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Economics References Committee
16/11/2015
Personal choice and community impacts

TODD, Mr Alan Stewart, President, Freestyle Cyclists Inc.

[14:48]

CHAIR: Welcome. Thank you for appearing before the committee today. Do you want to make a brief opening statement?

Mr Todd : That would be a good idea. I am mindful that you may have heard more than you ever wanted to hear in a lifetime about bicycle helmets. Could there be any more? So, to some extent, I have modified my opening. I know this is not a debate between parties, but to some extent this is a bit of a summing-up of where I see the position of those of us who are not enchanted by mandatory helmet laws. Just a couple of clarifications at the beginning, which we have touched upon: the sort of cycling that Freestyle Cyclists is interested in is utility or transport cycling, the kind of cycling that is not only good for the person who does it but good for the whole of society if, by using a bicycle, you are using active transport rather than one of the more passive forms, such as driving or public transport. We are interested in the cycling that is good all round. When I say we are not interested in sport cycling, we put it in the same category as golf or tennis. It is a really good activity if you want to have a pleasurable sport, but it is not a cornerstone of transport and the development of more livable urban environments.

I would also like to mention at the outset that if we were ever able to settle the question of helmet efficacy, or whether a helmet is effective in the event of an accident and to what extent—I do not think we ever will settle that argument, and I think 25 years of research suggests that we will not, but even if that question were settled and found to be in favour of the helmet—it still would not settle the question of law. The question of law is: should we force people to undertake this intervention, and, if they choose not to, should we punish them?

It is often forgotten when we talk about mandatory laws that you do have to deal with dissent. In the case of bicycle helmets, dissent in the early days was very, very strong, and I believe it remains strong to this day. There was a sort of naive, wishful thinking—I think it was largely based on the fact that children were seen as the target audience—that we would just roll adults all up into the whole thing and make everybody wear helmets, and they would just go away and be good boys and girls and do it, but that does not always happen. So we have the issue of: what do you do with people who do not? That is probably the cornerstone of why this continues to cause so much angst 25 years after it was first introduced.

Looking back over those 25 years, I see the mandatory helmet laws in Australia as being something of an experiment. If you like, the whole world has undertaken this experiment, and Australia and New Zealand have been the laboratory. It was undertaken without particularly good 'before' data—the collection of data before the event was not good—and we have even heard from the supporters of mandatory helmet laws that exposure data is woefully lacking, and a great deal of injury and hospitalisation data is not as good as it should have been, but the experiment sailed ahead nonetheless.

After 25 years, the rest of the world has looked at this experiment and judged it a failure. Insofar as an experiment can be a failure, it can still lead to useful results. My view of why the rest of the world has judged this to be a failure is that the initiative actually failed to do what it set out to do. It did not reduce head injuries relative to exposure. I know that is open to dispute, but my best assessment of the evidence is that that is the case. It certainly does not appear to have made cycling safer, and it does appear to have significantly reduced participation in utility cycling. This view is based on ABS statistics of modal share, which you have heard a fair bit about already.

We had the survey from VicRoads, which of course included numerical counts, including a bicycle rally that inflated figures. In my view, that survey is practically worthless. The other reason the Victorian survey is particularly unhelpful is that it failed to measure anything in rural areas. Just to clarify on 'rural areas': there is a tendency to think we mean farms with high-speed roads, but we should really talk about regional areas. I am looking at the regional centres, the towns and the regional cities. Regional cities like Bendigo, Ballarat and the major regional cities of Queensland had modal shares of about four per cent prior to helmets being made mandatory. That was cut to less than one per cent, where it remains today. I think the pro mandatory helmet lobby has failed to take account of what happened throughout Australia and concentrated far too much on the capital cities. I am sorry; I do not have the source for this, but my understanding is that more than half the cycling that took place in Victoria prior to 1990 actually took place outside Melbourne.

