Referral and conduct of the inquiry
On 25 June 2015, the Senate referred an inquiry into personal choice and
community impacts to the Senate Economics References Committee (committee) for
inquiry and report by 13 June 2016.
The committee's terms of reference require it to report on:
The economic and social impact of legislation, policies or
Commonwealth guidelines, with particular reference to:
- the sale and use of tobacco,
tobacco products, nicotine products, and e-cigarettes, including any impact on
the health, enjoyment and finances of users and non-users;
- the sale and service of
alcohol, including any impact on crime and the health, enjoyment and finances
of drinkers and non-drinkers;
- the sale and use of
marijuana and associated products, including any impact on the health, enjoyment
and finances of users and non‑users;
- icycle helmet laws, including any
impact on the health, enjoyment and finances of cyclists and non-cyclists;
- the classification of
publications, films and computer games; and
- any other measures
introduced to restrict personal choice 'for the individual's own good'.
In accordance with usual process, the committee advertised the inquiry
on its website and wrote to relevant persons and organisations inviting
submissions to the inquiry.
To date, the committee has received 485 public submissions and two confidential
submissions. The public submissions can be found on the committee webpage.
The committee has held seven public hearings. At its first public
hearing, on 11 September 2015 in Canberra, the committee heard evidence on
decision making generally. At its second public hearing, on 3 November
2015, in Parramatta, the committee heard evidence on proposed restrictions on
the activities of fans of the Western Sydney Wanderers Football Club. At its
third public hearing, on 16 November 2015, in Melbourne, the committee heard
evidence on mandatory bicycle helmet laws, and at its fourth public hearing, on
20 November 2015, in Sydney, the committee heard evidence relating to the sale
and service of alcohol, with particular reference to NSW's 'lockout' laws. A
fifth public hearing in Sydney on 9 March 2016 focused on the sale and use of
tobacco and nicotine and e-cigarettes. The committee's sixth public hearing
considered the sale and use of marijuana on 11 March 2016 in Sydney. At its
seventh public hearing on 22 April 2016, in Canberra, the committee heard
evidence regarding the classification of publications, films and computer
This report focuses on the evidence in relation to the third public
hearing and respective term of reference (d) concerning bicycle helmet laws. The
witnesses who appeared at the bicycle helmet public hearing on 16 November 2015
are listed at Appendix 1. Additional information in relation to term of reference
(d) including questions taken on notice is at Appendix 2.
The committee thanks all those who have participated in the inquiry so
Bicycle helmets and the 'nanny' state
Mandatory bicycle helmet laws (MHL) were viewed by a considerable number
of submitters to the inquiry as a primary example of hard paternalism.
They argued that, while the individual should be able to manage the risks
involved in a bike ride, the personal choice of the individual to make such
judgements is constrained because their assessment of such risk is overridden
by the state.
These views were expressed by submitters such as Mr Ben Triefus who questioned
why Australia can't 'trust its citizens to assess their circumstances and make
that choice for themselves'.
Similarly, the view was expressed that:
If we need the law to protect us from ourselves, then what
does that say about ourselves? The helmet law is an insult to our civil
It was also suggested that the state can only justify interference in
the conduct of individual citizens when it is clear that doing so will prevent
a greater harm to others.
That is, the loss of individual freedom is justified on the grounds of improved
outcomes for society generally.
The argument was made that MHL breach a fundamental liberty to ride a bicycle
without prosecution because an 'individual's head poses no plausible threat to
the safety and wellbeing of others'.
For these reasons, MHL were recognised as an example of overregulation
in the name of safety at the cost of personal freedom.
Indeed, it was suggested to the committee that MHL are a 'text book example of
where the State overreaches itself in imposing norms of behaviour (in this case
a dress code) where the matter should be left to the individual'.
These views were reflected in many submissions to the inquiry. For
example, the Bicycle Transport Alliance argued that:
Compulsory helmet laws have not improved the safety of
cyclists. They are simply a continuation of the trend by Australian
governments, to get involved in the minutiae of citizens lives, progressively
eroding any sense of individual responsibility.
It is time to repeal the legislation and return the decision
to wear a helmet back to the person most affected, the cyclist.
Other related arguments included the view that the individual and
societal benefits of cycling (and cycling more often) outweigh the risks of not
wearing a helmet and, therefore, the health and social costs.
In this regard, the view was put that mandatory helmet laws have had a negative
impact on cycling participation rates in Australia as they deter people from
Furthermore, the evidence that MHL has achieved any meaningful reduction in the
rate of brain or head injury was questioned.
