Bryony Chapman finished her presentation on the CityCycle initiative by asking for ideas on how to rent out bicycle helmets. All the successful bicycle hire schemes are in countries where bicycle helmets are not compulsory. Hiring out helmets is not as easy as hiring bicycles since ill-fitting, sweaty, second-hand helmets tend to look odd on business persons off to a meeting in the city. never to mention the impact on your carefully styled locks.
A brave audience member suggested that maybe helmet laws should be changed, or not be enforced in Brisbane. There was an audible shock from most in attendance.
It does raise a couple of valid questions though: does compulsory helmet use limit the number of people who cycle? Do helmets really protect cyclists?
Countries like the Netherlands and Denmark have high levels of cycling and no requirement for helmet use, are the two related? There are several proponents of the argument that compulsory helmet use in Australia and elsewhere dramatically reduced levels of cycling. The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation's web site show how the journey to work mode share for cyclists dropped following the introduction of compulsory helmets in 1991. Were there other factors at play?
The statistics below seem to show that bicycle helmet use, cycling levels and safety are related.
It would be easy to come to the conclusion that by not enforcing helmets Brisbane could encourage bicycle use and achieve levels of cycling seen in Europe without any adverse impacts on safety. That would however be an incorrect conclusion to arrive at.
Levels of cycling are as high, and fatalities are as low as they are in these European countries because of many factors. The greatest influence is the infrastructure provided for cyclists in these countries. All these countries have extensive cycle route networks, many of them physically separate from cars or on traffic calmed streets. This significantly increases the number of people willing to cycle and reduces the risk to cyclists.
In the USA approximately 90% of deaths of cyclists are due to crashes with motor vehicles. Separating cyclists from cars would have a far greater impact on reducing risk to cyclists than helmets could.
The SE Queensland Principal Cycle Network Plan has a beautiful series of maps showing how the introduction of high standard separated cycle routes in Brisbane increased cycling levels in those suburbs served. Protecting cyclists from traffic supports cycling and improves safety.
Coming back to the question on whether it would be appropriate to not enforce cycle helmets in support of the CityCycle project. There is no easy answer to this. When we have a comprehensive network of cycle routes through the CBD, either on traffic calmed roads or separated cycle paths, maybe then would it be appropriate considering whether a waiver of the requirements for cycle helmets in certain situations would be appropriate to support the CityCycle scheme. I believe a healthy debate on this would be beneficial.
The City has started the ball rolling by reducing the speed limit in the CBD and providing cycle lanes on several roads in the CBD. Increasing the number of cycle routes through the city and increasing their separation from traffic will also contribute to improving safety.