Unless you have been hiding under a rock… or under your bike helmet, you have probably noticed that there is increasing opposition to the Mandatory Helmet Laws (MHL) which are enforced across Australian with the exception of the Northern Territory. In New South Wales you would be fined $319 for not wearing a helmet but many bicycle advocates argue that bicycle helmets are a major deterrent and reduce participation rates. A series of helmet ‘optional’ rides are being organised across Australia on March 17 by the Freestyle Cyclists and they want you to join them.
In the interview (below) with Freestyle Cyclist president, Alan Todd discusses the difficult challenges and controversies in advocating against Australia’s mandatory helmet laws.
Although many bike riders, particularly sports riders, would chose to wear a bicycle helmet, irrespective of a compulsory law, Australia is somewhat of a global exception. The mandatory helmet laws are criticised and ridiculed by transport and cycling advocates internationally as archaic and counterproductive. But it is a difficult debate, in the case of an accident, a helmet may help prevent or reduce head injuries however when the fundamental transport infrastructure and bike rider safety is neglected by the governments, the ‘required’ helmet requirement is branded a bandaid solution that isn’t really addressing the real problem.
Even the safety value of helmets is heavily debated… but reading this article should only take a few minutes of your time and not years. If you are keen to explore the intricacies, join the MHL discussion in the Australian Cycling Forums. It has been running for eight years and has has attracted over 9,500 posts (you have been warned!).
Cycling advocacy organisations have been reluctant to take a position on helmet laws. This topic has the power to divide cycling advocates and is usually sidelined as a secondary issue because advocates believe they can achieve greater wins for cycling safety by concentrating on other topics such as improved transport infrastructure.
The Freestyle Cyclists group was established to promote ‘freedom of choice’ and allow bike riders decide for themselves whether to wear a helmet. The real face of cycling is not the lycra clad sports cyclist, but should be the everyday person who rides a bike for transport, travels at slower speeds and embraces (any available) cycling infrastructure – like in progressives cities across Europe.
The president of the Freestyle Cyclists, Alan Todd says, “In most countries people are free to attend to everyday activities by bike, dressed in everyday clothing. Freestyle Cyclists wants Australia to join the rest of the world, and move beyond helmet fines.”
Event: Helmet ‘Optional’ Protest Rides in Australia and New Zealand
On Saturday, March 17, the Freestyle Cyclists are coordinating helmet ‘optional’ bike riders in many of the major cities in Australia and in Wellington.
Freestyle Cyclists are encourage ‘everyday’ people to join them to support and promote helmet choice. The start times and locations for each of the rides along with contact details for ride coordinators are on the website: freestylecyclists.org
To find out whether participants can expect to be targeted and fined by police, how the laws can be changed and why the Mandatory Helmet Laws is such as difficult topic, Alan Todd shares his views in the interview with Bicycles Network Australia.
Interview with Freestyle Cyclists president Alan Todd
Christopher Jones: Australia has a very poor track record compared to many developed nations for the integration of bike riding and improving cycling safety. Are the Mandatory Helmet Laws just one part of the problem or do you feel that MHL has a bigger or role in comparison to infrastructure and road user education.
Alan Todd: MHLs are a unique part of the problem, on a different level to the others. Their reform or removal is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition to enable the development of a successful and inclusive cycling culture in Australia. I liken a cycling culture with MHLs to an athlete with a stone in his shoe. He will still be able to run after a fashion, but until the stone is removed, he is not going to be hobbled.
Christopher Jones: Within the cycling community, the helmet debate has always divided opinion and this has traditionally made it too risky for most advocacy organisations to prioritise. Does this mean that the FreeStyleCyclists is simply the primary organisation to challenge, or are you leading this challenge with the support of other advocacy groups.
Alan Todd: Firstly, I question the concept of a cycling community. Secondly, as ever we must distinguish between helmets as a (potentially) useful safety device, and helmet laws.
Once this distinction is made clear, particularly with the corollary that helmet laws carry with them the legal mechanism of fines for dissent, the various cycling organisations are perhaps less sure of their support for the status quo. I have spoken with representatives of many cycling organisations. Their dominant narrative can be summed up as “we don’t really support the law as it stands – there is room for reform – but it’s not our priority”
So yes, we are leading the challenge, but with increasing support, especially from the various groups that participate in Ed Hore’s “Cycle” advocacy. Australia’s foremost cycling advocacy body, Bicycle Network, is currently reviewing their longstanding support for MHLs, with their updated policy position promised this April.
