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Fremantle City Council is proposing cyclists over 18 years of age have the option of riding without a helmet within the municipality for a trial period of between two and five years. The proposed trial would apply to segregated cycle paths and streets with a speed limit of 50 km/h. (H/T Michael McPhail).

The rationale for the trial is familiar. Council says the social cost of “lost” exercise deterred by the helmet law exceeds the social benefit from the head injuries that helmets avoid.

Presumably Council has done its due diligence, but the trial probably requires State Government permission – or perhaps even legislation – so I think it’s got very little chance of getting up. The politics just don’t work.

It would be a pity though, because from what I can see (e.g. here, here and here), much of the Australian evidence relied upon in this debate is either too old or too weak. The discussion would really benefit from some contemporary and objective data.

I’m not persuaded there’re large numbers of people who’re consciously and actively put off cycling by the helmet law. On the other hand though, I think there could be a large latent market for a sort of Parisian “cycle chic” culture.

With careful marketing, many residents and tourists might enjoy cycling for a latte in Fremantle on traditional sit-up bicycles with the wind in their hair. Fremantle could be in the box seat to identify itself with this market if it gets the proposed trial.

There could nevertheless be a downside to making helmets optional. If the trial makes them uncool amongst children (because Council proposes under 19s would still be compelled by law to wear one) and leads some to ignore the law, more parents might discourage their children from cycling.

It also needs to be borne in mind that Fremantle, wonderful as it is, is not a Copenhagen or an Amsterdam. It doesn’t have the level of cycling infrastructure these cities have. It doesn’t have the same cycling tradition and few motorists in Australia are themselves on-road cyclists. In short, cycling on Fremantle’s roads is not as safe as on Amsterdam’s.

It’s possible (maybe even probable) there’d be some serious accidents involving head injuries over the course of a 2 to 5 year trial. These would be bound to raise the question of whether or not a helmet might’ve been beneficial. Such controversy could undermine Council’s objective even if there’s a big increase in cycling.

Of course it’s essential that any trial is properly evaluated. It should be subject to a very careful longitudinal study that commences well before the temporary exemption from the law is introduced.

It’s also vital the evaluation is seen as objective by all sides. It should be done by independent researchers, not organisations associated with either side of the debate (although in practice it seems virtually all of the current work is being done on the pro-repeal side). It doubtless goes with the territory, but advocacy poisons objectivity.

The evaluation should take care to avoid the common assumption that those who are deterred from riding by helmets are sitting on their bums getting fat and diabetic. I don’t buy that – I think it’s reasonable to assume people who would cycle but for the law would likely be performing some other form of exercise.

A very interesting and pertinent question is just what level of change would be required to convincingly persuade either side that they’re right. Would a 10% p.a. increase be enough (or not enough)? Would 25%? Or based on claims about the reduction in the level of cycling following the introduction of the law in the early 90s, would around 40% be required before anyone sat up and took notice?

From the Government’s point of view the easy decision would be to do nothing, so I expect there’d have to be a pretty marked uptake in cycling before the Government would agree to repeal the law. Unfortunately though, I don’t expect the trial to happen. Looks like a political stunt by Council. They’re an innovative lot in the West though, so never say never….