To this end, a considerable number of submitters to the inquiry questioned the
efficacy of bicycle helmets, arguing that they serve as a restraint on personal
choice and generate no tangible community benefit. These views were
encapsulated by Mr Chris Gillham who said:
The helmet laws are an acknowledged failure for personal
freedom and also a total failure for public health and from road safety after
However, in opposition, submitters in favour of MHL argued that the
advantages associated with helmets completely outweighed any disadvantages.
These views were expressed by Mr David Healy, Co Vice-President of the
Australasian College of Road Safety who considered MHL a population-based
Essentially that means that for a particular population, for
a minor inconvenience to many, you really save lives and reduce serious
injuries for a significant minority. It is for these reasons that we have shown
such progress. Random breath testing and compulsory seatbelt wearing are
examples, and, of course, mandatory wearing of bicycle helmets by cyclists is
an excellent example.
The following chapters consider the arguments for and against MHL.
In 1985, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Road Safety
expressed the belief that bicycle helmets would 'considerably reduce the
occurrence and severity of head injuries to cyclists'.
It noted that the mandatory use of helmets was the objective of several state
and territory governments.
In its final report, the committee recommended that the cooperation of the
states and territories be sought to 'review the benefits of bicycle helmet
wearing' and, unless there were persuasive arguments to the contrary,
'introduce compulsory wearing of helmets by cyclists on roads and other public
In 1989, compulsory helmet wearing was introduced as federal policy. A
mandatory standard was introduced under the Trade Practices Act 1974
that defined the helmets to be worn. Victoria was the first state in Australia
and first jurisdiction in the world to introduce bicycle helmet laws on 1 July
The purpose of the legislation was the reduction of both the number and
severity of head injuries through the increased use of bicycle helmets by all
New South Wales (NSW) introduced legislation on 1 January 1991 for
cyclists 16 years and over and for all cyclists on 1 July 1991.
The NSW legislation had three primary aims: to increase helmet wearing; to decrease
bicyclist fatality and serious injury; and to decrease head trauma.
Helmet laws in South Australia and Tasmania came into effect the same year.
By 1992, when Western Australia, Northern Territory (NT)
and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) introduced equivalent legislation,
bicycle helmets had become compulsory nationwide.
A number of submitters noted that the states and territories introduced MHL
in order to comply with a Commonwealth 10 point road safety program which
included bicycle helmets, and thereby secure Commonwealth funding under the
black spot road program.
Legislation to make bicycle helmets compulsory in the ACT was recognised as an
'essential part of the Prime Minister's 10 point package of road safety
initiatives to be implemented in return for funding to eradicate accident black
The requirement for use of bicycle helmets is included in the Australian
Road Rules (ARR), a national model legislation which is adopted (with
variations) by the individual states and territories. The ARRs are developed
and maintained cooperatively by the states and territories as a means of encouraging
nationally consistent traffic regulation. The maintenance process is managed by
the National Transport Commission. While they form the basis of the road rules
in each jurisdiction, amendments to the ARRs and their adoption as law continue
to be dependent on state and territory decisions.
Australia became the first country to enact mandatory bicycle helmets
with New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates the only other countries to
enforce adult helmet use.
A number of countries enforce a helmet requirement for children.
Recent reviews and recommendations
In November 2013, the Queensland Parliament Transport, Housing and Local
Government Committee tabled its inquiry report on cycling in Queensland. The
committee recommended (Recommendation 15) that the Queensland Minister for
Transport and Main Roads:
introduce a 24 month trial which exempts cyclists aged 16 years
and over from the mandatory helmet road rule when riding in parks, on footpaths
and shared/cycle paths and on roads with a speed limit of 60 km/hr or less; and
develop an evaluation strategy for the trial which includes
baseline measurements and data collection (for example through the CityCycle
Scheme) so that an assessment can be made which measures the effect and proves
The Queensland Government did not support the recommendation, noting
that the 'weight of evidence confirms the importance of wearing a bicycle
helmet while riding'.
The Queensland Parliamentary Committee had also recommended the
enforcement of a minimum overtaking distance as a means of improving the safety
of cyclists on the road. Recommendation 8 specified that cars and trucks would
have to keep at least a metre away from a cyclist when overtaking in a 60
km/hour zone and 1.5 metres in higher-speed zones. The Queensland Government
adopted the recommendation and introduced a two-year trial to take effect from
7 April 2014.
In 2010, the NSW Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Road Safety
conducted an inquiry into motorcycle and bicycle safety. In its report, the
committee acknowledged the contention regarding MHL as it had had taken
evidence from witnesses with strong views on both sides of the argument. While
recognising the divergent positions on the issue, the committee noted that the
'majority of submissions and the bulk of evidence received' by it 'support the
current mandatory use of helmets for bicycle riders'.
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