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If you’re riding a bike in Australia, you probably don’t think too much about the helmet that’s strapped to your head. Maybe the helmet straps flap a bit in the breeze, or there’s a little too much pressure on the forehead, but in the broad scheme of it all your helmet probably goes unnoticed. You bought it at a shop, you wear it on your head, and the little stickers and labels on the foam inside might as well be in another language.
But there are a lot of people that are thinking about your helmet, and thinking about it deeply. Industry groups, governments, importers, manufacturers. For years, they’ve been wrestling with knotty questions around regulation and compliance, and now, they’re close to finding some answers. Maybe.
Australia’s relationship with bike helmets is an international outlier, both in the fact that they are mandatory here (a usage law) and that they require compliance to a specific Australia-only standard (a sales law).
In the interests of comment section harmony we’ll ignore the first one, and focus on the second one – which means that the tiny market of Australia tests differently to the rest of the world, using a mandatory Australian Standard (AS/NZS 2063:2008) – whereas globally there are 10 different helmet standards that seem to work just fine, most notably CPSC (US, among others, including China and Japan), or EN-1078 (most of Europe).
So what’s changing now?
Far from standard
Our tangled journey today begins back in November 2016, when the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) – a federal government department – released a working paper outlining its plans to review the Australian helmet standard. Bicycle Industries Australia (BIA) – a body representing the interests of the local cycling retail industry – responded that they would favour a move to an open market, adopting respected international standards.
That review was meant to take 12 months, but has never been completed. “We’re six years into that 12-month review,” the BIA’s general manager, Peter Bourke, told me with a wry chuckle.
Through much of that period, a separate consultation process was underway – to determine whether Australia should adopt a new Australian Standard for helmets. More working groups, more stakeholders, more careful consideration.
Meanwhile, in February 2022, the federal government of Australia – then a Liberal government, now not – released a working paper of its own supporting the deregulation of over 50 products across multiple industries. One of those was bike helmets; others relevant to our interests here were sports glasses and bikes.
Again, the bike industry, in broad strokes, supported the deregulation of the market to recognise respected international standards.
If you’re thinking all the stars are aligning, don’t be fooled – the Federal Government’s working paper has no influence on the ACCC review process (i.e. should we use the Australian Standard or something else?) or the Australian Standard consultation (i.e. should we update the 2008 Australian Standard itself?) – but it does indicate a governmental willingness to consider moving away from specific Australian testing.
But then the government changed, and nobody knows whether the new Federal Government will follow suit, even if the new Prime Minister rides a bamboo bike sometimes.
So that’s three independent processes underway, just for bike helmets, which seems a tangled enough web for us to be getting on with.
Another twist: on Tuesday 28 June, the ACCC entered the picture again. They announced they were conducting a review of the Australian helmet standard – which was presented as a whole new review, but was actually the same thing as the one from November 2016 with the same wording. A bureaucratic phoenix from the ashes.
Which means … more focus groups, more earnest discussion, more lobbying.
Bicycle Industries Australia currently works with more than 40 helmet importers and is in the process of inviting feedback from stakeholders, from which they will present a submission to the ACCC in mid-July.
There are two ways this could go:
- adopting four trusted international standards, so “the Mandatory Standard would reference each of these five standards in full, without amendments”, or
- walking away from a Mandatory Standard altogether “and instead relying on State and Territory road use laws which regulate which helmets can be legally used.”
It’s likely that the first option will prevail, but an open negotiation is underway and there are no foregone conclusions.
Following that, the ACCC will make a decision. Or could sit on it for another six years before starting from scratch all over again. It is, I think you’ll agree, quite a lot of fun either way.
What does that mean for you?
For now, not much. You’ll probably still buy a helmet from a shop, and not pay much attention to the stickers inside it. But there are some exciting possibilities in the future.
For the industry, there’s upside to adopting trusted international standards. It will reduce expenses for importers, as there will be no Australia-only batch requirements (which, as of 2014, required testing to the tune of AU$20,000+ for each size of each helmet, with no assurance beforehand that they’ll even pass – meanwhile, minimum order quantities also limit availability of different colours).
For consumers, it will open up access to a broader range of products – not just colours, sizes, and models, but also entire smaller brands that previously looked at Australia as a prohibitively expensive and bureaucratically complicated market.
But while that seems like a win, we’re not out of the woods yet … because even if helmet standards are deregulated, that is relevant only to their sale. They still won’t meet road laws in any of the states or territories in Australia, because the road laws mandate compliance to the Australian Standard, which is the thing that we’re talking about getting rid of in the first place.
Or, put another way, you’ll be able to buy a helmet but you won’t actually be able to legally use it.
In the eyes of the law …
It’s unlikely that there’s much enforcement of the use of Australian Standard-compliant helmets – either now, or after (/if) the ACCC completes its review. That is, you’re almost certainly not going to be pulled over by police if you’re riding in a EN-1078-compliant helmet, even if in the eyes of the law, your use of that helmet is seen as the same offence as not wearing a helmet at all.
But it is an insurance risk, where an insurer could theoretically use a non-compliant helmet as an excuse for walking away from a payout. Indeed, CyclingTips is aware of examples of insurers requesting helmets and bikes for inspection in the event of a crash – and although those products turned out to be Australian Standards-compliant and didn’t affect a claim, it does underscore that there is a loophole that could be exploited.
Now that road laws come into the picture, however, there’s another layer of complication to the whole helmet review process – because regardless of what the ACCC says, every state and territory in Australia will need to update their own distinct road laws before any of the major helmet importers will actually be able to walk away from the Australian Standard.
And, Bourke explains, that won’t happen quickly: “it could be a one-, two-, or five-year process.”
The most recent relevant example is Western Australia’s arcane bike width law – reported on CyclingTips last month – which made most bikes in the state illegal (including, comically, the bikes of the WA Police force).
That was finally updated two weeks ago – after 18 months of lobbying, media attention, and political pressure in parliament – and in the grand scheme of things was an easy change, only needing a signature from a minister in one state of Australia.
Before there’s meaningful change on the helmet regulations, a process like that will need to take place eight times over, in six states and two territories – some receptive, some likely not. It will be a slog.
So where does that leave us? It’s unclear. Maybe you’ll soon be able to buy a cheaper helmet in the colour that you actually want. Or maybe, in a decade’s time, there’ll still be thoughtful consideration of the merits of a helmet standard that exists in Australia and Australia only.
Either way, you can’t say that there hasn’t been time spent on it.