Bicycle Helmets

Bicycle NSW recognizes that bicycle users are required by law to wear a properly fitted helmet and recommends that all riders comply with the law.

There is a large and consistent evidence base that demonstrates the protective benefits in a crash or fall of wearing a bicycle helmet compared to no helmet.  Estimates of the difference in the likelihood of head and brain injury between helmet wearers and those not wearing a helmet are in the range 50% to 80%, depending on the specific injury and crash circumstance.

In Australia, bicycle users are required to wear an AS/NZS 2063:2008 compliant bicycle helmet.   Australian Standards are developed by a technical committee with broad representation from the community:  user groups, science and engineering, industry, retail and government.  AS/NZS 2063 is a performance standard.  It does not specify how to construct a helmet or what materials to use.  It does specify how the helmet will perform in defined tests. The primary safety tests in AS/NZS 2063 are:  impact energy attenuation; load distribution; stability; and, retention system strength.  The basic function of these tests combined is to ensure that the helmet will stay in place during a crash and reduce the forces applied to the head.  If the forces applied to the head are reduced, this will reduce the head’s linear and angular acceleration, local forces, and stresses inside the skull that can cause brain or vascular injury.   Helmets reduce the forces and accelerations experienced by the head in an impact by a significant amount.

Helmet suppliers can and do meet the performance requirements of AS/NZS 2063 having consideration for the look of the helmet, its price point, the manufacturing costs, specific materials and helmet dimensions.  At present there is no information that suggests a correlation between retail price and performance.

It is important that helmets are selected carefully so that they fit well.  It is also important that the restraint system is adjusted to ensure the helmet is stable on the head.  Parents, in particular, should ensure that their children’s’ helmets are the correct size, and adjusted and worn properly.  Often the restraint system is loose or the helmet is tipped back on the head, which exposes the forehead to a direct impact.

Helmets do need to be replaced.  If a helmet is damaged or involved in a crash, it should be replaced immediately.  Exposure to solvents may also impair the function of the helmet.  There is no definite lifespan for a helmet, but as a general guide it is best to replace a helmet every three to five years.  Reasons to replace a helmet include taking advantage of new technologies, improvements that flow from revisions to AS/NZS 2063, improvements in conformity assessment regimes, and normal wear and tear.

Bicycle Registration

Almost every country in the world requires motor-vehicles to be registered.  In contrast, bicycles are almost always permitted to use public roads without any form of registration or identification plate.  This is largely due to the fact that bicycles pose a very low risk to other road users and therefore do not need to be identified.  

While almost every country in the world happily encourages the free use of bicycles on public roads, there are often calls for bicycles to be registered.  There are two main reasons why the subject of bicycle registration is raised.  Firstly, the payment of a registration charge is seen as a way to ensure that bicycle users “pay their fair share” of the cost of constructing roads and bicycle paths.  Secondly, registration is seen as a way to identify law-breaking bicycle users through the use of a prominently displayed number plate.

Identifying Law-Breakers

Bicycle users are sometimes portrayed as law-breakers who are a danger to society.  The installation of a registration plate is seen as a way to identify these bicycle users so that law-breakers can be identified and appropriate penalties can be applied.  Before deciding whether improved identification would result in improved enforcement or behaviour, it is first necessary to determine whether the current behaviour of bicycle users is causing a danger to society.  Should the crimes of bicycle users be enforced with the same commitment as the crimes of a murderer, as the crimes of a drink-driving motorist or as the crimes of a jay-walking pedestrian?

While bicycle users are sometimes guilty of offences such as riding without a helmet, riding on footpaths or running red lights, the damage to society of these infractions is minimal compared to the damage caused by motor vehicles.  The yearly road death toll in Australia is around 1500 people p.a., however, fewer than 1 of these deaths are the result of a bicycle user inflicting injury on another road user.  The negligible danger presented by bicycle users to other members of society raises the question of whether a bicycle registration program would simply consume resources that could be better applied elsewhere.

More people are killed by pedestrian-pedestrian violence in Australia than through collisions with bicycles.  This would suggest that we would achieve a greater improvement in public safety if all members of society were required to wear clearly-visible identification than if bicycles were required to be fitted with number plates.

