At first glance, it would seem that compulsory helmets are a very good idea. But in fact almost none of the other developed countries in the world followed Australia’s lead in making helmets compulsory for cyclists.
Why is that? It’s because they saw the downside, that making helmets compulsory taking away your choice to decide when it’s a good idea to wear a helmet, had a very discouraging effect. It means that whereas cycling has grown massively around the world, is a sensible means of transport, the growth has been much slower in Australia.
One unexpected consequence was that compulsory helmets make it very difficult to run public bike share schemes. Everybody is now familiar with these schemes which exist in most of the major cities of the world, schemes whereby you pick a bike from a rack, use it for a while and then return it to a similar rack somewhere else.
In Australia these schemes have limped along because of the difficulty of providing a helmet with the public bike. At first the organisers of the Melbourne scheme, assumed that people would bring their own helmets with them. As I pointed out in several films, and has been proved true, this is highly unlikely and goes against the whole idea of such schemes, that a bike is available to you on impulse.
Then they tried selling very cheap helmets close to some of the bike racks and at 711’s. This didn’t work either. Now they have given in a mostly time a helmet is hanging on the public bike. this is far from satisfactory since one size does not fit all, since shared helmets are not hygienic. Who wants somebody else’s downdraught or headlice?
Does it matter that public bike schemes don’t work optimally in Australia? Yes it matters very much because it’s been found in other countries, that having bikes easily available on the street, bikes that you don’t have to look after, worry about maintenance et cetera. means that non-riders or former riders a nudge to discover the joys and convenience of cycling.
A second advantage is that having public bike schemes, and these are bikes which go slowly and generally cautiously, acclimatises drivers to sharing the road with cyclists, and a much better vibe is created, a vibe very different to the toxic situation we so often have in Australia we are our bike culture is dominated by sports cyclists, often at speed, head down etc.
the key to effective and widespread bike use for transport, is to develop a very different by culture such as you find in Europe. A way of riding where people sit up straight, see and are seen, making eye contact with drivers, and generally blending into the traffic situation far better than here.
Another downside of the helmet law is that allow them governments to wash their hands of the safety issue, considering that it had been taken care of by shoving the responsibility onto the cyclist. But true cycle safety is not on the head that under the wheels, and that means governments have to spend relatively large amounts of money separating cyclists from motor traffic.
Lacking the figleaf of the helmet, most countries in Europe have done and are doing this on a regular basis. so save his cycling in many countries that even children riding to school, don’t wear helmets. Whilst we wouldn’t advocate that here, the thing to focus on is that children who ride bikes to school betterment get a much greater health benefit in terms of exercise and avoiding obesity, than that bit of plastic protection on the head.
Before the compulsory bike helmet law came in in 1991, most schools had bike sheds. Most kids road to school. Now as we know they don’t and there are armies of mums ferrying coddled kids around in SUVs, something of course you don’t see in Europe.
There are a host of other arguments against compulsory helmets. But the bottom line is that where there is helmet choice around the world, there are less serious accidents involving bikes then there are with us supposedly so well protected. It’s interesting to note that there is one jurisdiction in Australia, the Northern Territory, where you can legally ride a bike on a bike path or the footpath. without a helmet. This law has been in force for many years, and there is no downside difference in terms of the number of hedge head injuries in the Northern Territory compared to other states.