Time to terminate mandatory bike helmet laws

arnold-schwarzenegger-cycling-melbourne

The Terminator star and former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoyed a visit to Melbourne last week. Eager to see more of the city and its people, the “Governator” decided the best way to do so was to hop on his bike and explore everything on offer using Melbourne’s bike share scheme.

There was only one problem: he did so without a helmet.

Schwarzenegger is not the first person to unwittingly use Melbourne’s bike share scheme helmetless, an easy mistake to make given Australia is the only country in the world to have bike share schemes that exist in conjunction with mandatory helmet laws. In 2013, Mayor of London Boris Johnson famously rode a bicycle through Melbourne without a helmet, commenting at the time that mandatory helmet laws are “counterproductive” from both the position of public health and good public policy.

Australia and New Zealand are the only countries in the world with uniform national all-age mandatory bicycle helmet laws. The penalty for riding a bike without a helmet in Victoria is a fine of $185 (if you’re unsure whether your helmet is “approved”, VicRoads have this handy guide to help you out). Yet according to leading neurosurgeon Dr Henry Marsh, most of the evidence points to bike helmets being a ‘waste of time’.

As Luke Turner discussed in this 2012 IPA Review article, Australia’s bike helmet laws have been an unmitigated disaster. They do not reduce cyclist injury rates, they discourage potential cyclists from engaging in physical activity in the face of rising community health concerns, and they are an unnecessary intrusion into individual freedom and personal choice.

As Turner notes:

Each year police issue tens of thousands of fines to Australians for engaging in a peaceful activity which poses no danger to any other person or property. Some have even been imprisoned for refusing or being unable to pay bike helmet fines.

Australian cyclists who want to ride sans-helmet are being prevented from doing so, not because it’s reckless or dangerous, but simply because this already safe and healthy activity might be made marginally safer with the addition of a helmet. This is surely a flimsy basis for incarceration.

The best judge of when a helmet is necessary is the individual, who can take into account the particular circumstances of his or her ride. Downhill mountain bikers and highspeed road warriors would probably overwhelmingly still don lids if given the choice. Those out for a sedate ride on bike paths or on short local trips might be more inclined to want to feel the wind in their hair.

Mandatory helmet laws are a clear case of law infringing upon individual liberty while manifestly failing in its purpose: save lives. They are a textbook lesson in the potential dangers of unintended consequences when making public policy, as they promote risk-taking behaviours and act as a barrier to participation without actually making the roads safer for cyclists and other road-users.

It is time for governments to have an open discussion about the success and effectiveness of mandatory helmet laws. All Australian adults must have the freedom to choose if they need to wear a helmet when they cycle, or not.

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