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Economics References Committee
(Senate-Monday, 16 November 2015)
CHAIR (Senator Leyonhjelm)
Prof. de Jong
- Mr Gilham
Content WindowEconomics References Committee
Personal choice and community impacts
CLARKE, Mr Colin F, Private Capacity
CURNOW, Mr Bill, President, Cyclists' Rights Action Group
GILLHAM, Mr Christopher Raymond, Private Capacity
RISSEL, Professor Chris, Private Capacity
Committee met at 09:01
Evidence from Mr Gi l lham and Professor Rissel was taken via teleconference—
CHAIR ( Senator Leyonhjelm ): I declare open this hearing of the Senate Economics References Committee's inquiry into personal choice and community impacts. The committee has appointed a subcommittee for the purpose of inquiry hearings. The Senate referred this inquiry to the committee on 25 June 2015 for report by 13 June 2016. The committee has received and published 432 submissions as of today, which are available on the committee's website. These are public proceedings, although the committee may determine or agree to a request to have evidence heard in camera. I remind all witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee, they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee. Such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee. If a witness objects to answering a question, the witness should state the ground upon which the objection is taken and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground which is claimed. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may also be made at any other time. I ask everyone to ensure they have switched off or turned to silent their mobile phones.
I now welcome Mr Colin Clarke; Mr Bill Curnow, from Cyclists' Rights Action Group; Professor Chris Rissel, via teleconference; and Mr Chris Gillham, via teleconference. Mr Clarke, I would like to remind you that protection of parliamentary privilege in the Australian Parliament cannot be guaranteed to jurisdictions outside of Australia. Your evidence should be made knowing the inability of the Australian Senate to protect you outside of the Australian jurisdiction. Is there anything any of you would like to add to the capacity in which you appear today?
Mr Clarke : I am an experienced cyclist who has written several reports on cycle helmets; I have investigated it for a period of about 25 years. The New Zealand Medical Journal published an article that I produced evaluating New Zealand's helmet laws, and I have also done an evaluation of the Australian helmet laws. This was provided to a conference in London this year.
Mr Curnow : I am the author of five papers published in reputable journals concerning the law that compels cyclists to wear helmets.
Prof. Rissel : I have been an active public health researcher and have published approximately 50 research papers and commentaries around cycling in general, a number of which are specifically focused on the helmet legislation.
Mr Gillham : I have been a journalist throughout my life. I set up one of the main helmet law websites, about 20 years ago, and have had a couple of published papers on the issue.
CHAIR: Thank you each for appearing today. I will now ask each of you to make, if you wish to, a brief opening statement before we proceed to questions. Please keep your statements relatively brief so that we can then get into asking you about aspects that are relevant to the committee.
Mr Clarke : My cycling experience goes back to about 1960. I was a racing cyclist and then I did about 30 years experience of cycling in many countries prior to Australia introducing the legislation. I was living in Victoria at the time, so I took a keen interest in the effects of the legislation. In principle, I was opposed to reducing choice. I was very much in favour of allowing people choice. That was based on my experience as a cyclist. From the legislation being introduced, I have followed it in some detail, roughly up to today. So I have followed it for 25 years, through the research papers published. So I have a fairly good understanding of prior to legislation and after legislation and the consequences of such.
Mr Curnow : Few people in Australia understand that laws to compel them to protect themselves, with no harm to others, contravene longstanding practice. Liberal democracies generally leave protection of one's own person to the instinct of self-preservation, the functions of public authority being to advise and to set safety standards. We ask how well Australian authorities have performed these functions. We identify three critical requirements for enacting the world's first bicycle helmet laws. First is evidence of worsening risk of severe head injury. But, in the three years before the laws, serious casualties did not keep up with the strong increase in cycling. Second is certain knowledge that helmets prevent and never aggravate head injury. A 1985 federal parliamentary report emphasised the dreadful consequences of death or permanent incapacity from head injury, to use their words. It recommended compulsory helmets and a mandatory standard for them, subject to research on their capabilities for ventilation. But the research, by Corner et al in 1987, reported that the standard tests of helmets were deficient in merely protecting against a direct blow but not reducing rotation of the head from oblique impact, and it is the main cause of fatal and disabling brain injury. Worse, Corner's experiments found that a helmet on a dummy head could increase rotation. Despite similar findings since in the USA and UK, this defect in standard helmets remains. Helmets are therefore likely to increase the risk of severe brain injury, and statistics for fatal head injuries to cyclists suggest that this did occur after the helmet laws.
Third is monitoring for adverse effects such as discouragement of cycling. Official monitoring has focused on helmet wearing and has varied from state to state. No effort has been made to measure discouragement of cycling, but evidence of it has emerged. One published estimate is that child cycling in Australia declined by 40 per cent. The data are insufficient to make a similar estimate for adult cyclists, but 29 per cent fewer were observed in Melbourne after the law. This completes my opening statement.
CHAIR: Thank you Mr Curnow. Professor Rissel?
Prof. Rissel : Thank you. My interest is around the health benefits associated with physical activity from cycling. My research into the legislation led me to believe that the legislation was a deterrent to more people cycling and did not achieve the health benefits from injury reduction over and above downward trends that had occurred long before the legislation had been introduced, and that the legislation was ineffective in reducing head injuries to the extent that it would be desirable from public policy and had a negative effect in terms of the health impact on the population's level of physical activity by discouraging cycling. These are both negative consequences from a health perspective.
CHAIR: Is that the end of your statement?
Prof. Rissel : Yes.
CHAIR: Thank you. Mr Gillham?
