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Australia’s biggest cycling organisation considering u-turn on support for compulsory helmet laws

The Bicycle Network is canvassing views on the issue – but doesn’t want the debate to descend into “a wild brawl”

Australia’s largest cycling organisation is considering changing its stance on cycle helmets, under which it currently endorses legislation that makes it mandatory for riders to wear one.

Craig Richards, CEO of The Bicycle Network which has more than 50,000 members, said that while the charity was not seeking to pre-empt the outcome of a review it is undertaking of its position, it believes the time has come for a debate on the issue.

However, writing on the organisation’s website, he acknowledged that there was a risk of discussion over the “emotive” issue descending into “a wild brawl.”

“What I hate most about the mandatory helmet debate is that it’s hard to have the debate,” he said.

“Yes, emotion should be part of any argument. Decisions are made with both the heart and the head.

“But when emotions spiral out of control, what should be a thought-provoking debate soon becomes a wild brawl.”

After citing instances in which, due to his post as head of the organization, he had been criticised by both supporters and opponents of compulsory helmet laws, he continued: “The sad reality is that when people can’t accept that reasonable minds differ, important issues are avoided.

“The result is that we don’t question, investigate and analyse.”

He urged people on either side of the debate to hear the opposing point of view rather than dismissing it out of hand.

“If we’re ever to turn Australia into the nation of bike riders we all dream about, both sides need to be prepared to listen to what the other side has to say,” he explained.

“As with all policies, we should regularly ask ourselves, ‘Have we got it right?’

“It’s for this reason that Bicycle Network has decided to review its position as a supporter of mandatory helmets,” he continued.

“But let’s be clear: the fact we’re conducting a review is not preempting an outcome. We may conclude our current position is the best one. Or we may conclude it’s not.

“We understand reviewing mandatory helmets will get messy. We understand the risks and that we can’t please all of the people all of the time.

“But we’re a member-based organisation. We need to listen as well as lead. We need to be courageous, curious and open-minded. We need to constantly be looking for a way to wake Australia from its slumber and turn it into a nation of bike riders.

“So as we embark on the review … I would really appreciate one thing: a little patience.

“We understand like many people you’re probably passionate one way or the other about mandatory helmets,” Richards added.

“But please understand that reasonable minds can differ. And whether we stick to our current position or change it, like you, our aim is to do what’s best for bike riders.”

The bicycle network is undertaking a survey, open until 22 September, of members and other parties such as town planners, transport professionals and people in the medical profession to help it decide whether to change its position.

It said it hopes to finalise its review by April next year.

Australia introduced compulsory helmet legislation in 1990 with the laws implemented on a state-by-state basis and varying in their application and the penalties that apply for those found not wearing one.

In Northern Territory, for example, cyclists do not need to wear one when riding on a cycle path, but do need to comply with the law when they are on the road.

Critics of the law maintain that by making it compulsory to wear a helmet while cycling, people are deterred from riding a bike in the first place.

They also insist that any benefits of wearing a helmet – itself a topic that is fiercely contended – are outweighed by the impact mandatory helmet laws thereby have on wider public health at a time that Australia, in common with many other nations, is attempting to tackle issues such as lack of exercise and child obesity.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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