Could bike sharing schemes kill helmet compulsion laws?


Mayors around the world are falling over themselves to offer urban bike-sharing schemes, such has been the success of Vélib’ in Paris.

Montreal, Dublin, Berlin, Rome, Bristol, Barcelona and lots of other cities already operate such schemes, as chronicled by the brilliant Bike Sharing blog. London will have a bike sharing scheme next year. Melbourne in Australia will have one, too. It’s to be operated by Alta of the US, the company that created Montreal’s Bixi bike sharing program.


Ah, but unlike in the cities above, cycle in Melbourne without a helmet and you risk copping a fine. Australia long ago enacted bicycle helmet compulsion for cyclists. However, bike sharing programs are for new cyclists, or tourists, or cyclists without their normal bike that day. Folks who likely don’t travel with bicycle helmets. So, could Melbourne’s bike sharing scheme be the start of the end for Australian helmet compulsion?

In Rome, even Pinocchio rides a bike

In the video below, traffic engineer Cameron Munro says bike sharing schemes will not topple lid laws but he admitted he was “worried” about masses of Bixi users not using helmets.

The video is by Mike Rubbo, a 70-year-old e-bike rider from Melbourne Avoca Beach on the Central Coast of NSW, Australia. He interviewed Alison Cohen, who works for Alta and is helping to roll-out Bixi in Melbourne.

She admitted that rental helmets were a non-starter because they couldn’t be sterilised. Instead, she argues that tourists will stump up not just for the bike rental fee but for a helmet, too. Cheap helmets, possibly from Burger King.

“The helmet’s a vexing problem,” she said. “Right now our plan is to work with local retailers [like] convenience stores, and possibly fast-food restaurants that are open late at night, and work with them to have some behind the counter. We’re looking at low cost helmets, like AU$15.”

Tourists or newbies who choose not to wear a helmet “risk getting fined or having an accident,” laughed Ms Cohen. “That’s what freedom is about.”

Of course, what’s far more likely is that people rent the bikes but neglect to pop into McDonald’s to buy helmets. Melbourne police officers will decide it’s too tough – and stupid – to fine Bixi riders without helmets and so the city becomes part of Australia where helmet laws are openly flouted, and hence die.

Robbo thinks he has an answer: sport cyclists on drop handlebars or stretched-out MTBs should continue to be forced to wear bicycle helmets but anybody on slow, sit-up-and-beg bikes should be able to ride bare-headed. You know, like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where cycling is a normal, everyday activity and where safety equipment is deemed daft.

It’s always worth noting that bicycle helmets are designed for low-speed crashes to concrete kerbs and offer next to no protection in car v bike smashes i.e. they are better suited to the Copenhagen/Amsterdam style of riding.

“…better construction techniques don’t often mean better impact protection, just thinner helmets and more vents. In short, more money will buy you more vents, but not necessarily more safety…[Manufacturers] are convinced that they can’t sell a helmet that is thicker and therefore bulky looking. And their lawyers will not let them advertise that a helmet is ’safer’ or ‘more protective’ or even ‘designed to prevent concussion’ for fear that they will lose lawsuits when a rider is injured in that helmet.”
American pro-helmet organisation the Bicycle Helmet SafetyInstitute

It will be fascinating to see whether Bixi, in time, brings about the demise of Australia’s helmet laws. And, should London’s bike sharing scheme prove popular, the percentage of helmet-wearing cyclists in the UK capital will no doubt decrease. Just about the only factor that would convince the UK Department of Transport to push for cycle helmet compulsion would be a high percentage of cycle helmet wearing from the current crop of cyclists: dilute with non-helmet wearers and compulsion fades to grey.