Even today the effects of this remain. Cycling, despite what people say, is not booming. We have already looked at the National Cycling Strategy and the results of the biennial count surveys that are carried out on behalf of Austroads. What we have to look at today is whether helmets are still an impediment. Rissel and Wen found that, and the National Heart Foundation found that. One survey that has not been quoted yet today—this is new information—is that the Royal Automobile Association of South Australia surveyed its members around the time of the VeloCity conference last year in Adelaide and 20 per cent of its members said they would ride more often if they did not have to wear a bicycle helmet. It is often trivialised—'only 20 per cent' or 'only 16 per cent'—but remember, we are looking at a country where less than one per cent of trips are made by bicycle. Within that context, 20 per cent of the population saying that if they did not have to wear a helmet they might ride a bike is hugely significant.

The other thing we have seen in the 25 years is a paradigm shift in cycling. The shift has definitely gone from cycling as an everyday means of transport to cycling as a sport or recreation, particularly competitive fitness training type of sport where people ride fast. Incidentally, the Austroads survey found that about 75 per cent of the cycling in Australia is sport and recreational. We have also seen the popular narrative in relation to bike accidents shifting to blaming to the victim. I have really noticed this in press reporting. The first thing they ask is, 'Was the person wearing a helmet?', with the implication that if they were not then the accident was somehow their fault and if they were wearing a helmet they had done all they could. So, we have seen that rather nasty shift in narrative towards blaming the vulnerable—because cyclists, like pedestrians, are vulnerable.

After 25 years, the rest of the world, frankly, has moved on. We do not hear calls for mandatory bicycle helmets coming from the European Union or even from North America anymore. The working party on bike safety in the European union—I think that was one of the references in my submission—found insufficient evidence one way or the other on the effectiveness of bike helmets to make any recommendation.

I cannot help feeling that the opposition to reform of bike helmet law that we are seeing—and we have seen some of it today—is something of a last gasp from a country that really has lost touch with the way cycling is developing in the rest of the progressive world. My view is that it is time to call time on this experiment. I have been a subject of this experiment for 25 years. I would like to be allowed to go home now. Thank you.

Senator CANAVAN: I want to start on one aspect of your evidence. This has come up a bit, but I have not really asked about it: you said cycling is not booming. To me, not a very regular cyclist, it seems to be at odds with the popular view that people are all in lycra now and go to catch up for coffee on Sunday mornings. Why is there this dichotomy between what is out there in terms of this being the new coolest thing to do and the actual data? You are saying it is not showing that. Is it just the lifestyle side of things that you are talking about? Or is it also just the general use of bikes?

Mr Todd : I think what you will find is that there has been a growth in sports cycling—and you mentioned coffee and lycra on a Sunday. That is fine, but Austroads, as part of the assessment of the implementation of the national strategy, has done biennial reports. They did them in 2011, 2013 and 2015. They found a shift in focus from utility to sports—not a big one by then; I think most of the shift had happened by 2011. But the actual measured participation through their survey technique showed that there has been a small but significant decline in participation in cycling per head of population. I think the notion that cycling is booming is easy to fall for. If you live in Melbourne and south of Bell Street in one of the inner suburbs, you will see that there has been significant growth in some areas, even in utility cycling. There has certainly been a huge growth in the sort of round-the-bay-in-five-minutes sports cycling. But, once you get out into the suburbs, go up the Calder Highway to Bendigo or along the Western Highway to Ballarat, it is different. I have driven through Bendigo at rush hour on a weekday morning—it is still a city with a rush hour rather than a rush day—and not seen one person across the whole city using a bike. In a city like Bendigo you do not need infrastructure. The roads are wide enough to turn a cart and horse in and the traffic is not heavy, but cycling in regional areas has really borne the brunt while cycling in inner urban areas has shown some recovery.

Senator CANAVAN: But, then again, if I were going to make a choice to commute by bike to work in, say, Bendigo, having to buy and wear a helmet does not seem a massive barrier to making that choice. I did use to commute to work on a bike in Canberra, and I tell you what: the cold and the frost were much more of a barrier than wearing a helmet. That is one thing in the evidence that has been presented. How do you explain that issue? Is wearing a helmet really such a big hassle? How can it account for this—

