THERE are growing calls among cyclists for laws requiring helmets to be worn to be watered down, in a bid to encourage more Australians to get on a bike.
But a leading crash expert has warned any changes could lead to an increase in serious injury and death.
National lobby group The Bicycle Network has proposed a five-year trial across the country to allow adult riders to ditch their helmets when they’re not riding on main roads.
While it stopped short of totally scrapping laws — the group’s chief executive officer Craig Richards believes riding on the road is dangerous — other voices have long called for helmets to be optional.
In March, an anti-helmet group held protests in major capital cities calling for an end to mandatory requirements.
Narelle Haworth, director of Queensland University of Technology’s respected Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety — Queensland, said no changes should be made.
“The current law is good road safety policy because it addresses a serious issue in a way that has been scientifically proven to be effective and can be feasibly implemented,” Professor Haworth said.
“Australian research by Dr Jake Olivier, published in 2016, found helmets cut the chances of a head injury by 50 per cent, a serious head injury by 69 per cent and a fatal head injury by 65 per cent. They also reduced the odds of injuries to the face by 33 per cent.”
That comprehensive study by Dr Olivier examined 40 global studies covering 64,000 different cycling injuries, she said.
The Bicycle Network argues that most accidents occur on the road and so helmets shouldn’t be required on footpaths, in parks or when riders are in low-risk areas.
“The number of people who ride a bike isn’t increasing and there has been no decrease in the number of bike rider fatalities. It’s clear that our bike policies aren’t working,” Mr Richards said.
But in an article for the Sunday Tasmanian yesterday, commentator Rex Gardner said there was always a risk of injury on a bicycle.
“If you take a tumble from your bike at 20km/h on the bike path, the ground is just as hard as a 20km/h tumble on the road,.” Mr Gardner said.
“Sure, you haven’t got a car to contend with, but the ground is unforgiving. Something between your head and the ground should be welcomed in all circumstances.”
Data shows about 40 cyclists die and 4800 more are hospitalised across Australia each year.
Victoria was the first state to introduce strict mandatory helmet laws in 1990 following a spate of devastating accidents, and all other states and the ACT followed suit.
Prof Haworth said head injuries were serious and often had lifelong consequences for victims and their families.
“It makes sense to focus on preventing head injuries,” she said. “Helmets are very effective in preventing or reducing the severity of injuries.”
Prof Haworth said studies had shown helmets reduced head injury rates by half — regardless of whether a vehicle was involved in the crash.
“Being off the road doesn’t mean that helmets aren’t needed,” she said.
“While opponents of the law say that it discourages people from riding, there is no real evidence to support this.”
Typically, people say they are reluctant to hop on a bicycle because of concerns about road safety, living too far from work, hot weather and the number of hills on their route, she said.
“The removal of motorcycle helmet laws in many parts of the United States has led to drops in wearing rates and increases in deaths and injuries,” she said.
“Here in Australia, it would be foolish to step back from bicycle helmet laws that currently are one of the best policy measures to protect riders both on and off the road.”
The Bicycle Network also called for riding a bike on footpaths to be made legal in Victoria and New South Wales, in line with other jurisdictions.
Pedestrian advocates have slammed the idea, saying it would make conditions more dangerous.
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