Mr Gillham : I would like to thank the committee for allowing me to comment on how government regulation of personal choice can cause collateral damage and harm the public, in this case through bike helmet laws. I have been researching the laws for well over 20 years because, in the mid-1990s, it became clear in WA, the eastern states and overseas helmet jurisdictions that compulsion both severely discouraged regular recreational exercise and led to an approximate 30 per cent increase in the ratio of all body injuries per cyclist. Participation numbers had plunged in WA, and it became clear this was not just an issue of liberty; it was also a question of public health and road safety.
Helmet law supporters are constantly ignoring or cherry picking the participation data, usually with what I would call questionable survey findings from South Australia and Melbourne. But most legitimate surveys in Australia and New Zealand show big downturns. The charts in my submission show ABS estimates of the recreational cycling decline, which was particularly significant in 1994. Senators who have read submissions claiming that Australians' cycling participation is increasing should understand that these are based on surveys since the early 1990s reduction in numbers. They simply show that we have been recovering from the huge downturn, albeit way below population growth.
You should also be aware that in WA—and, I suspect, in most states—police enforcement of the helmet law declined around the year 2000, and many of the cyclists counted in surveys since then have not been wearing helmets. In other words, a fair bit of Australia's cycling growth since the year 2000 has been due to law breakers wanting to enjoy some exercise.
About 30 to 40 per cent of Perth cyclists are nowadays without helmets, yet the experts say 20 to 25 per cent of seriously injured cyclists are not wearing a helmet when they crash. That suggests cyclists without helmets are less likely to suffer serious injury. In other words, they are less likely to have a crash in the first place, possibly because they ride more safely. Incidentally, an important new study by psychologists from the University of Bath in the UK has been released over just the last couple of days. Again, it shows that people take more risks when they ride a bike with, rather than without, a helmet.
None of the studies concerning risk compensation is overstated or misleading. Cyclists as a proportion of all road crash injuries in Australia have increased by about 80 to 90 per cent over the past 20 years, and that surely indicates that something is wrong. The ABS data show about half a million people around Australia gave up cycling from 1994 until the late 1990s. So when the pro-law evidence suggests, for example, a 29 per cent reduction in head injuries in New South Wales in the 18 months after the law's enforcement, Senators should realise that that is pretty similar to the reduction in cycling in New South Wales. In fact, students cycling to New South Wales schools dropped by 47 per cent from 1991 to 1993, with female high school students down by 90.6 per cent. In Victoria child cycling dropped by 36 per cent and child cyclists head injuries dropped by 32 per cent.
It is also important to be aware that survey results from a couple of years before and after the law are not particularly relevant to what has happened since then with cyclist numbers. For example, evidence in a submission received by this committee shows that in WA the percentage of the population that cycled at least once weekly was 27.7 per cent in 1993; however, the National Cycling Participation Survey for 2015 shows just 23 per cent of West Australians are now cycling, which is the highest percentage of any Australian state. It is still less than the Northern Territory, where adults are exempt from the law on bike paths. The pro-law submission shows that in South Australia 21 per cent cycled weekly in 1993. The national cycling participation survey this year shows 16.6 per cent of the South Australian population cycles weekly. If you do the numbers, if the 1993 percentages were the same this year, there would be about 195,000 more cyclists as a population percentage in just South Australia and Western Australia. Trends are similar in other states. If you multiply the population by five, it would be about one million more Australians cycling at least once a week if helmets were not required. Incidentally, most of these people instead drive their cars and endanger all road users through increased traffic density and congestion.
Unfortunately groups such as the AMA claim cyclist numbers have recovered quickly to pre-law levels, and, quite simply, that is wrong. This year's National Cycling Participation Survey shows a downturn in cyclist numbers since 2011, yet the latest report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows national cyclist injuries increased from 9000 in 2011 to more than 10,000 in 2013, which is the highest ever and 34 per cent more than the year before Australia's first helmet law.
There have been a huge number of public submissions to this inquiry, and the vast majority have been against helmet laws with many people saying they gave up cycling when the law was introduced. An eyeball estimate across metropolitan Perth would suggest that at least a third of cyclists do not wear helmets. They all know they are breaking the law and that they might be confronted by police and yet they still do it. They are the ones brave enough to defy the law. It is sensible to assume that many more do not want to take the risk with police and so they simply do not cycle. Anybody who claims that helmet laws do not turn a huge number of people off cycling, quite frankly, needs to have their eyesight checked. Australia's bike share failure is blamed by everybody on helmet laws which have been discouraging cycling exercise for 25 years. Claims to the contrary by law supporters are clearly nonsense. Australia's pro-law groups have been in denial about cycling participation rates for many years, presumably to prop up their injury figures.
I hope that this committee will be able to see beyond that. The helmet laws are an acknowledged failure for personal freedom and also a total failure for public health and for road safety. After 25 years, more overseas jurisdictions have repealed, rather than enacted, adult helmet laws and most countries have rejected helmet laws because of Australia's disastrous results. Yet in this country the disaster is ignored or accepted because, I suppose, emotional TV and newspaper stories are more powerful than a library of statistics showing the damage being caused. As I said in my submission, I think helmet laws are a major failure of public policy and show the damage caused when governments interfere with personal choices that do not affect or harm other people. I thank the committee for allowing me to explain just a few of the facts.
Senator CANAVAN: Thank you, Mr Gilham, and thank you all for your evidence. It is a very interesting issue. I will ask a threshold question to all of you, because all of you have read and done more research than David or me. Most of you seem to say you are bike riders yourselves. Individually, would you, when you go out for a ride, wear a bike helmet?
