My driver’s licence was suspended last November 2011 and my property seized in September 2012, all because I refused to pay into the Victims Compensation Levy for the Australian crime of riding a bicycle without a helmet.
Two weeks ago, after a quick cuppa in the garden with me and the family dogs and cat, the Sheriff seized two of my family bicycles out of the shed and took them away in his car. Quite surreal!!
So how did I get to this “no bicycle helmet, no car licence” point? How did I get to become a serial blogger?
It all started half a century ago on the back of my parents’ bikes when I was a baby in Holland. By the time we reached England and Cyprus, my trainer wheels had come off, and I’ve been pretty much cycling ever since throughout Europe, Canada, the US, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, Japan and Australia.
As my own little family grew, I cycled with all four children as babies on the back of my bikes, moving the older ones onto their own bicycles as each new baby arrived. Today they continue to cycle, and rarely use a car.
So I think I can lay claim to being an experienced user of a bicycle and also to knowing a thing or two about them. But I am a conscientious objector to Australia’s bicycle helmet laws and it’s this position that has got me into trouble with the Australian authorities.[ii]
To be quite candid, I have always felt that helmets were a commercial reality that never earned the protection claimed by their hype. I first became aware of the potential danger of them when my first child was born in 1985. Medical opinion at the time (my husband’s included) warned that infants under 12 months should not wear one because of the extreme modifications helmets created for their unformed heads. The nature of helmet modification was believed to significantly increase the risk of brain damage to the young and fragile brain. As a result I decided that helmet wearing[iii] ought to be a matter of informed consent or informed refusal – I chose the latter.
But Australian law requires all people sitting on bicycles, whether stationary or moving, to wear an approved bicycle helmet. This is determined by state regulation and has been part of Australian law since 1991. If you ride a bicycle without a helmet in Australia there is a good chance you will be stopped by the police and issued with an infringement notice. In New South Wales where I live the resulting fine for contravening Regulation 256 (Road Rules) is less than $60, and most people who receive such notices tend to just pay them.
Not me. I go to court, and here’s why.
For the past 20 years academics across the globe have not been able to agree on the merits of helmets or helmet laws, and this ‘academic ping-pong’[iv] funded by our taxes has left many questions unanswered. The lack of conclusive evidence for mandatory helmet laws has allowed anecdotal evidence to dictate our current cycling reality rather than science.
Thus the much pedalled notion that bicycle helmet laws have made cycling safer is not only superficially plausible, but also deeply misleading.[v]
It became clear to me early on that helmet laws were arguably one of the best marketing tactics ever – wouldn’t we all love our products to be mandated for?
In March 2009 I was booked by highway patrol officers in Scone for not wearing a bicycle helmet while riding a bicycle.
Helmet law was about to create an impact on my life that I would never have thought feasible when I first migrated to Australia in 1982. Flashing red and blue lights, in-car police-camera plus instructions ‘to move away from the vehicle,’ left me feeling like the criminal I was to become after my matter was heard in the Scone Local Court.
Appalled at the severity of the local court sentence, I appealed in March 2010 to the NSW District Court where my 2009 criminal conviction was quashed.[vi] The judge found that I had “an honestly held and not unreasonable belief as to the danger associated with the use of a helmet by cyclists” and issued me with my first section 10 (1)(a) dismissal for the offence of riding a bicycle without a helmet.
A ‘Groundhog Day’ of sorts was to follow when I was booked again in February 2011, summonsed to the Scone & Muswellbrook Local Courts in July 2011, and then issued with a second section 10 (1)(a) dismissal (to the lawyers out there, contrary to your commonly held opinion you can get more than one!).
As I was simply riding a bicycle the first question that popped into mind was ‘who exactly was the victim?’ Appalled by the arbitrary tax nature of the levy, I commenced an active letter writing campaign with NSW Attorney General Greg Smith, flatly refused to pay the impost and subsequently had my driver’s licence suspended by his department.
