TheVine story: “Are Bicycle Helmet Laws Bad For Public Health?”, July 2013

A feature story for TheVine. I talk to a health researcher, an economist, a trauma surgeon and spokespeople from both the Queensland and Victorian state governments, investigating the somewhat counterintuitive idea that bicycle helmet laws (helmets are mandatory in Australia) are bad for public health. Excerpt below.

Bike helmetsAsk Martin Tanneberger what he thinks of mandatory bicycle helmet laws and you’ll receive a blunt answer.

“Not very much. I don’t really like them,” he sighs. “If you look at the rest of the world, and then you look at Australia and New Zealand – we’re the only two countries, as far as I understand, that have helmet laws … it’s slowing us down in terms of social riding and the leisure side of things.”

Tanneberger should know. As the managing director of The Bicycle Revolution, a retail outlet in the Brisbane inner city suburb of West End that specialises in the sale, rental and refurbishment of classic bikes, he’s deep in the trenches of Australia’s plucky cycle culture. “The target market for us is people who want to ride casually,” he says. “They don’t want to do it for a sport, so needing a helmet isn’t [imperative].”

The Bicycle Revolution has a permanent station of six bikes at a local YHA hostel. “Foreign travellers are confused by [the law],” Tanneberger says. “And they hate it when they have to buy a helmet, because they’re leaving again in three or four months. I say to them, ‘It’s up to you. You can wear a helmet or not wear a helmet. But you’ll definitely be caught.’

“I don’t have a problem with people wearing helmets for sporting reasons, as safety gear, and I don’t mind if children wear helmets. But then I don’t really like it when adults [have to] wear helmets riding to work. [The government’s] basically trying to make cycling seem like an extreme sport and that it’s really dangerous.”

These sentiments might seem obvious coming from a bike shop manager, who of course stands to gain from any repeal in compulsory helmet laws. But Tanneberger’s opinions align with a growing body of evidence that suggests bicycle helmet laws are not only ineffective and depress rider numbers, but may in fact be detrimental to long-term public health.

“Save a few brains, destroy many hearts.”

Mandatory bicycle helmet laws are now into their third decade of existence in Australia. John Cain’s Victorian government was the first to introduce the requirement in July of 1990, the move followed by other states and territories over the next two years. But it was the federal government pulling the strings, threatening a cut in road funding if the state governments failed to comply with a ten-point road safety program that included the helmet laws.

“It was point ten on the list,” says Chris Rissel, “and if you wanted to accept all the funding you had to introduce helmet legislation on a state-by-state basis. That was why it was introduced.”

Rissel is a professor in public health at Sydney Medical School and at the forefront of research that suggests Australian mandatory helmet laws are not only ineffective, but may in fact have a negative net long-term impact on public health. “I’ve been involved in cycling research for maybe ten years,” he says. “But it was only when someone showed me some data about the injury rates before and after the introduction of the legislation that I thought, ‘Wow, helmet legislation didn’t make much difference here.’ There are other [safety measures] that are more important. In fact, overseas most people think the Australian experiment is pretty conclusive. It doesn’t work, and they’re highly reluctant to introduce cycling legislation about helmets because of the adverse effect it has on cycling.”

For the full article, visit TheVine. Image via Shutterstock.

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