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The introduction of helmet laws to Australia

For centuries, protection of one’s own person has been regarded as a responsibility and a right of the individual, who is normally best placed to judge how to avoid harm in particular circumstances. To override that right by compelling the wearing of a helmet, government would need to show beyond reasonable doubt that it would be beneficial for the individual and, at the very least, would not increase the risk of harm, but in Australia, the first country to compel cyclists to wear helmets, this course was not followed.

The parliamentary committee which recommended compulsory cycle helmet wearing in 1985 recognised that a mandatory standard for helmets was a necessary prerequisite (HoRSCTS, 1985b). With a view to legislating to declare the commercial standard mandatory, the committee recommended research on revisions to it to make helmets better ventilated and lighter, and wearing more acceptable, such as by dispensing with shells.

But the research, reported by Corner, Whitney, O'Rourke and Morgan, 1987, did not simply endorse such revisions. It found that the standard tests applied to helmets were deficient by being concerned only with protecting the brain against a direct blow and not with reducing angular (rotational) acceleration. Corner et al. also found by experiment that the mass which a helmet adds to the head can actually increase angular acceleration, which is linked to severe injury to the brain.

Although the research of Corner et al. provided no surety that helmets would be beneficial and not increase harm, the Australian authorities did not give due attention to the deficiencies that it found. An official but unpublished commentary on it merely noted the researchers’ view that further research was required and concluded from other (contested) findings that the report lent further support to the benefits of helmet wearing (VicRoads, 1988). Though Corner et al’s experimental findings have never been publicly challenged and the deficiencies found in standard helmets have not been overcome, Australia went ahead with compelling cyclists to wear them (Curnow, 2003).

As more cyclists wore helmets, their risk of severe injury to the brain increased and this is clear from official statistics for deaths due to head injury, as shown in Table 1.

 
All road users
 
Pedestrians
 
Cyclists

Year

Total

Head

 

Total

Head

 

Total

Head

1988

2868

1085

 

542

233

 

86

40

1994

1787

631

 

346

145

 

56

28

Change 1988/94

-38%

-42%

 

-36%

-38%

 

-35%

-30%

 
Table 1. Deaths of road users in Australia, in total and involving head injury
derived from the fatality file of the Australian Transport Safety Bureau

The table shows that from 1988, before the first helmet laws, to 1994, when all were in force in Australia, deaths due to head injury for all road users decreased by 42% and for pedestrians by 38%, but those to cyclists fell by only 30%. Not only is no benefit from the helmet laws evident, but increased risk relative to other road users is indicated because cycling declined by about one-third after helmet laws came into force. Clearly the helmet laws did not lead to any apparent saving of lives (Curnow, 2005).

References

Corner, Whitney, O'Rourke and Morgan, 1987

Corner JP, Whitney CW, O'Rourke N, Morgan De, 1987. Motorcycle and bicycle protective helmets: requirements resulting from a post crash study and experimental research. Federal Office of Road Safety Report CR55.

Curnow, 2003

Curnow WJ, 2003. The efficacy of bicycle helmets against brain injury. Accident Analysis and Prevention 2003,35:287-292.

Curnow, 2005

Curnow WJ, 2005. The Cochrane Collaboration and bicycle helmets. Accident Analysis & Prevention 2005;37(3):569-573.

HoRSCTS, 1985b

House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport Safety. Final report on motorcycle and bicycle helmet safety inquiry. AGPS, Canberra,1985, paragraphs 5, 34, 62, 139, 182-3, 187. .

VicRoads, 1988

Road Safety Division Information Paper. Victorian Road Traffic Authority meeting February 1988.

See also