Mr Clarke : In Australia I would, to avoid being—
Senator CANAVAN: We are not going to prosecute you! Putting aside any laws or restrictions, knowing what you know about the evidence, would you were a bike helmet, if you had the choice? I am not saying 'Do you?'
Mr Clarke : I ride regularly in the UK; I do not wear a bike helmet.
Mr Curnow : No, I never wear a helmet. And I have not had to pay any fines. I think the police in the ACT, where I live, are not keen to enforce the law, perhaps because we have mounted resistance to it—demonstrations and writing lots of letters to ministers and so on.
Senator CANAVAN: Professor Rissel, would you wear a bike helmet?
Prof. Rissel : I stopped wearing a bike helmet in 2011 when I made public statements about it and have not worn a helmet since. But I recognise there might be some circumstances where it might be desirable to wear one, such as if I were going mountain biking or in other fairly high-risk scenarios. No, I have not worn one for the last four years.
Mr Gilham : I cycled, regularly, as a child. I think I was 29 when the helmet law came in. I have not ridden a bike since then. Bike helmets, I simply found, were too uncomfortable and too inconvenient and I respect my own liberty. No, I have not ridden a bicycle since the law was introduced.
Senator CANAVAN: I go to Mr Curnow's evidence about mandatory laws increasing traumatic brain injuries. I think you are saying it is not the inherent design feature of a particular helmet causing more injuries but the influence on the behaviour of the cyclists and, presumably, car drivers and others after the laws came into effect. Is that a fair summary of your evidence or are their design features of helmets that are contributing to injuries, in certain circumstances?
Mr Curnow : Yes, thank you. It is a national disgrace that authorities did not properly investigate the efficacy of helmets against brain injury before helmet laws were introduced. This is, as Senator Canavan suggested, a fault in the design of helmets. The reason is that helmets have traditionally been used—as everybody knows—by soldiers to protect themselves from bullets, by mineworkers to protect themselves from falling rocks and the like, and by anybody who is likely to be struck by some—
Senator CANAVAN: Projectiles, I would suggest.
Mr Curnow : projectile. The critical difference between that and cycling is that those projectiles are, generally, light in weight and do not have very much effect in causing rotation. It is well known that people—soldiers, in particular, who have suffered a bullet going through the head, often do not have concussion. They have a punctured skull and other damage from the bullet, but they do not have concussion because they are not subject to rotation. This is because it is a very light, fast-moving object and it does not have much momentum. But when it is a cyclist, the whole weight of a cyclist is behind any fall in which the cyclist might strike his or her head on the pavement or whatever else. So it is a slower-moving but much heavier cause—which is the weight of the cyclist—of the injury and it is causing the rotation of the head.
I have explained this sort of thing in considerable detail in my book chapter which is part of the Cyclists' Rights Action Group's submission.
Senator CANAVAN: Can I just be clear, though? Are you saying that helmets are ineffective?
Mr Curnow : Yes they are.
Senator CANAVAN: They do not contribute, though? They do not make it worse—relative to not wearing a helmet? Does wearing a helmet—
Mr Curnow : They can make it worse.
Senator CANAVAN: They can make it worse? Explain to me how it makes it worse in a scientific way, from the data, or in a theoretical way.
Mr Curnow : Right. The first thing to realise is that the most serious brain injury is caused by rapid rotation of the head, not by a direct blow. For centuries it was thought to be just a direct blow that caused serious head injuries such as coma or severe concussion, known these days as 'diffuse axonal injury'. It is the stretching of the axons that link the cells in the brain. That theory was debunked in the middle of the 20th century during the time of World War II. Research was first done at that time. This is all explained to the best of my ability in my book chapter included in the submission.
How this happened: one thing is that the addition of a helmet to a head increases the mass of the head. In effect, it increases the size of the head. If somebody strikes his or her head against a surface in an accident, that extra weight will mean an increase in rotation. And if—
Senator CANAVAN: What do you mean by 'rotation'?
Mr Curnow : An oblique blow, which instead of going directly to the head goes sideways and makes the head rotate.
Senator CANAVAN: Right.
Mr Curnow : Very rapidly—these things are measured in thousandths of a second.
Senator CANAVAN: Okay.
Mr Curnow : This has been ignored in the testing of helmets. They have just been tested according to measuring the force of a direct blow. But that is not an important factor in serious injury to the brain that leads to death or loss of intellectual ability.
CHAIR: Mr Curnow, have you also looked at this in the context of motorcycle helmets, or is it just bicycle helmets that you think this applies to?
Mr Curnow : I have not looked into it with respect to motorcycle helmets, but the parliamentary committee that I referred to in my opening statement did. That was an inquiry into motorcycle and bicycle safety. They went into that with motorcycle helmets. There is a difference there. Motorcycle helmets have hard shells; they are comparatively heavy. Modern bicycle helmets are much lighter. They are composed, in the main, of polystyrene and plastic. And they have lots of holes for ventilation; you see people going along, and the helmet is just full of holes. If any of those holes happen to hit on a rough surface or a bitumen road, that will tend to grip and twist—and it is the twisting action which causes serious brain injury. A motorcycle helmet, in particular, with its hard shell, will give some protection for the skull. It will save you from fracturing your skull. But that is at the cost of increased risk of diffuse injury to the cells of the brain, which is the very dangerous one.
Senator CANAVAN: Did anyone else want to say anything?
