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Helmet laws deter cycling
Bikes in a Copenhagen shopping precinct. Picture: Brad Petitt

Compulsory bike helmets have divided cycling advocates all over the world.

But there is no doubt that countries and cities with the highest rates of cycling participation do not require cyclists to wear helmets at all times.

Opponents of the laws say they act as a deterrent and the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risk of head injuries. They say separating cyclists from other road users - with dedicated bike paths - is a far more efficient way to reduce serious accidents.

Supporters say that since their introduction in Australia in the 1990s, the laws have significantly reduced head and brain injuries among cyclists in road accidents.

A Queensland review of laws found a 63-88 per cent cut in the risk of head injuries for cyclists of all ages. This year, one of the world's most respected pro-cycling lobbyists said the number of cyclists in WA would treble if helmets were not compulsory.

"Helmets are a disincentive to riding, there is no doubt about that," European Cyclists Federation president Manfred Neun said at the International Transport Forum in Leipzig, Germany. "And if people aren't riding, they aren't enjoying the many health benefits associated with this pastime."

Mr Neun, who has campaigned worldwide for improved cycling conditions for more than 30 years, said politicians and health organisations supported laws because they thought they improved safety.

But he said the truth was far more complex. "Wearing a helmet creates the image of cycling being an abnormally dangerous physical activity," he said. "While this may be the case for cycling as sports, it is not necessarily so for cycling as a daily means of transportation.

"Statistics show the more cyclists on the road, the safer it is actually to cycle. Car drivers are more used to the presence of cyclists."

His comments prompted Fremantle mayor Brad Pettitt and Fremantle MP Adele Carles to call for the port city to be declared helmet-free, a move rejected by the Barnett Government. Supporters of helmet laws say the facts speak for themselves. In a study of hospital admissions in NSW, researchers found cycling-related head injuries fell 29 per cent immediately after helmets were made compulsory.

"Bicycles are inherently unstable and cyclists will still crash on cycleways and other off-road environments," the researchers said.

"In any cycling crash, wearing a helmet properly protects the most important part of the body."

Cycling has become an important transport option in many cities, especially in Europe. Some of those cities, 30 years ago, were as heavily dependent on cars as Perth.

Groningen in the Netherlands was one such city and is now seen by many as the world's bike utopia.

By providing top-class infrastructure and amenities, prioritising bike traffic over cars and promoting cycling as the main mode of transport, planners and local authorities have created a network where two in three journeys around the city are made by bike. The city centre is almost car-free and it is now quicker to ride to work or school than drive.

But in the 1960s, the car was king in Groningen. New roads and highways were built - sometimes to replace footpaths - as suburbia sprawled. In 1972, local authorities changed the emphasis of urban planning to make the city centre the "living room" of the people. A traffic circulation plan meant the inner city was closed to cars and some areas were only accessible by walking, cycling or public transport. There was a big increase in bike use, which spurred a major expansion of the bike network.

So does Perth look to Groningen for inspiration? Or Copenhagen in Denmark? Or Leipzig in Germany?

All have transformed their cities into cycling meccas, reducing congestion and pollution and improving their urban mix.