My reasoning was that there was no victim as a result of my particular Australian crime. I felt that if I paid the levy as the Attorney General had demanded I would have conceded that I was responsible for the many victims who require assistance from the compensatory fund. I had caused no harm to anyone, yet the state took my driver’s licence away.
Why did the Attorney General refuse to waive the debt on compassionate grounds when it became patently obvious that the levy should never have applied to charges dismissed under s10(1)(a) of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999 (NSW)?
Why did he not grant me an exemption when his Coalition Government repealed the former Labor government’s procedurally unfair amendment of March 2011 soon after my court case anyway?
To me it says a lot about Australia’s definition of justice that the first tactic used to force my hand was to threaten the removal of car privileges even though I was a bicycle user. Moreover, it has revealed what a mockery their policy was that it dismissed my matter under section 10 (1)(a) on the one hand while simultaneously punishing me with an unfair levy on the other so that I became a victim of injustice myself.
Yet in a strange commercial twist, it will be the NSW government that will miss my driver’s licence the most. Think of the revenue they will lose if I never renew my licence again, or need insurance, petrol, oil, tyres, cars or any other motoring liability that incurs a tax.
But wait there’s more!
Not content with the suspension of my driver’s licence last November 2011, the Attorney General’s Department despatched the Sheriff of Muswellbrook to come to my home in Scone to seize property for auction to forcibly recoup the levy.
So the Sheriff came to my home two weeks ago, had a quick cuppa in the garden with me, seized two of my family bicycles and took them away. It sort of felt like I was lending them to a friend and they’d be back soon.
But I wasn’t, and they won’t, because the stark reality is that my elected representatives have seen fit to put me through the wringer in their unreasonable quest to ensure their unsubstantiated law is enforced and upheld.
Macquarie Street can keep their licence and their rego and their insurance and their motorways: they are nothing to me – I am car-free – and liberated – and being in a bicycle family like mine, there are plenty more bikes in the shed for riding!
I accept the taxpayer-funded ‘academic findings’ that head injuries went down after the introduction of mandatory helmet laws in 1991 but I do not accept the taxpayer-funded ‘academic omissions’ that fail to mention cycling rates went down even more than head injury rates.
You may be surprised to hear that no randomised controlled trials (the ‘ones’ necessary for Class 1 evidence to be deduced) have ever been done on the subject of bicycle helmet safety.
In fact the current data we have today comes from two main types of observational study: “time trend analyses” and “case control studies”. Most of the literature that mentions bicycle helmets and bicycle helmet promotion refers back to a small number of these studies rather than actually providing primary evidence. Even Dr Olivier’s 2011 study said they had to make assumptions as there wasn’t enough data on actual cyclists and injuries.
We should be concerned that our governments still will not countenance international consensus[vii] that bicycle helmet laws have left Australia bereft in terms of health, transport, congestion and the environment.[viii] Moreover the bias exhibited by ‘government willingness’ to assume that helmets are useful, even when the data is not there, displays an inexplicable commitment to helmets and bicycle helmet laws. Arguably “Big Helma thinking” has brainwashed our governments and society into believing that bicycle helmets are the first and last words on bicycle safety. The hoped-for community benefits from mandatory bicycle helmet laws have been considerably outweighed by the actual losses incurred by the community.[ix]
But despite this our politicians stubbornly cling to anecdotal notions that helmets save lives and protect cyclists.
To me, as a reasonably intelligent and legally trained Australian citizen, capable of gathering and disseminating evidence, such a position looks flimsy at best, and confirms my opinion that in light of the current scientific dispute, governments should leave the ‘helmet-wearing’ decision to me.[x]
The commercial devotion to regulation 256 is nothing more than a triumph of political expediency over judgment and good sense. Unquestioning political loyalty to bicycle helmets has spawned a general acceptance of fatuous helmet-protecting dogma that has been held together by a belief in superior protective capabilities of helmets, coupled with the ‘danger-mongering’ of cycling.