Mr Clarke : I would just like to add to that. Your occasional brain damage, diffuse axonal injury, is a combination of the high impact acceleration and the duration of the impact. The highest level of rotational acceleration found in one report was due to hitting the central vent on a helmet. That was 20,000 radians per second per second. So it is this combination. Wearing a helmet might decrease the acceleration level but it increases the duration of the impact, and the product of the duration of impact and the level of rotational acceleration leads to the brain damage. Graphs were produced on brain injury that detail that sort of information. The extra combination of the increased size of the helmet means you are more likely to hit the helmet when you do fall off, and the coefficient of the helmet is higher than your natural hair so it is tending to grip the surface more than natural hair would. So you have really three or four combinations there: the coefficient of friction, the increased diameter and the increased duration of the impact and the more likely impact. I think Dorothy Robinson's paper explains. She refers to information regarding the extra number of impacts helmet wearers report compared with non helmet wearers. So the increased risk could come about via all these combined factors.
Senator CANAVAN: Mr Gillham, I believe you have looked at the impact these laws have had on behaviour. Thanks to Mr Curnow and Mr Clarke, I am clear as to where your evidence is coming from on the design of the helmets. You have looked at whether or not introducing mandatory helmets has had an impact on how people ride and the risks they take—is that correct? Can you explain that a bit to us?
Mr Gillham : Yes. I have studied the many reports issued around the world looking at the question of risk compensation. It is simply a case of: when people put on a helmet—not just in bike riding but in many activities—it gives, shall we say, a subconscious level of confidence in what they do. In other words, they ride more quickly; they take a few more risks. Most cyclists will deny that, but unfortunately the statistics keep on showing it. As I mentioned earlier, the University of Bath is now having a paper published supporting exactly that—making the point that helmet wearing cyclists take more risks—do more 'sensation riding', I think they describe it as in that report. So it is simply a case of confidence in your own safety because the helmet will be there to protect you if you have an accident. That is one of various reasons and possibly the most likely reason why the ratio of crashes increased after the laws were introduced in the different Australian states.
Senator CANAVAN: Is there any evidence on what drivers of cars or what other cyclists around cyclists do? Is their behaviour influenced?
Mr Gillham : Actually, just last week a lycra-wearing cyclist pointed out to me that many discouraged children from the 1990s—and, as I mentioned earlier, huge numbers of children stopped cycling—have now grown up, and they now drive a tonne of metal. This lycra cyclist—one of those guys you see riding around in the pelotons and the groups that do the cafe runs, shall we say—said that these grown-up, discouraged children who are now driving have little knowledge of cyclist behaviour and how to drive safely or with respect near them, because they did not grow up understanding the dangers that are involved in riding a bicycle. Not that there are that many dangers in riding a bicycle, but they are not familiar with it.
Prof. Rissel : May I add something at this point? There was some research done in the UK by Ian Walker, who did trial how close drivers drove to him when he was wearing a helmet or not wearing a helmet, or even wearing a wig to be dressed as a female. He found that, when he wore a helmet, drivers drove closer to him and indeed he was hit a couple of times. The thing about helmets and driver behaviour is that it is part of the depersonalising uniform that you see with the whole lycra style. It is part of the set: you wear your shoes, your knicks, your helmet, your gloves and your glasses. You become less of a recognisable person; whereas, without a helmet and dressed in normal clothes the drivers relate to another human more like a pedestrian, and the interactions are far more polite. It is a different sort of interaction when you have not got your head covered with a helmet.
Mr Gillham : It is also a question of safety in numbers. Research consistently shows that when motorists simply become more familiar with seeing cyclists on the road, they learn how to avoid them. I suppose that is the best way to put it. When the numbers are low, and participation has been very weak in this country for 20 or 25 years, motorists just are not used to having cyclists on the road.
CHAIR: Mr Gillham, you make a point about the reduction in cycling, and I think your bottom line was that there would be a million more cyclists if there were no helmets. It is hard to disagree that cycling is no longer a popular way to get to school, but how much of a causation factor can you claim, rather than a correlation factor, given other variables that might be involved in kids not cycling to school—for example, the perception of stranger danger, bicycle thefts, fashion amongst teenagers, especially girls, and all that sort of thing. Are you able to go beyond correlation?
Mr Gillham : The ABS data does show that huge plunge in 1994. The survey series by the ABS did not start until 1993, so we are missing the year or two before that, and I would be pretty confident that it would show a decline since Victoria introduced the first law. In 1994 the impact hit, and what else can we blame? It took a couple of years for people to become aware of and realise that they really would be punished by the police for going out on their bicycle, and in 1994 the impact hit. Apart from that, of course, you just listen to people, read the submissions to this inquiry, with people saying exactly why they gave up cycling. And I think to say that it might be other things, such as bicycle theft, versus what very large numbers of people have been saying for 25 years, is to turn a blind eye to the obvious. I find it very difficult to find any other reason that there would be that correlation or that coincidence between the decline in numbers and the introduction of the helmet laws. It is also the case in New Zealand and in other countries, where child helmet laws have been introduced. They have also recorded strong declines in participation once the law is in place. And, as I said, I think it is difficult to blame anything apart from the legislation itself.
CHAIR: Mr Clarke, you have made some points in relation to young cyclists and female cyclists in your submission. Do your views correspond to Mr Gillham's?
Mr Clarke : Yes. Regarding teenagers, in Melbourne surveys from 1991, the first survey showed 30 more teenagers wearing helmets and 623 fewer riding. You can see the effects of the legislation from those figures—a dramatic drop in the number riding compared with the lower number wearing helmets. It was a similar proportion for New South Wales—a 44 per cent drop in teenagers. I think the number went down from some 6,700 to some 3,700. So, there was a massive reduction coinciding with the helmet legislation. Similar results appeared in New Zealand, with a large drop in cycling levels. For rural New South Wales, the adult figures went down from 2,650 to 1,660 from 1990 to 1993. So, you have this large drop coinciding with the high level of fines being imposed. In Victoria they imposed 19,000-plus fines in the first 12 months.
