Should he be alive today, H.G. Wells may have discovered cycling utopia in Amsterdam or Copenhagen, but certainly not in Oz, writes Anthony Tan.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:36 PM

"When I see an adult on a bicycle, I do not despair for the future of the human race," is arguably the most oft-used quote in cycling circles.

But famed English author Herbert George Wells also said: "Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia."

It's timely that my colleague Mike Tomalaris wrote his blog, Time to think about some exemptions, because the topic of commuter-based cycling has been awarded an atypical amount of mainstream press of late.

A few weeks ago, two Sydney University researchers from their school of public health claimed Australian law would be better off without mandatory helmet regulation, which applies only here and in New Zealand.

"I'd recommend a trial repeal [of the helmet law] in one city for two years to allow researchers to make observations and see if there's an increase in head injuries, and on the basis of that you could come to some informed policy decision," said Chris Rissel, one of the researchers.

Rissel, like Tomo suggested in his blog, said although helmets protect heads, they also discourage causal cycling – be it commuting to work, freewheeling to the shops for your paper and milk, or returning from your local, having spent the money set aside for a cab, train or bus home on beer.

He proposed the drop in head injuries in cycling was probably due to improvements in road safety, such as random breath testing, and most of the decrease in head injury rates occurred before the compulsory helmet laws came into force (which happened in 1991). Having more cyclists on the roads, argued Rissel, would lead to better awareness by motorists.

There are a number of holes in the academics' research and proposal to repeal this law, however.

For me, the most striking omission is that the study did not account for those who failed to go to hospital because an Australian Standards-approved helmet protected their noggin, and that person rode off with a few minor grazes or mild concussion.

As far as I'm aware, the research has not stood up to sufficient scrutiny to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Also, there were no numbers on exactly how many more potential cyclists would take to our roads if the mandatory helmet law were to be scrapped.

Earlier this year, watching a documentary on the cycle-friendly city of Copenhagen, a female commuter said if there was a compulsory law to wear helmets, she most likely wouldn't ride her bike to work. It would muck up her hair, said the fetching blond.

Okay, fair enough in a city that has a bike-friendly culture, and like Amsterdam, dedicated cycle paths all over the place.

But Australia, for the most part, has failed to take appropriate steps to improve the safety and convenience of riding, on either a commuter or athletic level. And even though bike sales outnumber car sales and have done so for some years, the sheer number of cars and the plethora narrow street roads they travel on – which cyclists boldly attempt to share when there is no bike lane/dedicated path – almost always – presents a perennial grave concern.

Due to this dire lack of cycling infrastructure, until steps are taken to remedy it, we should not think about differentiating between helmet/no helmet use in our metropolitan capitals.

More cyclists in urbanised traffic would likely make motorists more aware, and could go some way to reducing obesity, hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and the like. However, this should certainly not come at the expense of a child or adult's life, which, in event of an accident, the helmet in many cases protects.

There may be insufficient proof to unequivocally prove its benefit – there's even evidence to suggest "the wearing of helmets may result in greater rotational forces and increased diffuse brain injury," according to a report from the National Health and Medical Research council.

But for me, as a son of a mother who has spent 40 years working in public hospital wards, the best evidence comes from the emergency department. As emergency specialists, Drs Richard Cracknell and Katie Mclean, recently noted: "It is not hard to understand the devastating effect if these forces [from bike collisions] were transmitted directly to the head. We are in no doubt that helmets save heads and lives."