Cycling fatalities in Australia have almost halved since mandatory helmet laws were introduced in the 1990s, new research from the University of NSW shows.
All eight states and territories made helmet wearing mandatory for cyclists between July 1990 (Victoria) and July 1992 (ACT) and, since then, there have been 46 per cent fewer deaths.
Following helmet legislation, bicycle fatalities in Australia was calculated to be 1332 fewer than had the laws never been introduced.
"There were 1144 cycling fatalities in the period 1990-2016 and, using the pre-legislation trajectory as a guide, our model estimates 2476 cycling fatalities from 1990 to 2016 if bicycle helmet legislation had not been introduced," the report says.
Those who argue against helmet laws claim the laws have reduced interest in cycling, with many would-be cyclists hesitant to ride because they don't want to wear one.
The paper's co-author, Professor Jake Olivier, who works at UNSW's School of Mathematics and Statistics and is deputy director of the Transport and Road Safety (TARS) Research Centre, says there is no evidence to support this.
"It is one of those things where it has been repeated so many times that people just believe it to be true, and won’t question it because they’ve heard it so often," Professor Olivier says.
"There’s always going to be pushback around public health initiatives like this. Any time the government says, 'You need to curb your behaviour'. There’s pushback against seat belts, getting your kids vaccinated.
"Like when the government decided to do something about carbon emissions - nobody was happy, right? We changed government."
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The report said two American studies found mixed results on whether having to wear a helmet reduced children's interest in cycling. It also said that many studies, both in Australia and overseas, did not support the hypothesis that the introduction of bicycle helmet legislation deterred cycling.
Despite that, Professor Olivier can understand the pushback.
"Quite frankly, they’re abused quite regularly. I cycle and there have been many times where someone’s honked their horn at me to get off the road or just about run me over," he said.
"That's kind of instilled that belief of 'us vs them' mindset - which I understand, but at the same time, when I get on a bike, I don’t really have full control over whether I crash or not. So if it does happen, I’d rather have my most important body part protected."
Emeritus Professor Raphael Grzebieta, also of TARS, slammed an "ill-informed, small but vocal group of anti-helmet advocates who claim that the [laws] have been a disaster for cycling in Australia," and said other factors are to blame for people not wanting to cycle.
"It is well-known the primary reasons for not cycling in urban Australia are the lack of infrastructure and safety concerns due to interactions with motorised vehicles," he said.
When asked if he believes this report would change anyone's mind, Professor Olivier was blunt.
"No, I have no faith in that at all," he said, but added that he doesn’t do research to convince the anti-helmet people that they're wrong, as "they'll never be convinced".
"It's for policy makers, and other [potential] riders," he said. "That’s what motivates me to do this, not to point fingers."
- The Age