Individuals I know have mentioned that they have stopped cycling, and some have been very upset by the helmet legislation at a personal level. When people you know have told you that they have reduced their cycling because of the helmet law, and the numbers all coincide with the helmet law, it is quite clear. The helmet law here is having a very negative effect.
CHAIR: In your submission, Mr Clarke, you have a couple of statements that you have referenced:
Approximately six times more pedestrians and 20 times more motor vehicle occupants suffer lethal head injuries than cyclists.
I am just wondering: if the logic of the risk of head injuries is applied equally, would it make equal sense for motor vehicle occupants and pedestrians to wear helmets?
Mr Clarke : On paper it may do, but in practice I do not think either would appreciate the imposition. You could compare the car drivers to racing car drivers and say that they wear helmets, but the general population would not wish that imposition to be imposed on them. A cyclist and a pedestrian are both using their own steam, so to speak, to get around, and they have similar risks, in proportion, of head injuries. Cyclists may be more at a disadvantage: they have to ride up hills and get hot. If you were just walking with a helmet on it would not be so bad.
CHAIR: Professor Rissel, your submission includes a bit around the health benefits of cycling and how people who are deterred from cycling are missing out on these. If you were to develop an equation, if you like, for net health effects as a consequence of the helmet legislation and the impact it has had on behaviour, how would you develop such an equation?
Prof. Rissel : There are a number of international studies that have looked at the health benefits versus the injury risk associated with cycling. I have a table and a new book chapter coming out, and I can tell you that there are eight such studies. Each of them has concluded that the ratio of benefits from the activity relative to risk is in the order of—the lowest is nine to one, and they go up as high as 24 to one. The health benefits of cycling relative to risk are many times that of injury risk. A couple of studies have specifically looked at the introduction of helmet legislation, applying that same sort of metric of the prevalence of cycling relative to the benefits from the vigour associated with that level of cycling—the cost of introducing helmet legislation. And even conservatively they concluded very clearly that there was a net negative effect—through them effectively modelling—from the introduction of helmet legislation. It is a fairly clear association about the deterrent effects on participation. You only have to drop participation by about 10 to 15 per cent for it to be net public health loss. And in New South Wales, as we have heard already, the drops are in the order of magnitude of 30 to 40 per cent. So, even conservatively, the introduction of helmet legislation is a net public health loss.
Mr Gillham : If I could add to that, I think it is important to note that if my estimate of a million fewer cyclists is correct then at any given time a large number of those million people would instead be driving their car to the shops, to the beach, to a mate's place or whatever the case might be. That is an awful lot of vehicles to be putting on the road, and those vehicles pose a risk to everybody—pedestrians, other motorists and, of course, cyclists. So the impact of the legislation is not just on cycling, in my opinion; it also has flow-on effects and affects road safety overall in this country.
Prof. Rissel : I will just extend on Chris's comment, in that we did a survey of Sydney residents and asked them whether they would cycle more if they did not have to wear a helmet. That was an interesting study, because about a quarter of them said they would. Some said it would make no difference, but about a quarter of people said they would ride more. It was really the occasional riders who would make the biggest difference. So, you are getting a health increase there by getting more occasional riders riding more, not just the one or two per cent of the hardcore riders who will ride all the time. That calculation of about 25 per cent across the entire Sydney adult population translates, as Chris said, into potentially hundreds of thousands more riders, which has significant health and community benefits.
CHAIR: I am still quite keen to develop up this public health equation, if you like. If we were to list the benefits, there would presumably be no argument that some cases of traumatic brain injury would be avoided by helmets. Would we agree with that?
Prof. Rissel : That is a contested issue, because, as Bill was saying before, there is a potential increased risk of some brain trauma associated with helmets. Helmets protect the superficial scrapes and lacerations and broken skin, but the brain damage is the really serious thing, and it is still quite contested.
CHAIR: On the positive side, we can say a reduction in superficial scrapes and lacerations.
Prof. Rissel : Yes, I think that is reasonable.
CHAIR: Anything else?
Prof. Rissel : In terms of the protective value of helmets?
Prof. Rissel : No, I think that is about it. Don't forget: it covers only a small proportion of your whole body, so, in terms of injury prevention, helmets do not really provide that much protection.
Mr Gillham : If I could just give a quick little statistic, over here in WA the number of Western Australians who cycled at least once a week in 1982—that was 10 years before the law—was 220,000. That was the official estimate by Main Roads WA at that time. In 1989, it had increased to 400,000. That is a 10 per cent per annum increase in cycling. That was, in fact, pretty well a national observation, as well. Cycling was increasing in the decade prior to the law, contrary to what the pro-law academics would argue. If you look at the cyclist hospital admissions in 1982, in WA there were 636. In 1989, there were 602. So the number of cyclists went from 220,000 to 400,000. The number of hospital cases went from 636 to 682—a reduction. It gives a hint as to what happens with the numbers on the road. The more cyclists, the safer they are; the less cyclists, the more dangerous it is on the road for them.
CHAIR: This is a safety-in-numbers argument that a couple of you have referred to.
