Australian cycling group back pedals to oppose mandatory helmets

Australia’s largest cycling lobby group has called for mandatory helmet laws to be scrapped, overturning its decades-long support for the policy.

Bicycle Network said in a position paper released on Thursday that Australia’s laws were “out of step” with the rest of the world and had failed to reduce bike fatalities, while cycling participation throughout the country has languished.

After a survey of 20,000 cyclists, in which nearly 60% of respondents called for change, the lobby group is now calling for a five-year trial that would allow riders 18 years and older to ride without a helmet.

Under the proposal, they could only forgo a helmet when on footpaths and bike paths, meaning that laws in New South Wales and Victoria barring cyclists from riding on footpaths would also need to be changed.

Victoria introduced the nation’s first mandatory helmet laws in 1990, with other state and territory governments following suit throughout that decade. They are now in place everywhere except the Northern Territory. Bicycle Network has backed the laws since the 90s.

New Zealand is the only other country with mandatory helmet laws.

“The number of people who ride a bike isn’t increasing and there has been no decrease in the number of bike rider fatalities,” said Craig Richards, the chief executive of Bicycle Network.

“It’s clear that our bike policies aren’t working, so it’s important that we review everything. Our recommendation is to give people the freedom to choose if they wear a helmet in low-risk circumstances, because that’s what bike riding is ultimately all about, freedom.”

Bicycle Network said its survey of cyclists 58.3% backed a shift in helmet laws, while 41.7% called for no changes. It also found that 17.6% believed that bicycle helmets should never be mandatory, while 30% of respondents would ride more if helmets were not mandatory.

Bicycle Network acknowledged that, for cyclists, mandatory helmet laws were a controversial topic that were “often described as a no-win (or wedge) issue that people advise you to avoid”.

But it said a 14-month policy review had found the evidence of the merits of helmet laws was unclear.

The lobby group argued helmet laws should not be used as “an excuse for not providing protected places to ride”.

Its report said it did not support abandoning mandatory helmet laws on the road “because of interactions with vehicles”.

“However, in low-risk environments where there are no cars, such as on paths and trails, we believe adults should be trusted to decide whether they wear a helmet or not.”

In July, figures released by the Australian Automobile Association show said there had been a 80% increase in cyclist deaths over the past 12 months. There were 45 cyclists killed on Australian roads, 20 more than in the previous 12 months.