Mandatory bicycle helmet law
in Western Australia
Australia was the first country in the world to introduce uniform national all-age mandatory bicycle helmet legislation, beginning in 1990. Western Australia (WA) commenced police enforcement of the law on July 1, 1992.
This website mostly presents research on the helmet law impact in Australia where a 2017 national survey shows cycling participation is in free-fall, way below pre-law 1990 levels and in a statistically significant decline since 2011.
A clique of Australian academics has for years denied that mandatory helmet laws discourage cycling participation, instead claiming that historic pre and post law survey studies found no impact on the number of Australians riding bikes. Most published statistical and anecdotal evidence proves their claim wrong, with comparisons of population growth and pre to post law rates of cycling participation showing about a milllion fewer Australians nowadays riding a bike at least once a week ... e.g. see excerpts from historic studies in Western Australia, Victoria, NSW, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania.
A division of the ruling WA Liberal Party put a motion at its 2015 annual conference for the adult helmet law to be repealed, with a newspaper reader poll showing 67.1% want the helmet law scrapped entirely or on cycle paths (see poll results at the bottom of the linked page) and a WA Royal Automobile Club membership enewsletter poll in April 2016 with 31% of respondents saying mandatory helmet laws are a barrier to their cycling or cycling more often.
A 2015/16 Australian Senate Economics References Committee inquiry into government regulation of personal choice received a flood of public submissions, with a large majority opposed to helmet laws. See public submissions or read evidence presented at the 16 November hearing.
The committee has recommended that a comprehensive national data set be established providing information on cycling injury and participation rates, and that a national assessment of mandatory bicycle helmet laws be conducted once a quality information data set has been established (download committee report).
Adoption of the Senate committee recommendations by Federal and State governments will depend upon how much concern Australian politicians have for public health and road safety (commentary on inquiry recommendations and Senator David Leyonhjelm confirms the recommendations were politically influenced).
The chart and table below show Australian adult cycling participation (18yo+ and 15yo+) between November 1993 (just over a year after the final mandatory helmet law was enforced) and 2013/14 - according to the Population Survey Monitor and Participation in Sport and Physical Recreation surveys published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The chart below shows the proportion of Australia's population cycling at least once a week, month and year, demonstrating how almost 640,000 gave up weekly bike riding from 2011 to 2017 - as measured by the National Cycling Participation 2017 survey.
Analysis of results in Western Australia suggests the helmet legislation has:
This website provides a compendium of reports and studies into cyclist injuries and cycling participation rates in a mandatory rather than voluntary bicycle helmet jurisdiction. This site also examines the impact of mandatory bike helmet laws nationally and in different countries, all accessible from the left menu.
The legislation has been enforced in Western Australia for 24 years - a timescale providing abundant data to analyse the effect of an all-age mandatory bicycle helmet law. Other countries have examined Australia's national all-age helmet law results and said no, exceptions being New Zealand where it is a similar failure and Finland where the law isn't enforced.
Australian cyclist numbers and population 1985/86 - 2011 compares government records of cyclist numbers nationally and in all Australian states in pre helmet law 1985/86 and in 2011, showing the rate of growth in Australia's bicycle use among people aged 9+ has been 37.5% less than the rate of 9+ population growth over the past 25 years. In essence, the growth of bicycle trips (20.9%) was almost a third that of population growth (58.4%), resulting in between 555,989 and 615,840 fewer daily bike trips per capita.
Note: The biennial update of the Australian cycling participation survey by the Australian Bicycle Council and Austroads has been released for 2015, confirming the failure of the 2011-2016 National Cycling Strategy with a statistically significant decline in Australian cycling from 2011 to 2015. The 2015 survey shows 24.2% more daily bike trips among cyclists aged 9+ than in 1985/86 despite 49.7% population growth. Click for analysis.
Also see Helmet laws 'deter' cycling published on 16 October 2012.
October 2012: Australian journalist, author and comedian Wendy Harmer speaks out against Australia's mandatory bicycle helmet laws.
Link to or download New Zealand's public health and safety disaster, a 590kb PDF file you can reference or email as an attachment to legislators or media if mandatory bicycle helmet laws are threatened in your area.
A health benefit model developed at Sydney's Macquarie University and published in March 2009 suggests Australia's national mandatory bicycle helmet laws incur a health cost to the country of approximately half a billion dollars every year. The Macquarie University study was publicised on April 27 2009 by the prestigious New Scientist magazine but no Australian media consider it newsworthy.
Surveys show Western Australia's mandatory helmet legislation reduced public cycling numbers by at least 30%, yet total hospitalised cyclist injuries did not decline at all. The reduction in head injury numbers was marginal. West Australian cyclist numbers recovered in the decade to 2000 but hospital admissions were at record levels from 1997, roughly 30% above pre-law levels by 2000. In essence, the results strongly suggest that the mandatory wearing of helmets increases the risk of accidents and thus injuries.