Prof. Rissel : That is an important metric because there is actually a formula that is applied. It is kind of an exponential pattern. That has been documented in a number of different countries now. If you are going to calculate it—I cannot remember exactly what it is—if you double the number of cyclists, you reduce the rates of injuries by about a third. It is sort of a half-third ratio. So if you reduce the number of cyclists by half, you are increase the rate of injury by about a third.
Mr Gillham : My observation of it has long been that you do reduce the proportion of head injuries, maybe by about 10 per cent, but the problem is: you increase the pool of overall injuries. If it was 30 per cent of 600 or 700 cyclists that had head injuries in the old days, it seems we have got it down to 20 per cent. But with 20 per cent of 1,200 injuries per year—which, incidentally, is now the number of hospital of cases in WA—you end up with roughly the same number of head injuries but an awful lot more broken legs and broken arms, in particular. Upper limb injuries, in most cases, increased dramatically when the helmet law was introduced. So you do slightly reduce the proportion of head injuries but as a proportion of a bigger number of overall injuries, probably resulting from more crashes on the road. That, in turn, ties in with risk compensation, et cetera.
CHAIR: Mr Clarke, you have hinted at various other factors that contribute to injuries among cyclists, including alcohol. Would you like to expand on that or explain it to the committee in relation to the overall risks involved in cycling?
Mr Clarke : The overall risks in cycling are relatively low, provided that multi-step care and reasonable provision is provided on the road system. Cyclist behaviour becomes a key issue with accident involvement, especially for the younger cyclists. In the Netherlands, where they have a very good safety record, it is not only due to providing cycle tracks and cycle paths, it is due to the behaviour and children learning how to ride from their parents mainly. Riding to school in groups, they also learn to ride in a group. When they are doing something wrong, the parents or grandparents probably put them right straight away on how to ride. So that community level of cycling results in a good level of safety. It is mainly due to good training, in my view. The accidents occur due to people misbehaving or not knowing the issue involved—not anticipating it having not had the experience. That is where cycle training and things like Bikeability in the UK come in. They do half a dozen courses, or half a dozen lessons, on road training for the above to improve the cycling skills and the knowledge of road safety.
CHAIR: In your ideal world, would you suggest that cycling training be part of the school curriculum?
Mr Clarke : Yes, I think I would have to suggest that. In the UK, the cycle training developed into what they call Bikeability, run by the Department of Transport. That can also be extended to pedestrian training of a similar young age, of course. If you are crossing a road, you stand in a position where vehicles can see you and you can see the vehicle. That applies to riding a bike or as a pedestrian, so you are educating young people in how to be safer on the roads.
CHAIR: Mr Curnow, you made some comments earlier that, I think, cast doubt on the merits of bike helmets for kids as well as adults in terms of the potential traumatic injury.
Mr Curnow : Yes.
CHAIR: Could you just explain that. A lot of people will argue that adults can make up their own minds whether to take a risk in relation to their heads but that children cannot, and therefore a helmet is justified. You would argue, for different reasons, that that is not appropriate. Is that right?
Mr Curnow : Yes. We would argue, as you rightly said, that adults should be able to make up their own minds. With children, the responsibility rightly belongs to the parent or guardian.
CHAIR: Yes. I was thinking of the traumatic injury risk that you were referring to earlier—what benefit those helmets have on the head.
Mr Curnow : Could you just state that question again, please.
CHAIR: I am familiar with the argument that parents are responsible for kids. What I am asking about is your argument, I think—if I understand it correctly—that helmets do not necessarily protect children, as well as adults.
Mr Curnow : Yes. I think the criticism we make of helmets is for any person, really. It does not particularly discriminate between adults and children as far as the efficacy of helmets against brain injury is concerned. One factor, perhaps, is that putting a comparatively heavy helmet on a child's head is more disadvantageous than putting it on an adult's head, because the child's neck muscles are much weaker and therefore cannot resist any force or turning motion that might make for rotation. That is an element there, but that is not fundamental.
CHAIR: So in a philosophical sense you would say that this is perhaps a matter for a parent to decide. I do not think I personally would argue with that, but I guess the question is: what advice would you give to a parent as to whether or not to put a bicycle helmet on their youngsters while they are riding a bicycle? Somebody—I think Mr Gillham—was referring to superficial scrapes and lacerations rather than traumatic brain injury. In your advice to a parent, would you say, 'Use a helmet,' or, 'Don't use a helmet'?
Mr Curnow : That is a very important point. Parents should be properly informed, but governments have failed badly in that respect, because they continually tell us, 'Helmets save lives,' but once you ask detailed questions they have nothing to say. Governments, who have a responsibility to give the public advice on the efficacy of helmets according to scientific studies, just ignore all the evidence that indicates helmets can aggravate severe brain injury, and they just trumpet the message that helmets save lives, and you cannot get beyond that.
Mr Gillham : I would like to interject there: it is also possibly relevant that one of the submissions received by this committee was, from recollection, a nurse at Royal Perth Hospital Emergency Department who does not wear a helmet and she recommends to her two teenage daughter that they also do not wear helmets—just a small anecdote there.
CHAIR: All four of you have spent quite a lot of years on this issue. I am just wondering if you have an international perspective to contribute. Why is it that, after 25 years of Australia and New Zealand going down the path of mandatory helmets, no other countries in the world have gone this path? Do you have any hard evidence or personal experience?
Mr Curnow : I have one particular comment and that concerns a study done in the UK in 2007—and it is referred to in our submission—that confirmed what Australian research had shown that: adding a helmet to a dummy head increased rotation from an oblique impact. That was a report commissioned by the UK government to a company called TRL Ltd. The UK government then resisted calls for helmets to be compulsory, which of course has gone on in the UK as there are people there who are always pushing for helmet laws. But the UK government has resisted that on account of this report by TRL—incidentally, I might mention that that report made reference to some of my work for which I feel a certain satisfaction.
