IN 46 years of bike riding, Sue Abbott has never worn a helmet. So when the highway patrol pulled her over in country Scone and fined her for a no-helmet offence, she decided to fight.
The 50-year old mother of four has never been in trouble with the law, has never fallen from her bike, and thought it ridiculous she could not ride at 15km/h on a dedicated cycleway with an uncovered head. A police video of the incident last year records the sergeant surmising ''it's a hair thing'', a view shared by many people when they first meet her.
But Ms Abbott says it's nothing to do with her exuberant hair. Her objections are based on her belief that wearing a helmet increases the risk of brain damage - and that forcing her to wear one is a breach of her civil liberties. When she tried that argument in the Scone local court, the magistrate would have none of it. He fined her $50 plus costs.
But when she appealed and laid out her view in the District Court in March, she went a long way to persuading the judge that, 19 years after the laws came into force, there is still no clear evidence of their benefit. Ms Abbott argued that if she fell from her bike while wearing a helmet she would be at greater risk of brain damage from ''diffuse external injury'', an injury similar to shaken baby syndrome, than if she fell on her bare head.
It may seem ridiculous to suggest helmets could do anything other than improve one's chances in an accident and reduce the number of brain injuries, but there is a serious debate under way on the subject in international medical and transport safety journals - and Judge Roy Ellis happily admitted his own doubts about the laws.
''Having read all the material, I think I would fall down on your side of the ledger,'' the judge told Ms Abbott after she had spelt out her case against the laws that exist in few countries other than Australia and New Zealand.
''I frankly don't think there is anything advantageous and there may well be a disadvantage in situations to have a helmet - and it seems to me that it's one of those areas where it ought to be a matter of choice.''
He found Ms Abbott had ''an honestly held and not unreasonable belief as to the danger associated with the use of a helmet by cyclists'', and quashed her conviction, although he still found her offence proven.
Now Scone police ignore Ms Abbott as she cycles to town, although one yelled at her ''you're not in Paris now'' - a remark which prompted her to send police a photograph of herself bareheaded on a bike on the Champs-Elysees marked ''Greetings from Paris''.
Ms Abbott's success in court delighted Bill Curnow of the Cyclists Rights Action Group. In several peer-reviewed publications he has argued there has been no reduction in brain injury levels due to helmet laws.
Why force cyclists to wear helmets when politicians ignored a 1998 report from the Federal Office of Road Safety that showed brain injury rates among motorists would be cut by up to 25 per cent, even where airbags were fitted, if drivers wore bicycle helmets, he said.
Associate Professor Chris Rissel and his colleague Dr Alexander Voukelatos of the University of Sydney's school of public health fuelled debate on the issue with a recent paper saying we would be better off without the laws.
Ms Abbott said ''I should be entitled to make this call about whether I can wear a helmet."
''You can still smoke, we are eating and drinking ourselves into early graves, but you can't ride a bicycle without a helmet,'' she said.
SUE ABBOTT told the court a helmet can ''increase angular acceleration which an oblique impulse imparts to the head, increasing the risk of damage to the brain, especially diffuse axonal injury''.
In other words, the helmet grips the road, twisting the head more quickly than if the skull were unprotected.
Evidence from Bill Curnow cited a report from the National Health and Medical Research Council that warns ''the wearing of helmets may result in greater rotational forces and increased diffuse brain injury''.
A new research article documents the rate of head injuries among cyclists from 1988 to 2008. It concludes that: “It is likely that factors other than the mandatory helmet legislation reduced head injuries among cyclists.”
The article was published in the Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety
The main reasons that mandatory helmet legislation is a problem are:
- There is minimal evidence of helmet legislation actually reducing cyclist head injuries
- It reduces the number of people cycling, making it less safe for the remaining cyclists (the well known safety in numbers phenomena)
- It inhibits spontaneous riding (eg just hopping on a bike for a short ride), and is a massive problem for public bike hire schemes
- It adds to the image of cycling as a “dangerous” activity
- It is a victim-blaming approach (the vulnerable road user has to wear protection…) if it does not also address the road environment and behaviours and attitudes of drivers
- Other factors are very much more important for cycling safety (eg cycling infrastructure, vehicle speed and driver behaviours)
Good ideas tend to travel. Australia and New Zealand are still the only two countries in the world with mandatory helmet legislation for adults. If it was such a good idea why hasn’t everyone else done it? Mexico and Israel have recently repealed their bicycle helmet laws, largely because of the difficulties mandatory helmets create for public bicycle rent schemes. If people want to wear a helmet, they should. If someone wants to go down the street to get some milk, or go on a social ride with friends, they should have the choice about wearing a helmet. Anti-helmet legislation advocacy is about choice.
The complaints and debate about helmet legislation have not gone away because there is no clear evidence that helmet legislation achieved the desired reduction in head injuries that it should have. Helmets may offer some minor protection in some circumstances, but the negatives far outweigh any positives. I think there needs to be a research study where the legislation is repealed in one jurisdiction (say Newcastle, or Wollongong) and the effects carefully studied over a couple of years.
This would add some valuable evidence to this whole issue.”