As reported in March 2007 and based on data from Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria, the number of Australian children walking or riding a bicycle to school has plunged from about 80% in 1977 to the current level around 5%. The data on this website and on this page confirms that in Western Australia, the massive decline in cycling (and children's health and safety) began in 1991 when the helmet law was enacted. In June 2008, research at Melbourne's Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute found that Australia is now the fattest nation on earth.
In 2012, the cities of Sydney, Perth, Fremantle and Adelaide were calling for a trial exemption or eventual scrapping of bicycle helmet laws so they can encourage cycling and avoid the bike share failures suffered in Melbourne and Brisbane.
In March 2006, the British Medical Journal published Do enforced bicycle helmet laws improve public health? (PDF 137kb) by Dr Dorothy Robinson, senior statistician at the University of New England in New South Wales. The study concludes from worldwide data that any reductions in head injury following enactment of mandatory bicycle helmet laws are due to the consequent reduction in numbers of cyclists on the road, not because of injury-prevention benefits afforded by helmets. The BMJ has also published a critique of the Robinson article (PDF 100kb). For further analysis of Australia's mandatory helmet law by Dr Robinson, see Head Injuries and Bicycle Helmet Laws (PDF 1mb).
Although the BMJ article cites WA's poor legislative results and was reported by the local media, the WA Government has declared it will not review its bicycle helmet legislation.
In early 2005, the prestigious international peer-review journal Accident Analysis and Prevention published a paper (PDF 68kb) disproving the conclusions of most international case control studies since 1989 that have been used to justify the mandatory wearing of bicycle helmets.
There are various reasons why mandatory helmet wearing increases cyclist risk, including research published in September 2006 by Bath University in the UK suggesting that "bicyclists who wear protective helmets are more likely to be struck by passing vehicles" (also see New York Times). Other causes include a doubling of the head size likely to make impact, rotational brain injury and risk compensation.
Cartoon thanks to Yehuda Moon and the Kickstand Cyclery
All evidence shows that mandatory bicycle helmet laws discourage one of society's most popular, regular and beneficial activities involving healthy recreational exercise - that is, riding a bicycle. Click here or here for evidence of reduced cycling, or read the March 2005 issue of the Health Promotion Journal of Australia (PDF 88kb). Alternatively, read about it in the Sydney Morning Herald (April 28 2005).
Australia is suffering an obesity health crisis caused by its increasingly sedentary lifestyle, with reports in 2008 that the average Australian lifespan will fall by two years (click here for press clippings or read an ABC radio interview about Australia's obesity crisis recorded in February 2005).
Australian obesity rates have doubled since bicycle helmet law enactment at the beginning of the 1990s. Obesity is linked to various ailments including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and reduced quality/duration of life. It was reported in April 2010 that obesity is a bigger killer than smoking in Australia.
The lifespan of Australians is falling because they are becoming increasingly fat, yet its citizens are punished if they want to enjoy regular exercise without wearing a hot, uncomfortable, inconvenient helmet that is proven to increase their risk of accident and injury.
Helmet Freedom allows you to automatically send pre-formatted letters to Australian politicians calling for repeal of mandatory bicycle helmet laws.
Click here to download a PDF summary (610kb) of government charts showing cyclist survey numbers/injury results before and after 1992 helmet law enforcement in Western Australia. Feel free to forward this document to anybody interested in public health and safety.
Cartoon thanks to Yehuda Moon and the Kickstand Cyclery
Cyclist numbers vs cyclist injuries in Western Australia
The introduction of mandatory helmet legislation in 1992 heralded a major downturn in cyclist numbers (approximately <30%) on West Australian roads by 1996.
Despite this, the number of cyclist hospital admissions per annum increased after 1992 helmet law enforcement to consecutive record levels. The increase in hospital admissions was in line with the recovery in cyclist numbers to pre-law levels by 1998/99.
In 1997, a record 754 WA cyclists were hospitalised and 20% of seriously injured road users were cyclists. The previous hospital admissions record was 735 in 1991, the year the law was enacted. Before 1991, when there were more cyclists on West Australian roads, an average 642 cyclists were admitted to hospital each year.
In 1998, a new West Australian cyclist injury record was established when 850 people were hospitalised... 10% more than 1997.
In 1999, a total of 862 West Australian cyclists were hospitalised - another record despite cyclist road numbers similar to pre-law levels. In 1999, cyclists comprised 23.6% of all serious road crash hospital admissions - up from 17% when bicycle helmet laws were first enacted.
In 2000, there were 913 cyclists admitted to WA hospitals - another record and about 30% more than the pre-law average. Cyclists comprised 25.9% of all serious road crash hospital admissions in 2000, almost equalling car drivers as the predominant road user group admitted to hospital.