Prof. Rissel : I have got a couple of international examples and I have attended a number of international cycling conferences—Velocity, for example—and the next host country is Taiwan. I spoke to the delegates who were organising that conference and I asked them about the helmet situation in their country. They told me that they were not going to pursue mandatory helmet legislation or requiring helmets on bike-share programs, specifically because they reviewed the international evidence and concluded that it was too big a deterrent on cycling participation for it to be worthwhile. That is a specific assessment by another country—totally independently—who have concluded that it wasn't worth it and was in fact a negative impact.
We have got colleagues in the European Cyclists' Federation who are opposed to helmet legislation generally because of their concerns that it makes cycling seem more dangerous than it is and that, again, it is the negative image and effect on cycling participation—that is from a European perspective. There is a fairly clear consensus amongst cycling—that is because those are the people who are trying to increase cycling as a public policy—that it is a negative.
Mr Gillham : Clearly, the overseas researchers look at where the experiment has been conducted—that is, in Australia or New Zealand for the past 20 to 25 years—and they take their lessons from that. If I could make a point: Israel did have all-age mandatory helmet laws for several years. I was contacted by their advocacy groups several years ago—about six or seven years ago. They put to the Knesset in Jerusalem the facts, the data, and the Israeli parliament then repealed the law for adults on bicycle paths in Israel—and I note that, within two years of that, cycling levels in Tel Aviv had increased, from memory, roughly by 52 or 53 per cent in the following two years.
CHAIR: I have not read that in any submissions. What year did that occur, Professor Rissel?
Prof. Rissel : That was Chris Gilham who was talking about the Israeli experience, but I am aware of that as well. I cannot remember—it was only a few years ago that that happened, wasn't it?
Mr Gillham : That is correct. That is linked via my website, which hopefully the senators have had a chance to browse through. But there are links to the newspaper and the survey reports on the Tel Aviv cycling participation surveys and on the repeal of the adult law over there.
CHAIR: That is fascinating; thank you. I suppose another way of looking at it would be whether Australia has a different rate of serious head injuries and deaths amongst cyclists than other countries that we might like to compare ourselves with and the normal comparisons with the OECD. Do any of you have any data on that?
Prof. Rissel : I can talk to you about a recent study from the US, which has a very car-dominated culture and, in some ways, is not too dissimilar to us. They looked at 10 cities, five of which had the Bike Share program and five of which did not—with no requirement for helmet legislation in those places. They found—and this is a safety in numbers sort of situation—that the ones that had the Bike Share program actually increased the rates of cycling and it decreased the injury rates. As an example of how the pro helmet people viewed that, they basically said that Bike Share contributed to increased head injuries, whereas, in fact there was a small absolute increase but the rate of injuries went down. So they were in fact caught out distorting the data on that. I think the comparable situation is that, for the US, you put in the infrastructure and you encourage people to ride and they do and it actually gets safer for most people.
Mr Gillham : The OECD looked into this a couple of years and issued a report. Again, the details are on my website. Their conclusion was not to recommend mandatory helmet laws.
CHAIR: You have made some comments about other submissions. We received a joint submission from Australian Injury Prevention Network, the Australian College of Road Safety and the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons in which they report some survey data that lists under the heading 'Reasons for not riding a bike for transport more frequently' things such as unsafe road conditions, speed, volumes of traffic, lack of bicycle lanes, weather conditions, do not feel safe and that sort of stuff. There were also comments about survey results, reporting that a very high proportion of people approve of government mandated bike helmets while only one per cent strongly disapprove. There was another one regarding women headed, 'Reasons that prevent women from cycling', which listed lack of confidence in cycling ability, lack of time, lack of fitness and speed/volume of traffic. Those are their top ones. The closest we get to a helmet would be 'Getting hot and sweaty/having to wear special clothes'—at 7.6 per cent. I am just wondering whether you think those are representative. Do you have any comments on their reliability?
Mr Gillham : In March 2001, a survey by Bikewest—the government agency for cycling promotion here in Western Australia—found that compulsory helmets were among the reasons that 11 per cent of respondents in Perth had not cycled in the previous six months. In 2008, 30.3 per cent of survey respondents said that their dislike of helmets contributed to whether or not they would cycle in the next six months. A 2014 survey, last year, found that 61 per cent said helmet issues were their main barrier to bike share participation in Australia. There are also media opinion polls. I referenced in my submission that several weeks ago there was on the Sunday Times website over here a reader opinion poll on whether readers thought that the laws should be repealed or partially repealed—that is, adult repealed—in Western Australia, and 64.2 per cent agreed that it should be repealed. The cherry-picking of the one per cent or two per cent in mixed response surveys goes against an awful low of other evidence that helmets are indeed a very strong disincentive to cycling among Australians.
Prof. Rissel : There are other Heart Foundation surveys that have been done on reasons that people do not cycle and there are a number of New South Wales ones where consistently around one in five people have mentioned it as a barrier. Those other factors are important too. Being holistic about why people do not cycle: those factors contribute. If we are just focusing on helmets, you cannot ignore that there is a significant proportion of the population—20 or 25 per cent, one in five—who will give it as a barrier. We should be doing things to remove barriers to cycling.
Mr Gillham : Since the early 1990s, there has been close to 1,000 kilometres of cycle paths built in Perth. The cyclist numbers in this city are still pretty well what they were in mid-1980s. The infrastructure is there—1,000 kilometres is a fair bit of infrastructure—but it does not seem to have made cycling particularly popular in WA.