Mr Todd : It is interesting that you mention Canberra. I live in a place that is almost as cold, and my preferred headwear in winter is a woolly beanie and my preferred headwear in summer is a broad-brimmed hat. Why is it a barrier? That is a big question that would probably involve a fairly sociological examination or elements of psychology. Governments at local, state and federal levels—all levels of government—have active transport policies that seek to encourage more people to ride rather than use their cars. If that is what you want to do, you just have to accept that, if helmets are a barrier, they are a barrier. You cannot just ignore it and pretend it is not there. Personally, I feel like an absolute dill with a bike helmet on. You might say that is trivial, but the way you appear in public and what you wear on your head are terribly important. Most people who travel are allowed to make that choice for themselves. The occupants of cars, trains and buses and people on foot can make that choice, but cyclists are not allowed to make that choice. Their presentation in public is dictated by the state, and that does seem to put an awful lot of people off. There are the practical difficulties. I hesitate to mention helmet hair because, again, it seems to trivialise things, but there does seem to be a reluctance amongst women to wear helmets. Teenage girls, I believe, are one of the biggest demographics that just about gave up cycling altogether when helmets were required.

In answer to your question, I can see that, in the scheme of things, it is not difficult to pick up a helmet and put it on, but, if someone does not want to do it, they will not. I have used this analogy in the past: it would not be hard for men to put on a skirt and high heels to go to work, but they are not going to want to do it. Maybe a helmet is not quite that extreme, but it does seem to push the wrong buttons for a lot of people.

Senator CANAVAN: I will ask you what we have asked others. What would be your preferred policy? I think you might have mentioned that you want to go back home with a complete repeal. Do you see a particular pathway towards home, in your words, which might involve some other changes first?

Mr Todd : My response will be a little complex because my own personal view is that complete repeal is the end point and, if we want to get there, the sooner the better. At Freestyle Cyclists, we have largely steered clear of the issue of children because it is just incredibly emotive. We have made a decision that that is not an area we are looking at at this stage. I would point out, however, that the safest child cyclists in the world are in the Netherlands, which wins on all counts, including on children's safety, and they do not wear helmets. So I guess I am in the position of having to take a bit of a political punt here. I thought the Queensland model was a very sensible compromise with public opinion. I say that carefully because I do not think there is very much evidence that a helmet will actually do any good at all in a 60-kilometres-an-hour-plus accident with a vehicle. In some ways, they are the very places—

Senator CANAVAN: Is that with the car going 60 kilometres an hour?

Mr Todd : Yes, the car—I will talk about bike speed later, if I can—but in the highway situation, where you might be hit by a car at speed. But I think there is something intuitively appealing to the public in winding back by going to the roads under 60 kilometres, certainly the separated bike paths, and the shared paths. For age, I would tend to go for 16 as the age, purely based on the fact that it is really good to get adolescents on a bike before it is too late. If 16 is too late, I would make it 15.

CHAIR: Thank you for you submission. You raised a really interesting question. We have heard a lot of evidence plus some arguments about whether or not the introduction of mandatory helmets has reduced cycling participation. The statistics seem to suggest that is what occurs, post helmets. But you asked the question: are helmets still an impediment? So, in other words, after 25 years maybe the deterrent effect has worn off and they are no longer an impediment. You cited a survey by the Royal Automobile Association of South Australia in which their members said they would ride more if no helmet was required. Are you aware of any other evidence that says helmet laws are still an impediment?

Mr Todd : I have read the National Heart Foundation's paper, which I believe they did in conjunction with a Cycling Promotion Fund, which found helmet wearing, as a single issue, identified as a deterrent in 16 per cent of cases, and Professor Rissel's and Dr Wen's paper on cycling participation, which identified, I think, that it was around 20 per cent discouragement.

CHAIR: I guess the issue for us is that while there seems to be some evidence that mandatory helmet laws caused a reduction in cycling participation that does not prove that if the mandatory helmet laws did not exist there would be an increase in participation. What do you think about that? What evidence is there for that?

Ms Robinson : We will never find out in Australia if we do not try. I do not have figures, so I am at a bit of a loss here. But Israel and Mexico both had national helmet legislation and they both repealed it in the last few years, largely in order to get their public bike-share working, because they say quite sensibly that it would not work with helmets. I believe their public bike-shares have been very successful. I do not have the figures on that, but it would be worth pursuing so as to have a real-world example of the effect of repealing the law.

