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Melbourne to trial free helmets in bid to revive flagging bike-share scheme

Australia's compulsory helmet laws thwart take-up of cycle hire programme...

Victoria’s state government is to trial the provision of free helmets for users of Melbourne’s bicycle sharing scheme due to concerns that Australia’s compulsory helmet laws have been holding back usage levels ever since the scheme was introduced in 2010.

The provision of free helmets, which will be placed on the handlebars of 200 bikes, around one in three of the fleet, mirrors a successful trial undertaken in Brisbane, home to Australia’s other major municipal bike-share programme, where bikes with a helmet are three times as likely to be hired as ones without, reports The Age.

According to Victoria’s Public Transport Minister, Terry Mulder, some 137,000 journeys were made on the bikes during 2012. While that reflects an increase of a little over a third on the previous year’s levels, it still equates to each bike only being used on average around twice every three days.

"The big hitch from day one was the issue with helmets," he admitted. "It really wasn't given enough consideration when the programme was put into place in Victoria.

"That caused the system to be very slow in terms of uptake. We'd like to think we'd get to a point where we would break even, if possible."

According to The Age, the programme is costing the state $5 million (£3.4 million) over three years plus an additional $50,000 a month (£34,400) in helmet subsidies – users either bring their own helmets, or can buy a subsidised one from convenience stores for $5; even so, that figure for the monthly subsidy sounds very high, given usage levels.

The provision of free helmets also raises issues regarding potential theft, as well as health – last year we reported on the aunt of a teenage boy in Brisbane whom she claimed had contracted head lice after using a shared helmet.

Mulder claims that there would be no such health issues with the Melbourne scheme’s free helmets, which he insists would be cleaned regularly, and that theft was not a significant concern, citing a figure of 10 per cent of helmets in Brisbane having been stolen.

While the Melbourne scheme continues to lose money, he also insists there are no plans for it to be scrapped, and despite The Age pointing out low levels of usage even in some high-profile city-centre locations, he adds that there are plans to expand it into the suburbs.

"There is no intention whatsoever to stop the scheme,” he said. “We just want to make sure we get the scheme working better than it is at the moment," he said.

"That would mean an increase in the number of stations, and increase in the number of helmets and increase in the number of bikes. Before we go down that pathway we want to see if there is a better way of dealing with the helmet issue. This trial will give us a very good indication," he added.

As articles here on regularly show, even among academics specialising in public health in Australia, opinion is divided over he benefits of the country's compulsory helmet laws, with some arguing that it reduces the incidence of head injuries among cyclists.

Others contest that finding and also point out that it has a negative impact on health by deterring people from undertaking a healthy form of exercise in the first place.

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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