CHAIR: The Northern Territory has loosened its helmet laws. This is a question for any one of you: can you tell me what occurred and what the consequences have been?
Prof. Rissel : I will respond first, but Chris might like to add to it. The injury data for the Northern Territory for pedal cyclists suggest that the injury rates in the Northern Territory are no different from the rest of the country. It does not appear to have led to a big increase in injuries, but it does have the highest level of commute to work and it has very high levels of female cycling. So you have got a lot of positive factors going on in the Northern Territory that are good things for cycling.
Mr Gillham : If I could add to that, an ABS study for March 2006 showed that the average proportion of people among all Australian states using a bicycle as their day-to-day recreation or transport was 4.8 per cent. The same survey showed that in the Northern Territory it was 16 per cent, heading towards four times the percentage of people cycling for day-to-day recreation or transport.
Senator CANAVAN: We have been speaking a lot about the evidence of the impact of mandatory laws on cycling participation. I note that in the Queensland parliament they did a committee inquiry on this a couple of years ago, and they said in their report that there does not appear to be any conclusive statistical evidence of the impact of mandatory helmet laws on cycling participation. They had a long discussion in their report along the lines of what we have been talking about. Do you agree with that statement? What is the quality of the data we are using here? They have a quote here from an organisation called CARRS-Q, saying that there is a lack of long-term participation data that covers all types of riding. What is your view on the quality of the evidence that you have presented here today?
Prof. Rissel : The data on cycling in Australia is generally not great, compared to some other countries where they have a better monitoring and management system for cycling infrastructure and participation. It is getting better, but historically it has not been good. There are some contested things around the data. The CARRS-Q group are a known safety-focused organisation, and they have been fairly clear in their personal attacks against me for having suggested that helmet legislation may not have been a good thing for Australia. They are not necessarily independent of the issue. That report in the Queensland parliament did actually recommend a trial to test the effect of relaxing helmet legislation. Despite those comments, their conclusion was, 'We should try it out,' but their parliament chose not to do that at that time.
Senator CANAVAN: Given you have also just indicated the data is not necessarily complete, would the best approach be to do some trials of a relaxation of the laws, rather than a holus-bolus removal? I know the Northern Territory did that some time ago, but in these other states would that be an appropriate first step in your view?
Prof. Rissel : I have always suggested that. I have always said that that would be the best way to look at it—a proper assessment of participation and injury rates in a particular jurisdiction, so that we can actually have real evidence and real data to talk about the situation sensibly and without getting all worked up and impassionate about it. As a step forward, I would say that is good sort of political compromise, although it is a conservative, small steps approach.
Senator CANAVAN: Just to be clear—and anyone can comment on this, as I am not asking it of any individual—what would be your preferred set of relaxations? I suppose there are a lot of things we can do in terms of ages and areas and roads below a certain speed. Do you have a particular preference for what you think would be the best way to relax laws to start with?
Prof. Rissel : It depends on if you are meaning it in a political context.
Senator CANAVAN: I suppose it is up to us to do the politics. I am more interested in terms of a trial generating useful and comparable data to look at its impact—what would be the set of relaxations needed to drive an evidence-based policy decision?
Prof. Rissel : Queensland recommended it be like in the Norther Territory, with low speed road conditions and on bike paths that it not be required for adults. That is an easy step because that is a totally safe scenario. You are not likely to have any problems there. The roadies who like to go fast can still wear their helmets on the road. It keeps people happy. I think the statement is that people will basically choose to wear a helmet or not, depending on their riding context, skill, experience and speed. Repealing it for adults would be reasonable, given that some people will wear them anyway, so it is not really going to compromise safety on that level either.
Senator CANAVAN: Does anyone else want to comment to wrap it up?
Mr Clarke : I would rescind the law for everyone simply because the most damaging effect of the law has been on children—
Mr Gillham : The trial has, I would say, over a period of time—
Senator CANAVAN: Hang on, could we just pause for a second. Who else wanted to contribute there? I think it was Professor Rissel. We might start with Mr Clarke and then we will go to Professor Rissel.
Mr Clarke : I would personally rescind the law for everyone because the main damaging effect of the law has been on children. It discourages them more and they require the most exercise—about 60 minutes a day. To make one point, they have tested helmets for children and the results have not quite been as good as they were for adult helmets. So the most damaging effect has been on children, discouraging them. Their accident rate—if you look at the Dorothy Robinson report and data from New Zealand it shows that they are the most disadvantaged. So I would just completely scrap the law.
Senator CANAVAN: Professor Rissel?
Prof. Rissel : I spoke earlier. I have no issue at all with repealing the legislation for children and adults, although I am aware that there are softer options to begin with that might be more palatable for the community more generally. I think I have said my piece.
CHAIR: Mr Gillham, I think you might have been speaking there for a minute. Do you want to continue your remarks?
Mr Gillham : Yes, it is Chris Gillham at this end, rather than Chris Rissel. I also agree with Colin Clarke. It would be better to have an all-age trial repeal because of the damage being caused to young people. However, I do accept—and I therefore agree with Chris—that, politically, that would be difficult to get through. My guesswork would be that a trial run of about five years gives a good, solid length of time to check what the actual impact is on participation and on injury levels. If the results are not good, we will go back to an all-age mandatory law. But I am pretty confident that the results would show—like in the rest of the world—that it is better to let the public voluntarily choose whether to wear a helmet.
CHAIR: Thank you very much, gentlemen. We now have some more witnesses to hear from. I do appreciate you appearing here today.