CHAIR: Do you have any data on those two? I don't think we got it in the submissions, did we?

Mr Todd : I do not actually have any data on these at my fingertips.

CHAIR: What can you tell us about the Northern Territory, then? They have relaxed their helmet laws.

Mr Todd : The Northern Territory, I understand, has one of the highest participation rates in cycling in the country. Again, the measure of safety against exposure is difficult in Australia. I have done my own back-of-the-envelope of the number of deaths per year in the Territory as against an estimate of cycling, taking the four per cent modal share. Also, I have had a conversation with a South Australian gentleman who worked for their Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure, who was fairly au fait with the Territory's figures. I believe the bicycle injury and death rate in the Territory is comparable to that of the rest of the country. It is in the same ball park. The interesting thing when you are talking about the Territory is that the deaths per 100 million kilometres travelled in the Territory for all road users is off the scale. It is the worst figure in the OECD. So you have the background in the Territory of incredibly unsafe road conditions, but the cyclists who are not required to wear a helmet seem to enjoy similar levels of safety to the rest of Australia.

Some people talked a little bit before about Australia being a world leader in road safety. That is a little bit inaccurate. I looked up the figures on the BITRE website—that is the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics; they crunch the figures for these things, and Australia sits on the OECD average for vehicle safety. The Northern Territory is way off the wall, and the ACT is safer than the Netherlands, so there is variation within Australia, but as a country we are average.

Senator CANAVAN: I meant to ask earlier: is there evidence on helmet use in the Northern Territory or Darwin? Is it much different, notwithstanding the different legal environment?

Mr Todd : I have only seen videos of people riding in Darwin, and they do not appear to wear helmets on their bike tracks, but I am not aware of the actual evidence.

CHAIR: What can you tell us about the public bicycle hire schemes in Brisbane and Melbourne and how well they are doing or not doing, and what reasons?

Mr Todd : The success of public bike share is generally measured by uses per bicycle per day, which seems a reasonable way of comparing because that means you can compare a scheme with a small number of bikes with one with a large number of bikes. Melbourne's usage is below one use per bike per day. For CityCycle in Brisbane, I think it is around 0.3 uses per bike per day. There is one other new bike scheme in the world, in Seattle, where helmets are required, and they are tracking at below one use per bike per day. I think Dublin is one of the most successful schemes; it has the number of bikes as Melbourne and it has 10 uses per bike per day—so it is 10 times as successful. I do not at my fingertips have the figure—

Senator CANAVAN: They do not require helmets?

Mr Todd : No. Nowhere in the world requires helmets for public bike share. And helmet wearing rates are pretty low on them.

Senator CANAVAN: Just to be clear: Seattle requires helmet use, you said?

Mr Todd : Seattle does.

Senator CANAVAN: Seattle requires helmet use and they are below one, consistent with Melbourne and Brisbane.

CHAIR: All three, the ones you just cited, are all below one, and they all require helmets. Are there any where helmets are not required that are failures as well?

Mr Todd : Not that I know of—not of a contemporary style of bike share. They all follow the same model, so they are quite comparable.

CHAIR: And you said Dublin is 10. I suppose it would be easy to say that the difference between Dublin and Brisbane or Dublin and Melbourne would be the helmets. But there is more to it than that, isn't there?