Then there is the question of whether identification actually leads to better enforcement.  A citizen who witnesses a traffic infringement made by a motor vehicle will have almost no chance of convincing the Police to issue a ticket even if they have the license plate number of the vehicle.  There is nothing to suggest that things would be any different for bicycles.

While a lack of enforcement is common for minor offences, the Police do investigate serious incidents such as fatalities.  In this case, a bicycle fitted with a license plate may identifiable by a license plate (although the plate would usually be hard to see due to its size).  However, with fewer than 1 such incident a year, the cost of implementing an across-the-board licensing scheme outweighs the benefits.

Payment of Fair Share

Bicycle users are often seen as free-loaders who get a free ride on infrastructure that is paid for by motorists.  The payment of a registration charge is seen as a way to ensure that bicycle users “pay their fair share” of the cost of constructing roads and bicycle paths.  The argument that bicycle users should pay registration to “pay their fair share” is based on the assumption that our society is strictly “user pays”.  However, there are many groups in society such as pedestrians and the disabled who rightly have access to special facilities such as footpaths without being charged a fee.  These facilities are provided based on the need for equitable access to safe transport.  The same principle applies to providing safe facilities to bicycle users.

While the cost of running a motor vehicle is quite high, the charges paid by motorists do not cover all the costs that motor vehicles impose on society.  For example, motor vehicles are responsible for air pollution, noise pollution and road trauma that affect all members of society, not just those who drive.   In contrast, there are many Benefits of Bicycling to Society that are shared by everyone.  Taking into account the costs of motor vehicles and the benefits of bicycles, the numbers actually suggest that bicycle users currently pay in excess of their fair share.

Even if we ignore the Benefits of Bicycling to Society and the costs imposed by motor vehicle use and still feel that bicycle users should still pay an additional fee (on top of the car registration fee many bicycle users already pay), the question would then become, “how much should a bicycle user pay?”

Registration charges are often based on the weight of the vehicle and hence the level of damage the vehicle is capable of doing to road infrastructure (which increases as the 4th power of weight).  While a typical car (+ driver) weighs around 1000kg and is charged a few hundred dollars in registration fees, a typical bicycle (+ rider) weights only 100kg.  Using the 4th power law, the registration charge for a bicycle could only reasonably be calculated as being in the vicinity of 1 cent, which implies that collecting registration fees would cost far more than the revenue collected.

If instead of using the 4th power law, we simply assume a linear relationship between weight and registration cost, then a registration fee of around $20-30 may be applicable.  If we reached this conclusion, then we would need to examine the logistics of the implementation of this system and the affects it would have on bicycle use.

Would the fee be applicable to all bikes including children’s bikes?

Would the fee be applicable to each additional bike someone owns?

What administrative resources would be consumed in processing and issuing registration?

What police resources would be consumed in enforcing registration?

What sort of reduction would we see in the Benefits of Bicycling to Society from the inevidible reduction in bicycle usage that would accompany the introduction of bicycle registration?

These questions highlight the magnitude of the work required to implement a bicycle registration scheme effectively and the fact that the revenue generated would probably not even cover the costs.

Minimum Passing Distance

Bicycle NSW supports the “Metre Matters” campaign run by the Amy Gillett Foundation that calls for the introduction of a minimum passing distance into the Australian Road Rules.  A minimum passing distance would require vehicles overtaking bicycle users to leave a clearance of at least 1m between their vehicle and a bicycle user.

In too many cases (such as the tragic death of Richard Pollett), drivers are not being held to account for negligent behaviour that results in the death or serious injury of vulnerable road users.  Impatient, aggressive or inattentive driving that results in serious injury is often dismissed as “accidental” and with no legally-required minimum passing distance, there is often no clear way to prove that a road rule has been broken.

A minimum passing distance enforces the requirement for all drivers to leave enough space for bicycle users to ride safely on our roads.  This legal framework is essential in establishing that a driver has broken a road rule when they hit a bicycle user from behind.

Similar laws already exist in many European Countries and in more than half of the states of the US.  Bicycle NSW calls on Government to change the Australian Road Rules and incorporate a 1m minimum passing distance for vehicles passing bicycle users.