Christopher Jones: Bike riding can loosely be split into ‘sports cyclists’ and the everyday cyclists who use the bike for transport. For cycling advocacy it is generally accepted that it is favourable to focus on everyday cycling and the Freestyle Cyclists are also pushing ensure that they are recognised as everyday people. Recently I have heard from some MHL opponents who feel that sports cyclists (road cyclists) are working against their efforts. Is this a genuine issue?
Alan Todd: No we don’t think this is a genuine issue. The only real impact sports cycling has on the MHL debate is that the prevalence of this sort of cycling as the dominant narrative in Australia (around 80% of cycling is sport/recreational according to the biennial review of participation undertaken as part of the National Cycling Strategy) can make it harder to get our message across. It would also be true to say that some individual sports cyclists work against us, especially those with the “helmet saved my life, therefore everyone would be an idiot not to wear one” stories which clog up the internet in comments sections.
Christopher Jones: Mandatory Helmet Laws is typically fought as a war of facts. An proponent of MHLs can present facts that are contradicted by new facts from an opponent and so on. Which arguments or approach is necessary to make tangible progress and lead to change?
Alan Todd: The facts were really settled in most particulars by 1996. Helmets reduce the (small) risk of head injury in the event of an accident, but helmet laws don’t make cycling safer at a population level, and do deter people from cycling. The rest has really been filling in the gaps, and arguing about percentages. The rest of the world takes Australia to be the test case of how not to do cycling as active transport, with only a handful of jurisdictions still holding on to some form of MHLs, never at a national level (except NZ) and almost always applying to children only and lightly enforced.
The battle is now for hearts and minds, and that won’t be won by facts. With the spread of the internet, and relatively cheap foreign travel, Australians are increasingly being exposed to the successful cycling cultures of Europe and elsewhere. There is a dawning realisation that that might be something we could wish for here. So increasingly it’s image and desirability rather than facts that will win out. We have also witnessed a growing awareness of the benefits of activity in everyday life, which does not sit well with the practice of fining people on bikes, just because they are not wearing a helmet.
Christopher Jones: If the laws are successfully repealed, when the first death or serious head injury occurs, rather than criticising deficiencies in transport infrastructure and safety or even an ‘at-fault’ driver, MHL supporters and everyday observers may automatically put the blame on the ‘helmetless rider’ and criticise Freestyle Cyclists. Is it at all possible to defend your viewpoint in this situation?
Alan Todd: There were ten cyclists killed in Victoria last year. Every one of them was wearing a helmet. Cycling in Australia, with helmet laws, is significantly more risky than cycling in jurisdictions where helmets are scarcely worn. Freestyle cyclists will no more need to defend our position when the first unhelmeted cyclist is killed following law reform, than the Victorian Minister of Transport needs to defend his current position of keeping MHLs.
Of course it will be a shit fight when it happens, but we will weather that storm when it comes.
Christopher Jones: Australia is divided into states which each have their own road laws – do you need to operate on a state level or national level?
Alan Todd: This is the great excuse used to avoid reform. Unfortunately it needs to be State by State, which just makes it that bit harder.
Christopher Jones: What is the approach to legislate to drop the Mandatory Helmet Laws? Which people and entities would need to act to make a change are where are the dependencies?
Alan Todd: State transport ministries need to remove or reform regulation 256 in their own Sate’s road rules. It would not even need to go before parliament.
Christopher Jones: The FreeStyleCyclists are leading ‘Helmet Optional’ rides in Australian and New Zealand cities… is this risky? Would it be possible that the Police decide to fine every single participant?
Alan Todd: Of course it would be possible. We do however liaise with police prior to these events. Police have chosen a range of responses, from escorting rides to ignoring them. They are generally treated as legitimate protest. Back in 2010 when the first protest ride was organised (prior to Freestyle Cyclists inception) using the Melbourne bike share bikes, police stopped the ride, took names and addresses of participants, and insisted the bikes be walked. No infringement notices were subsequently issued, and in future protest rides no-one has been asked to walk their bikes.
Christopher Jones: What are the other key approaches or activities from the FreeStyleCyclists to convince legislators to repeal the laws?
Alan Todd: Meetings with politicians, participation in cycling policy reviews and forums, online presence, and generally keeping the issue in the public eye to the extent that we are able. We have also increasingly been developing relations with other cycling advocacies and allied health groups.
Thank you for your time, we hope that the rides are successful and able to escalate this topic in state politics for review. For further information about the Freestyle Cyclists and the Helmet Optional Protest rides, visit: freestylecyclists.org