Mr Todd : Helmets are the absolute sticking point. There are other differences. We have developed a culture in Melbourne that is not particularly favourable to the casual, one-off rider. As we have heard before, that is what bike share initially depends upon. It often also gives a bit of a kick-start to a city, in getting the citizens more interested in using bikes. A fairly interesting example is New York. There were dire predictions made in the US press prior to the New York scheme being launch, that the sidewalks of New York would be slippery of the brains of cyclists—shock horror stuff. They have not had one single death, not one single serious injury. I think they are approaching 20 million trips. Twenty million is the magic figure with bike share. There is approximately one fatality per 20 million trips worldwide. So bike share in New York has not resulted in this terrible increase in injuries. In fact, there was a study done in North American cities with bike share, which used as the comparison group cities without bike share, and they found that the cities with bike share had reduced accident and injury rates—both reduced head injury rates and all injury rates when compared with cities without bike share. So bike share seems to launch a very safe kind of riding. There are some figures emerging for that. An Australian academic, Elliot Fishman, working at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, jointly with academics there, has produced what is at this stage a conference paper, but it is due for publication, measuring the fatality rate across bike share schemes in eight cities in North America, Europe, and I think Australia is included—so they are not going to get much participation there—and they have come up with a fatality rate of one fatality per one hundred million kilometres. If you put that in context, you could get on your bike 20,000 years ago, ride out of the cave and into the Palaeolithic era and ride 15 kays a day—which is quite a bit—day in, day out for 20,000 years before you would reach 100 million kilometres. That is an awful lot of cycling per fatality. It is really quite a safe thing to do if you do it properly.

CHAIR: There is an obvious conclusion. Some people earlier today said that the 'safety in numbers' effect is relevant, but you would also have to conclude from what you have just said that the individuals who choose to use Bike Share are very cautious riders and therefore safer than, maybe, the middle-aged men in lycra.

Mr Todd : I think there is strength in that argument. Obviously the biggest fear for cyclists is being hit by motor vehicles, but a lot of cyclists' accidents are single-bike accidents. Some of that is to do with the way people ride. What I am going to say is very unpopular with cycling groups, because they do not like to feel that the finger is being pointed at their behaviour, but a joint paper was published between the Monash University Accident Research Centre and Alfred Health, both organisations that are strongly supportive of mandatory helmets, and in 2012, in a study of cyclists in the Bayside area of Melbourne, they found:

Only a single factor, cyclist speed before the crash, proved to be a significant predictor of head injury risk from the modelling exercise. A cyclist travelling at 30kph or over prior to the crash was estimated to have nearly 5 times the odds of sustaining a head injury in the crash compared to a cyclist travelling below 20kph.

So there you have me on my bike sitting up, looking where I am going, breaking the law without my helmet, and I am passed by, let's say for argument's sake, a neurosurgeon on his weekend training ride, fanging along at 35 kilometres an hour, with his helmet on but with his head down and his bottom up, not very good visually. He is putting himself at five times the risk of head injury that I am putting myself at. So the speed of the cyclist has to be part of the equation, because in any crash, if you double the speed, there is four times the energy dissipation. It is just physics.

I think cyclist speed is a really under-researched area of bicycle safety, and it is possibly one of the key reasons why Bike Share is relatively safe. I have read that Cadel Evans said he tried to get a Melbourne Bike Share bike up to 30 kilometres an hour but could not. These are not fast bikes.

CHAIR: Perhaps the law should be changed so that neurosurgeon bike riders should wear helmets but other riders should not be obliged to.

Mr Todd : I think it would be very hard to enforce, because we do not have speedometers.

CHAIR: Neurosurgeons do not have it tattooed on their foreheads. I am joking.

Senator CANAVAN: I did ask before this. Yes, speed limits would be very hard to enforce.

Mr Todd : I think that would be almost self selecting. If you repealed mandatory helmet laws in Australia today, the people who would take their helmets off would be the people who are already going slowly. The people who would ride more are people like me, who are deterred, and the people who like speeding or going for high-speed sports activities would wear helmets.

The issue is bedevilled with anecdotes, but I was fortunate enough to visit Utrecht earlier this year. When I got on the train in Amsterdam and headed off to Utrecht, the first 45 cyclists I saw were wearing lycra and helmets and they were travelling at speed. It was a Sunday afternoon, and the Dutch are just the same as us: they have one per cent of the population who love riding their bikes fast at the weekend. They were going past a canal. That is how they choose to dress and that is how they choose to ride. Once I got to Utrecht itself, the next 50,000 people I saw were not wearing helmets, they were sitting up and they were riding about the same speed as me.

CHAIR: Mammals versus mammoths, as the saying goes.

Mr Todd : Yes. It is not a conflict. They are different activities.

CHAIR: Yes, different cultural groups. Bernard Salt has described them well. Thank you very much, Mr Todd, for your evidence.

Proceedings suspended from 15:19 to 15:32