A Sorry Cycling Tale from Western Oz

      by Chris Gillham

      Chris Gillham is a radio and print journalist based in Perth, Western Australia. He has been analyzing cyclist counts and accident data covering a period of over twenty years to 1998 from the State of Western Australia (WA) in an effort to determine the effect of mandated bicycle helmet legislation on cycling and cyclists. (WA's helmet law was introduced on June 1, 1992 in the middle of Australia's winter, and applies to adult and child cyclists. WA has a population of 1.8m and the capital city of Perth has a population of 1.2m.) The source data was retrieved from files maintained by Main Roads WA, the state government roads department. Chris has sent us a lot of information and some of the findings from his work among which is this preliminary overview of a report he is preparing.

      Note that the "Causeway" and the "Narrows" referenced below are the two major entry/exit points to Perth. These are the major spots where the Main Roads WA has done its cyclist head count surveys for the past decade.


       Detailed analysis of government figures shows that compulsory bicycle helmet legislation has decimated cycling as a recreation pursuit since 1992, yet cyclist injuries are now at their highest level in WA history.

       The latest statistics show a total of 738 cyclists were hospitalised in 1997, when 20% of seriously injured road users were cyclists. The previous admissions record was 735 in 1991. However, Main Roads WA figures show there are still between 10% and 20% less people (approx 100,000 cyclists) riding bicycles in Perth than in 1991 - the year before the helmet law was introduced.

       Surveys conducted on the Narrows and the Causeway show that during the 8 months prior to enforcement of the legislation on June 1 1992, the monthly averages of daytime trips across these two bridges added up to 17,180 cyclists. During the eight months to June 1 1998, they added up to approximately 14,600 cyclists. This equates to a 15% reduction in cyclist numbers, despite an increase in Perth’s population of more than 140,000 people since 1991.

       If this 10% population increase is factored into the decline, it can be estimated that between 20-30% less people are riding bicycles now compared to 1991 - that is, almost one out of every four cyclists has stopped riding because of the legislation.

      Other findings at the same locations include:

       * The number of cyclists on the Narrows fell from an average 1200 per day in 91/92 to 1028 in 92/93, 700 per day in 95/96 (-42%), 866 in 96/97, and 962 in 97/98. This means there were approximately 20% less cyclists on the Narrows in 97/98 compared to 91/92.

       * Four day comparisons conducted by Main Roads WA in Oct 91 and Oct 92 showed a 37% reduction in cyclists on the Narrows and Causeway combined. Sunday cycling was down by 57%.

       * Between Sept 83 and Dec 89, Perth enjoyed a 10% annual growth in personal bicycle trips. By 1994 and as a direct consequence of the helmet laws, the total number of cyclists had fallen by almost 50%.

       * Between Oct 91 and July 92, there were an average 997 cyclists on the Causeway every day. In the same months of the 97/98 financial year, the average had recovered to 869 - still 13% less than in 91/92.

       * In Dec 91, 10,596 bikes were counted on the Causeway on weekends; Dec 92 - 6719; Dec 93 - 5295; Dec 94 - 4564. This was down from a mean daily count of 1177 in Dec 91 to a mean of 507 in Dec 94... a reduction of approximately 57%.

       * In Dec 91, 11,406 bikes were counted on the Narrows on weekends; Dec 92 - 4526; Dec 93 - 6507; Dec 94 - 6863. This is down from a mean daily count of 1267 in Dec 1991 to a mean of 762 in Dec 94... a reduction of approximately 40%.

       * In Dec 91, 33,828 bikes were counted on the Causeway on all days; Dec 92 - 26,227; Dec 93 - 22,772; Dec 94 - 18,101; Dec 97 (the worst cyclist injury year in WA history) - 24,856. This is down from a mean daily count of 1091 in Dec 91 to a mean of 801 in Dec 97... a reduction of approximately 27%.

       * In Dec 91, 35,122 bikes were counted on the Narrows on all days; Dec 92 - 20,581; Dec 93 - 29,506; Dec 94 - 27,216; Dec 97 - 32,408. This is down from a mean daily count of 1132 in Dec 91 to a mean of 1045 in Dec 97... a reduction of approximately 8%.

       * During the 9 months counted on the Causeway during 1998, an average 761 cyclists were recorded each day. In 1992, it was 795. In the final three months of 1991, it was 1079.

       * During the 10 months counted on the Narrows during 1998, an average 983 cyclists rode each day. In 1992, it was 996. In the final 3 months of 1991 it was 1218. Surveys began in Oct 91 and a three month comparison may be influenced by seasonal cycling influences.

       Timescale figures for other metro sites are scarce. However, a survey on Mitchell Freeway north of Powis St in November 1991 showed an average 179 cyclists per workday. A survey on the freeway at the nearby Scarborough Beach Rd crossing in November 98 showed an average of 79.

       Surveys in October 1991 at the freeway site showed the workday averages at 202, 230, 207 and 226 cyclists. The average for October 1998 was 61 per day.

       The northern railway opening and freeway widening may influence these figures, but they suggest cyclist numbers have been cut to a third since the helmet law was introduced, despite massive population growth in the northern suburbs.

       In 1993, the year after helmets became compulsory, total recorded cyclist injuries almost doubled, partly due to improved hospital coding, and have since been rising steadily to achieve their 1997 record.

       Total cyclist head injury figures were higher in 1995 and 1996 than during any year before the law was introduced, an exception being 1988, and the proportion of upper body injuries almost doubled between 1988 and 1996.

       Cyclist fatalities and injuries recorded by police in 1997 show 112 were male and just 10 were female, adding to anecdotal evidence that women in particular are dissuaded from cycling because of helmets.

       Police statistics also show a marginally higher proportion of helmet wearing crash victims required hospital treatment, compared to those not wearing a helmet.

       Various factors explain the increase in injuries, which add to the health/pollution consequences of having fewer cyclists. These factors include greater risk-taking when wearing a helmet, an increase in surface area likely to make impact, and greater brain injury through the added rotational force of the helmet - particularly soft tops which grip the road surface.

       If laws are judged by their results, this evidence strongly suggests the government’s punitive engineering of individual behaviour is an insult to both the democratic rights and the well-being of its citizens, and has done little but diminish society’s respect for the very concept of law.

      Visit Chris Gillham's web site for more details.

December 1999
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