West Australian hospital cyclist admissions: 1985-2000
1985 - 623|
1986 - 660
1987 - 630
1988 - 698
1989 - 596
1990 - 638
1991 - 730
1992 - 574
1993 - 633
1994 - 644
1995 - 660
1996 - 715
1997 - 754
1998 - 850
1999 - 862
2000 - 913
Hospital Admissions Data: Number and Percentage of Cyclists Admitted, Western Australia, 1987-2000 (single years) (Source: Bicycle Crashes and Injuries in Western Australia, 1987-2000 - Road Safety report RR131 (PDF 840kb) commissioned by Road Safety Council, dated November 2003 and authored by Lynn B. Meuleners, Arem L. Gavin, L. Rina Cercarelli and Delia Hendrie)
The law was not introduced in Western Australia for medical reasons. Instead, a Senate road safety committee in Canberra threatened to withdraw Black Spot road funding from any Australian state that did not enact helmet laws.
No medical or other research data was used by any Australian state government to justify drafting and gazettal of the law. The main research available at that time in Western Australia is here.
A cursory glance at statistics suggests that bicycle helmet wearing resulted in a marginal reduction in skull and intracranial injuries as a proportion of WA's total hospitalised cyclists. However, as shown in the following graph, this proportional reduction went hand in hand with a substantial increase in the overall number of cyclist injuries:
Research from Bicycle Crashes and Injuries in Western Australia, 1987-2000 - Road Safety report RR131 commissioned by the WA Road Safety Council, dated November 2003 and authored by Lynne B. Mueleners, Arem L. Gavin, L. Rina Cercarelli and Delia Hendrie from the Injury Research Centre at the University of Western Australia. Note that the graph data for 1999 is based only on six rather than 12 months.
Public cycling participation during the study period declined by more than 30% after helmet law enforcement and had recovered to pre-law levels by 2000. Per cyclist on the road, there was little discernible reduction in head injuries but a substantial increase in upper limb fractures (up by 147% from 1987 to 1998 - 17% of all cyclist injuries in 1988 to 37% in 1999). This substantial increase in upper limb fractures is largely responsible for the increase in total WA hospital cyclist admissions in the eight years following 1992 helmet law enforcement.
As illustrated in the above graph, overall injuries increased substantially in 1993, the year after bicycle helmets became mandatory in Western Australia. This graph should be compared with the cyclist number graph. By 1995, the number of people riding bicycles in WA was between 30% and 40% less than in 1991, as demonstrated by government cyclist surveys, and later on this page... 1.
The dramatic increase in WA hospital admissions may be partly due to a change in the injury coding system introduced by the WA Health Department in 1992, which at the time stated that:
"Although helmet legislation has undoubtedly increased helmet-wearing rates in Australian cyclists, it has also been associated with decreased bicycle usage in some cyclist sub-groups (Finch et al, 1993b; Marshall & White, 1994). Furthermore, some hospital admission practices have changed since the introduction of the helmet legislation. For example, patients presenting to emergency departments with short episodes of concussion are no longer routinely admitted to hospital for observation. The introduction of case-mix funding may also have affected admission rates. Thus, it is difficult to conclude from preliminary studies that reduced bicycle injury numbers (more precisely head injuries) are a direct result of the helmet legislation."
The above graph would indicate a major change occurred within cyclist behaviour and accident patterns during 92/93.
There was a sharp rise in Perth cycling popularity during 1998/00, official figures showing the number of cyclists on Perth roads was slightly more than in 1991.
It should be noted that the West Australian population increased by about 15% during this time and petrol prices rose by more than 30%.
It should also be noted that Australian Bureau of Statistics figures released in June 2002 confirm that the residential population of Perth's Central Business District - the region in which most cyclist surveys are conducted - increased by 33% between 1996 and 2001.
Total cyclist hospital admission data for Western Australia since 2000 is not available. However, the graph below is extracted from the WA Road Safety Council's Reported Road Crashes in Western Australia 2006. The data shows traffic crash hospitalisations involving cyclists rather than total cyclist hospital admissions as quoted above. The traffic data below indicates cyclist hospital admissions have continued their disproportionate increase in the new millennium.
The increase continued to 2011, according to Reported Road Crashes in Western Australia 2011.
From 2006 to 2011, car driver injuries increased 43%, car passenger injuries were stable, motorcyclist injuries increased 32.7%, pedestrian injuries increased 24.4% and pedal cyclist injuries increased 51.4%. Cyclists represented 11.4% of all traffic injury inpatients in 2006, compared to 13.8% in 2011.
Twenty three years after law enforcement, it is difficult to gauge how many West Australians are discouraged from cycling by the bicycle helmet legislation. Anecdotal and survey evidence suggests a continuing resentment toward the law.
Click the graph above for a full statistical breakdown of annual cyclist numbers
The graph above was researched and published by the West Australian Government's road department, Main Roads WA. This graph should be compared with the injury graph.
Hospital admission numbers for different road user types in Bicycle Crashes and Injuries in Western Australia, 1987-2000 - Road Safety report RR131 commissioned by the Road Safety Council and dated November 2003, shows that the number of hospital admissions for bicycle crash injuries went from 1,942 in pre-law 1990-1992 to 1,937 in post-law 1993-1995 and 2,319 in 1996-1998.
In 1999 and 2000, the total was 1,775 - almost as much as the three years before the law.
Cartoon thanks to Yehuda Moon and the Kickstand Cyclery