Brief history of helmet law in Australia

Following the precedent of helmets for motorcyclists, opinion unsupported by scientific evidence developed that cyclists, especially children, need more protection and that helmets could provide it. In 1978, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Road Safety recommended that “cyclists be advised of the safety benefits of protective helmets and the possibility of requiring cyclists to wear helmets be kept under review”. But the evidence submitted to the Committee as published in Hansard includes nothing on the efficacy of helmets as protection. Indeed, in the reports of later parliamentary committees that led to the present policy the earliest study cited, by McDermott and Klug, is dated 1982.

The Government responded with a campaign to promote helmet wearing. In Victoria, the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS) did likewise, even putting a case for compulsory wearing to the Premier in 1982.

The 1978 inquiry was unfinished, but the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Transport Safety continued it and issued a final report on motorcycle and bicycle helmet safety in 1985. It recommended in 1985 that co-operation of states and territories should be sought to “review the benefits of bicycle helmet wearing … and unless there are persuasive arguments to the contrary introduce compulsory wearing of helmets by cyclists on roads and other public places”.

The 1985 committee assumed from the start, to quote its chairman, “that all cyclists should wear a helmet to increase cycling safety both on and off the roads”. By contrast, the Victorian Government’s submission to that committee said, quote:

“The incidence of bicycle helmet use has not yet reached a sufficiently high level anywhere in the world for a scientific examination of helmet effectiveness in injury reduction to be undertaken.”

Despite flimsy evidence of efficacy, the committee recommended that the states and territories should introduce compulsory wearing of helmets by cyclists on roads and other public places.

The Victorian Parliament’s Social Development Committee (SDC) adopted a RACS recommendation for compulsory wearing, and legislation to take effect in 1990 was announced. In New South Wales, a parliamentary committee in 1988 called for “firm plans in regard to compulsory helmet wearing”, and Prime Minister Hawke announced it in 1989 as a condition of providing funds to the states and territories for eliminating so-called “black spots” in roads. In response, they passed the world’s first laws to compel cyclists to wear helmets.

According to Senator Peter Walsh, reported in the Australian Left Review of April 1992, the black spots component of road investment – of which compulsory helmets is a part – had not been evaluated properly, and the original policy was driven by opinion polls.

A response by the ACT Department of Urban Services to the FOI request of January 1992 by the Cyclists’ Rights Action Group, shows that the only issue which the Department raised in advising the ACT Government on the Prime Minister’s offer was the difficulty of policing the law off-road. The Department’s response to CRAG’s FOI request of 4 October 1994 shows that it held no documents containing any study or advice to the ACT Government on two important matters concerning a helmets law. These are:

(1) intrusion into the private domain of protection of one’s own person, infringing civil liberties; and

(2) unfairly discriminating against cyclists compared to other road users.

On a third important matter, efficacy of helmet wearing in protecting cyclists from injury, the Department held only one document, a 3-page paper entitled “The road safety benefits of the compulsory use of bicycle helmets”, which it obtained from the Federal Office of Road Safety on 9 March 1992. The treatment in this paper is only superficial and the research findings it cites are inconclusive.

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