Legal academics Julia Quilter and Russell Hogg have published the results of recent research they have undertaken, in an article in the June 2021volume of the University of New South Wales Law Journal. The topic is the policing of mandatory bike helmet laws in NSW.

Visitors to this site will be all too familiar with the unintended (though quite foreseeable) externalities attendant on bike helmet laws, and the many studies finding significant negative consequences for participation, safety and public health following the introduction of such laws. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first academic enquiry of its kind looking at the sorry tale of negative consequences in the context of the fixed penalty notice and criminal justice system.

The authors have combined hard data, such as enforcement rates in different local government areas, alongside interviews with both victims of this clumsy heavy-handed system, and their legal representatives. The result makes somewhat depressing reading, finding for example young people just starting out on adult life burdened with crippling debts of thousands of dollars, which they have no realistic prospect of ever paying: and this as a result of being drawn into the criminal justice system because they were picked up for riding their bikes without helmets.

If I have one quibble, it is that the authors appear to accept the public health benefit of helmet wearing rather too easily. In their defence, the efficacy of the law as a safety intervention was not their brief, and there is some effort to put the origins of the law in context of the thinking widely held at the time of its introduction. This acceptance does however limit their options when it comes to recommendations to right this sorry mess, as the most obvious solution is to scrap the law altogether.

I will not try to summarise the article in any detail, as this would detract from the fine grained detail of the research, which is one of its greatest strengths. Rather, let me quote from the final conclusion, in the hope that it will encourage you to read the full article. (see link below)

Tracking the emergence of the MHL offence in the 1980s and considering its administration in the present day, we have seen a long-term movement away from the original multi-faceted policy framework in which the offence was introduced to support an approach centred on education and public safety. Enforcement, at least in some localities, appears to have become an end in itself or, worse, an instrument to serve police ends unrelated to public safety……………. police discretion is likely to be exercised in widely varying ways across the state: perhaps in some places (it would appear) to overlook violations altogether, perhaps to caution and educate offenders, and perhaps (as in instances referred to above) to adopt proactive problem-solving approaches like supplying helmets to young people. We have concentrated on what we see as the highly problematic use (or misuse) of the MHL offence and some of its baleful consequences, especially for the vulnerable, including the poor, young and Aboriginal persons. It is essential that capricious and unjust enforcement practices and their consequences be exposed and combated and that greater attention is given to positive, alternative approaches to policing in the service of public safety.

This is an important paper. It serves as a stark reminder of the folly of jumping from the (dubious!) premise that wearing a helmet might be a sensible safety precaution to the conclusion that a law should be introduced requiring this. You simply cannot advocate for such a law without bearing full responsibility for all its consequences. This article should cause anyone still spruiking the benefits of such a law to hang their heads in shame.

If the link doesn’t work, here’s a PDF copy of the paper.

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