Helmet laws should be optional: Academic

BIKE RETHINK NEEDED: Dr Julie Rudner argues cyclists should have the right to choose when they buckle up their helmets.
BIKE RETHINK NEEDED: Dr Julie Rudner argues cyclists should have the right to choose when they buckle up their helmets.

As a national bicycle network considers changing its policy stance on mandatory helmet laws, a local city planning expert argues cyclists should have a choice.

Helmets have been mandatory in Victoria since 1990 but national advocacy group Bicycle Network was considering changing its stance.

In Bendigo, La Trobe University academic Julie Rudner said there was absolutely no doubt helmets saved lives but at a time when people’s activity levels were declining and obesity was on the rise it could be worth trialling different helmet laws.

“If taking away the helmets means that people are less sedentary and live a bit too far away from work to walk, well, by riding instead of driving they are dealing with longer term chronic risk factors,” Dr Rudner said.

Dr Rudner said research from the 1990s showed laws may have increased helmet use but they also reduced cycling by 36 per cent in Melbourne, 36 per cent in New South Wales, and 20 per cent in Perth.

Dr Rudner said that drop could be attributed to factors like people not wanting to mess up their hair or simply not wanting to wear a helmet.

“The other thing is that if you are from a poorer family you may not be able to afford getting and replacing helmets. It’s an extra expense,” she said.

She believed most cyclists would be pretty good at deciding when the headgear was appropriate.

“I do road cycling and I might be going down hills at 75km an hour. I definitely want to have my head protected,” she said. 

Yet she noted not every place people chose to ride bikes posed the same risks as the road.

“Bendigo has these great recreational off-road pathways and really wide bike lanes,” Dr Rudner said.

“If you are going for a ride with your family you really have to wonder whether everyone needs to have a helmet.”

Dr Rudner said another factor to consider was how drivers reacted to cyclists. She cited a 2007 study from UK researcher Ian Walker, who found drivers treated cyclists differently if they were wearing a helmet.

He found traffic got “significantly closer” to cyclists when overtaking. Among other findings, the researcher noticed traffic was more likely to get closer the further a cyclist was to the edge of the road. When he wore a long wig to appear female drivers left him more room.