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Is Australia ready to remove the Mandatory Helmet Laws? Interview with Alan Todd of the Freestyle Cyclists

It is not the MPD (Minimum Passing Distance) law or even the lack of safe cycling infrastructure and driver education in Australia that causes the biggest uproar among cyclists. As one of the few nations on planet Earth that legally requires adults to wear a helmet while riding a bike, a vocal group of bicycle riders feel that they should be free to choose whether or not to wear a helmet. Alan Todd of the Freestyle Cyclists is one of the most prominent proponents for ‘rider choice’ and in the lead-up to the “Helmet Optional Ride” on Saturday in cities across the national, we sought some answers about the tricky topic of Mandatory Helmet Laws in Australia.

For most Cycling Advocacy groups in Australia, Helmet Laws remain consciously outside of their scope. It is like a hot-potato, too hot to touch because cyclists hold different views on the laws so advocacy groups have long feared a split among their member-base if the escalate it too far.

There are logical arguments on for both sides of the debate, even in the Australian Cycling Forums, the Mandatory Helmet Laws discussion thread has garnered over 10,350 posts and is still contentious. While the leading state based advocacy groups recognise the MHL’s are an unresolved topic, not in the least because of the disparity with the rest of world, it has been left to individuals and the FreeStyle Cyclists organisation to encourage a political re-think.

Alan Todd of the Freestyle Cyclists was invited by Christopher Jones of Bicycles Network Australia to discuss aspects of the Helmet Laws in Australia and efforts to reverse the laws.

Christopher Jones: The Freestyle Cyclists movement supporting ‘bike rider choice’ has been active in Australia for a while however topics such as the minimum safe passing distance and even demand for safe cycling infrastructure have gained more attention. Is ‘helmet choice’ an entirely separate theme that shouldn’t be mixed with cycling advocacy topics… or it is core to cycling advocacy?

Alan Todd:  Freestyle Cyclists consider Australia’s mandatory helmet laws an overarching systemic barrier to the widespread uptake of bicycle use for transport.  Whilst we support other initiatives to improve cycling conditions, evidence from around the world clearly shows that where helmet use is significantly encouraged, let alone in the few places where it is enforced, bicycle use which is inclusive and widespread does not happen.

Christopher Jones: Traditionally cycling advocacy groups have recognised the ‘helmet choice’ debate but sought to concentrate on other advocacy issues both because they are less divisive and appear to be realistic achievements in the current political environment. Is this still the case or do you see a shift?

Alan Todd: The ‘debate’ about helmet choice is only divisive because helmet law apologists continue to think their preferred approach to cycling should be forced on everyone. Intolerance of dissent will always be divisive. We prefer a position of tolerance. Once the law is amended, to allow choice, as happens everywhere else in the world, the divisiveness will disappear. We didn’t ask for divisiveness, it was forced on us.

Having said this, I think the penny is slowly beginning to drop. We have a problem in Australia with stagnating or declining bicycle use, and a complete inability to deliver workable urban cycle schemes such as the now abandoned Melbourne Bike Share.  We are encouraged that Bicycle Network has acknowledged the problem, and changed their longstanding support of helmet laws to a position of reform.

Christopher Jones: With the state-based road laws, do Freedom Cyclists need to push each state individually for reform or is this a topic that would be driven from the federal government? 

Alan Todd: The Federal government took an interest in this issue with the 2016 “Nanny State” enquiry. The enquiry was unfortunately abandoned due to the double dissolution election of 2016.  However, at that stage, the committee considering helmet law reform were unable to find sufficient data to support any claim that the state helmet laws had even been effective in their primary aim of reducing the rate of head injuries to cyclists – pretty remarkable that after 26 years the evidence couldn’t be found!

In 2014 a Queensland parliamentary committee recommended a trial exemption whereby over sixteens could decide whether or not to wear a helmet when riding on footpaths, bike paths and roads with a speed limit of 60km or less. We will continue to lobby at both State and Federal levels of government.

Christopher Jones: There is strong opposition from the medical and transport groups including the Australian Medical Association (AMA), Brain Injury Australia and the Transport Road Safety Research Centre (TARS) against a change to the mandatory helmet laws. Bicycle Network Victoria have been labeled ‘Deluded’ by TARS in the face of bike accident statistics. While statistics can always be challenged with statistics, how can a movement for reform overcome this opposition?

Alan Todd: I would hope that in time at least the AMA might come to understand that it is downright insanity to insist on fining people who are doing something (riding a bike) which has been shown, if done regularly, to reduce all major causes of mortality (heart attack, stroke, type2 diabetes, all cancers) by over 40%.

The bicycle is also a cornerstone of urban development and mobility in any half decent progressive modern city. Compared to this massive health and liveability benefit, the downside of injury, with or without helmets, is statistically trivial. TARS, by concentrating only on cyclists who crash, will continue to miss the big picture – Australia, with its mandatory helmet laws, has one of the least safe, least inclusive and lowest participation cycling cultures in the OECD. If recognising this, and wanting to take steps to address it is considered ‘deluded’ by TARS, then I don’t think we would waste any effort in engaging with them.  

On Saturday 14 March, the Freestyle Cyclists are conducting their annual Helmet Optional Ride in cities across Australia and are encouraging riders to join them. The ride locations and details follow and more information is available from the website: freestylecyclists.org

14 March 2020 – Freestyle Cycles Helmet Optional Ride

Melbourne – Park Street Dining, on the Capital City Trail, 815 Nicholson Street Carlton North, at 10.45am. Our route will follow a mix of quiet back streets and separated cycle/share paths, ending at Abbotsford Convent around 12 noon.

Sydney – 10.45 at Darley Road Leichhardt, opposite the Hawthorne Light Rail Station. The 8.7 km route will be a circuit on bike and shared paths, avoiding on road cycling.

Perth – Silver Penguin Statue (near Elzabeth Quay), 10.00am start. The 9km ride will avoid on road cycling, finishing at Claisebrook Lake.

Canberra – 11.00am at Glebe Park Rotunda, Bunda Street. The 5km route will end at the International Flag Display, Queen Elizabeth Terrace.

Hobart – Meet at the Hunter St bike path at 11.00am. The ride will follow the Intercity Cycleway for 13km, finishing at MONA.

Adelaide – 2pm at the steps of Parliament House for a 2:30pm start. The ride will go along North Terrace, down Frome Road and through Botanic Park to Linear Park, then along Linear Park to West Beach, finishing at Henley Square. Riders can take the train back to the city from Grange Station

It is the responsibility of Bicycles Network Australia to remind readers that the current Australian road rules requires bike riders to wear a helmet. The police have previously tolerated bike riders during Helmet Optional Rides who have chosen not to wear a helmet.

Christopher Jones
Christopher Joneshttps://www.bicycles.net.au
Christopher Jones is a recreational cyclist and runs a design agency, Signale. As the driving force behind Bicycles.net.au he has one of each 'types' of bicycles.
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