Inexplicably we have completely lost any critical powers to be able to disseminate helmet information for what it actually is – helmet promotion.
I am not arguing against helmets per se; I am arguing against being forced to wear one for no good reason whatsoever. The only thing we can categorically say a helmet protects us from is a fine.
It is an infringement of my civil liberties and one that I am not prepared to let ‘through to the keeper’. We should never allow our civil liberties to be traded and diminished for commercial gain – they are always worth fighting for – always.
Primarily the bicycle helmet law lobby is just a marketing organisation pushing their ‘leading’ product ‘FEAR’ despite peer-reviewed findings from many public health experts[xi] declaring ‘FEAR’ to be a demonstrably false protection strategy. What can be deduced from the academic uncertainty is that bicycle helmet laws are still in scientific dispute, which automatically exposes the claims of helmet promoters to be unsubstantiated and unfounded
But what I find hardest to fathom is why Australians have lapped up these absurd ‘promises’ of illusionary safety ‘hook, line & sinker’. Why are we not appalled by the flimsiness of bicycle helmet laws? Why do we want to be compelled to wear plastic covered foam on the whim of the bicycle helmet-lobby-juggernaut?
The helmet-will-save-me paradigm is exclusive and unfounded. It ought to leave us cold and all the more determined to shift it into an inclusive universal bicycling paradigm without the spin.
So dust your bikes off, everyone, and stay tuned…because many of us here in Australia are intending that a chic cycling culture[xii] will be coming to a town near you very soon!!!
[ii] Are laws requiring cyclists to wear helmets bad for our health? – the article I wrote for “Croakey” (Crikey’s Health Blog), concerning this vexed and very Australian issue of mandatory helmet laws. Predictably, there was a flurry of comments raising implausible claims of protection afforded by helmets such as the one following – gold!: “…I could take you to ED and you could see the cyclists brought in by ambulance after a truck or a car has run over someone’s head.” (…so a bicycle helmet would protect me from a truck running over my head? – no kidding!!!!)
[iv] Pedal pushers blame roads, helmets for their fall – Sydney Morning Herald article discussing Professor Chris Rissel’s study on the smaller proportion of Australians riding bikes compared with the 1980s.
[v] Putting a lid on the debate: mandatory helmet laws reduce head injuries – academic ping-pong *sigh* who to believe?
[vi] Submission to Parliamentary Inquiry into Vulnerable Road Users – my submission as a ‘Private Citizen’ submitted in August 2010 with the submissions I relied upon In the NSW District Court
[vii] “Ask me why I cycle without a helmet” – this paper from the European Cyclist Federation clinically outlines the perils of portraying cycling as far more dangerous than it is, and the notion that bicycle helmets offer far more protection than they actually do, advising that governments ought ‘to refrain from promoting or enforcing helmet wearing without sound evidence that this would be beneficial and cost effective compared to other safety initiatives.’
[viii] Assessment of Australia’s Bicycle Helmet Laws – prepared by Colin Clark and published by Civil Liberties Australia in 2008, this paper outlines the negative impact MHLs had not only on cycling activity but on our health and the environment, in addition to the extra burden of resources for law enforcement.
[ix] Helmet laws, numbers of cyclists and accident rates – “…the large increase in bicycle helmet-wearing rates since Mandatory Helmet Laws (MHLs) were enacted (circa early 1990s) has not resulted in reduced head injury rates – in fact head injury rates have increased relative to the amount of cycling
- cyclists do better when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles
- deaths of cyclists have increased since the introduction of helmets
- attendant safety campaigns destroyed cycling participation, compromised public health, increased risks on the roads, and decreased road skills for all concerned.
[xi] The Health Impacts of Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws – Professor Piet de Jong’s paper from Macquarie University asking the question whether mandatory bicycle helmet laws have delivered a net societal health benefit