and Europe is drivers’ attitudes. Debate in Australia on cyclists is that they can get pretty heated and drivers’ aggression on the roads can get pretty dangerous. Is it really safe enough in Australia to remove the little protection cyclists have?

A: The onus should not be on driver behaviour; we can deal with it by making pedestrian spaces safe. The public bike share-systems are highly successful and incredibly safe ways to travel even in places like New York. They are slow, upright and you can’t go fast on them. Drivers watch out for them. We can achieve that sort of safety.

We are not saying people shouldn’t wear helmets, but they should be free to choose. The onus is on the rider.

Q: But recent introduction of sharing bikes hasn’t gone very well, such as Melbourne and Sydney bikes being severely mistreated. How are we supposed to work on this?

A: There are two different bike shares we are talking about. Docking stations is one of the successful methods where you have to return your bike or charges will be made to your payment details. Dockless bikes we don’t have enough data yet to go on and enough experience on how to proceed.

Q: Are helmet laws what turned people away from cycling. Or…did we just get lazy?

A: I don’t stand for the thought that we are lazy. For a successful public health campaign to increase riding we have to make people feel comfortable and safe. If a helmet is required, it is important to understand that people don’t feel the need to be wearing one and can’t stand the laws of having to. Australia has the number 1 use of private vehicles – more so than the US. One way of decreasing that is to get rid of helmets to encourage cycling.

There is also a higher proportion of women than men who cycle in European countries. Because if there is no need of helmet, then they feel able to ride to the office in their work outfit, no need to worry about the hair. It might be a flighty argument but it is a fact.

It would be a self-regulating method. Guys on the road aren’t going to throw away their helmets, they have the responsibility to keep themselves safe.

ACT Road Safety Minister Shane Rattenbury is interested in reviewing the mandatory helmet laws as a way to encourage more people to ride so at least the debate is open.

When changes happen, if people don’t want to wear a helmet, they won’t wear a helmet.

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