How did the helmet law change cycling?

פורסם: 10 באפר׳ 2011, 4:41 על ידי: Sustainability Org   [ עודכן 10 באפר׳ 2011, 4:47 ]
Posted by sydneyCommuter on March 17, 2010

I arrived in Sydney in 1991, the year the helmet law was introduced in NSW.  I have noticed that cycling has changed quite a bit since.  It seems that the helmet law has had a far bigger impact on cycling than what was intended.

The most comprehensive data we have in terms of impact on cycling numbers are two studies done in Melbourne and Sydney.  The result of the count of cyclists before and after the law has been reported here.  Another survey in Melbourne between March 1990 & March 1991 reported a 37% drop in adult commuter cyclists.
The data indicates that:
  • Cycling dropped by 40% among children, 30% among adults
  • For every cyclist persuaded to put on a helmet, 3 cyclists gave up cycling
  • About 30% of cyclists ignored the helmet law
This picture, taken from one of the links below, helps illustrate what happened when the helmet law was introduced:

There seems to be have been three major impacts of the helmet law on cycling:

1.  It killed an uptrend in cycling.  Cycling was growing strongly in the 1980's. It was rising at 10% per year from 1986 until 1989.  Before the helmet law, cycling increased by about 250% in the 1980s in Sydney.  That uptrend was stopped by the helmet law.  Cycling has struggled to recover since.  The previous trend would probably have continued without the helmet law.  We are currently 60% below the previous trend.

2.  Fewer children cycling.  More children are growing up without the experience of cycling.  Later on, they are less likely to be able to relate to cyclists, to take up cycling, and more likely to become car drivers with little respect for cyclist.  Long term, this is unlikely to be positive for cyclists safety.

3.  Fewer women cycling.  In NSW, there was a measured 90% drop in girls cycling to high school  after the helmet law.  Australia now has the lowest proportion of women cycling in the world, with only 21% of all trips made by women.  A recent City of Sydney Council research has revealed that only 13% of cyclists are female.  

Before the helmet law, cycling in Sydney seemed to be more casual than it is now.  I used to see more people in normal clothes, hop on their bike, riding slowly and casually, using bicycles as a mode of transport.  

It was mainly casual cyclists that seem to have given up cycling after the helmet law.  This has changed the image of cycling, turning it more into a sport, less as a form of transport.  Cycling seems to have turned into an activity that requires specialised equipment.  Cyclists seem different, having less in common with the average person than before.  The specialised gear and the helmet contribute to the perception that cycling is a marginal and dangerous activity.  

The casual cyclist (like me) seem to have become a minority.  I'm not sure it is good for the image of cycling.  Fewer children, fewer women, fewer casual cyclists, specialised cycling gear, have given cycling a less friendly image, perhaps contributing to the animosity with car drivers.

In the early 1990's, there were still 30% of cyclists ignoring the helmet law.  The govt staged a heavy advertising campaign to change people's perceptions that cycling is safe.  Loaded slogans like "Where's your helmet? ... Don't you realise you will hit your head?" or "No Helmet ... No Brains" were used relentlessly.  Riding without a helmet was associated with being careless.  

There were powerful emotional testimonies from people claiming that "my helmet saved my life".  It was exaggerated and unscientific, but it worked in convincing people that they suddenly needed a helmet when cycling.  Various emotional and exaggerated "testimonies" made you believe it was impossible to ride a bicycle without landing on your head.  Authorities, including the police and various people presented as "safety experts", appeared on TV to tell you what you NEED to wear a helmet when cycling, cycling is too dangerous without one.

It worked.  More people wore helmets.  More and more people believed that cycling is more dangerous than it really is.  The risks of cycling have been exaggerated by this type of campaign.

The initial 30 to 40% drop of cycling occurred without full enforcement.  A survey in Sydney across 25 sites reported 48% fewer cyclists between 1991 and 1996.  It seems that cycling numbers dropped further after the scare campaign, when helmet wearing rates increased.

We now have a discrepancy between the actual risk and the perceived risk from cycling.  Safety concerns are the top reason mentioned when people are asked why they don't cycle.  This misperception is now one of the key factors that discourage people from cycling.

Despite all this, there seems to be a new generation of cyclists emerging.  They tend to ride slowly and casually.  Many ride with normal clothes in sit-up bicycles.  Many openly ignore the helmet law.  It makes you wonder how many more would take up riding if it wasn't illegal to ride without a helmet.  Is this a sign that many among the younger generation would be keen to cycle, resurrecting the slow & casual form of cycling that was cut down after the helmet law?

I'm curious to find out whether people have observed the same change in cycling since the helmet law.  I'm not sure whether all of it was caused by the helmet law, but it seems to have had a big influence.

Please keep in mind that this discussion is not about whether you like helmets or not.

It is about understanding the unexpected social impacts of the helmet law.