Australia’s mandatory helmet laws have become an exercise in revenue gouging and have also provided a flimsy pretext for police to stop and search people, according to researchers.
Writing in The Conversation about ongoing research, Julia Quilter, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Wollongong and Russell Hogg, Adjunct Professor at the School of Justice at Queensland University of Technology, argue that mandatory helmet laws "have become a tool of disproportionate penalties and aggressive policing".
In 1991 Australia became the first country to require cyclists to wear helmets. The law remains contentious with campaigners who regularly undertaking protest rides and argue that it discourages cycling.
Fines have also risen considerably in some areas. In New South Wales (NSW) the offence once carried a fine of A$73, but in March 2016 this was increased by 445% to A$325.
A year later, we reported how the change had also coincided with a sharp rise in the numbers being fined. Failure to wear a cycling helmet is currently the most-commonly issued on-the-spot fine in the state.
The fine is out of step with penalties for other, more serious offences, argue Quilter and Hogg. “In NSW, only when car drivers exceed the speed limit by more than 20km/h does the fine exceed the A$344 for failing to wear a helmet.
“A person who drives in a dedicated bicycle lane faces a A$191 penalty. A cyclist will be slugged almost twice as much for riding in that same lane without a helmet.”
The fines are “a terrific little earner” for the NSW government, they say. “From 2016-2019, 17,560 penalty notices worth almost A$6 million were issued to cyclists. Over the same period only 95 fines were handed out to drivers for unsafe passing.”
Quilter and Hogg also point to geographical disparities in the number of penalty notices issued within the state with fines overwhelmingly concentrated in poorer neighbourhoods.
“Local helmet-wearing behaviours could explain some of the disparity,” they write. “However, the stories we are hearing from lawyers around the state suggest something much more troubling is at play.
“Our interviews reveal the helmet laws are being used for purposes unrelated to safety. These include gathering intelligence about offences and suspects, justifying searches and harassing targeted individuals – particularly young Aboriginal people.
“Sometimes this involves multiple penalty notices for failing to wear a helmet, including where a child rides both to and from school on the same day.”
Quilter and Hogg believe that if the real objective is cyclist safety, then police procedures should require officers to issue cautions rather than penalty notices for initial breaches.
“The penalty for riding without a helmet is now ludicrously excessive. Proportionality between penalty and offence has been lost. The goal is meant to be harm reduction. Piling on the fines does more harm than good.”