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Living under a mandatory bicycle helmet law regime

October 23, 2016

23 October 2016

One of the biggest gripes when the subject of mandatory helmet laws for bicycles is discussed is that the mandatory helmet law is not discussed at all. Too often the debate morphs into the effectiveness of helmets themselves, or to helmet advocacy. If you can be prised away from that, you might discuss more relevant points about freedom, perception of danger that helmets cause and the deterrent factor to cycling itself. Rarely discussed is the basic principle of the law – to make an activity illegal and to use the full brunt of the law and legal system to ensure citizens comply.

Mandatory helmet law poster - Victoria

The dawn of the oppressive and disastrous mandatory helmet regime

Four weeks ago, a nice sunny, spring day, I thought I’d ride into town – helmet free of course. There’s nothing that provides as much pleasure as cruising about on bicycle, enjoying the weather, meeting with associates, and then enjoying the ride home. My home city of Melbourne actually has decent paths, albeit often shared with pedestrians, connecting with the CDB. The Beach Road bike path is 100% for cyclists so is my favourite. Despite this great pleasure, such an excursion was only the second of two I’d done in six years. Why? The helmet law.

It wasn’t always the case. When Australia enacted helmet laws in the early 1990s, I considered it a joke. Surely the police will have better things to do. After about a year I learnt this was wrong when ambushed by a motorbike cop on the Beach Road bike path. When the officer asked why I wasn’t wearing a helmet, I promptly told him it’s a road rule and I wasn’t on the road. I figured that was a quite legitimate response too. He kindly informed me the law applies everywhere. The $20 fine wasn’t a great burden then so, along with the rarity of being caught, I considered it irrelevant, and that was despite already owning two helmets.

Even before the law started, helmets were becoming popular, and my first was a white Rosebank Stackhat. These were hardshell helmets with small vents and quite hot. I had taken it on the 1986 Great Victorian Bike Ride – a 9 day organised ride across the state – and it spent most of its time tied to the back rack of my 12 speed Raleigh bike bought at K-Mart a year or two earlier. That bike appealed because of the Raleigh brand, even though it was probably a generic Taiwan special. It had a few nice extras like like alloy crankset, gooseneck and brakes to justify the extra $70 over the normal $200 of K-Mart bikes. Eventually I bought mudguards and added toe-clips for it as it became my bike for everything and anything.

Before the Raleigh, as a kid I had a Hallmark 24 inch flat-bar single speed with a foot-brake, and later a 3-speed 27 inch with BMX style handlebars. That was bought for $50 from a cousin, while the 24 inch was a Christmas present when 9 years old. Suffice to say I loved riding about, and used both bikes on my newspaper route and for general transport. There was nothing I wouldn’t carry on either of these bikes, including a 60x30x30cm aquarium! I carried that under the arm and rode one-handed. Even the Raleigh bike, that was brought home wheeled beside me as I rode one handed.

For the 1987 GVBR, I didn’t take the Stackhat at all. Also, becoming inspired by Tour de France footage on TV and becoming more interested in bicycles in general, I acquired another bike – a racing bike built from a Reynolds 531c frame I bought secondhand for $190 and various parts I had spare or bought. This bike lasted for nearly 30 years, using it for school and then to work, and became my pride and joy. Now out of school, I didn’t do the next few GVBRs. The helmet law would then kill any ideas of doing another as an adult. I felt the idea of sitting on the bike for several hours a day in a hot, suffocating helmet intolerable.

With my red Reynolds 531c bike, I started to do triathlons, as this was the easiest way to live my TDF inspirations . I bought clip-on Scott DH aero bars for $120, which had become all the rage at the time. I also bought a Bell V1 Pro helmet for the mandatory helmet requirements of these races, primarily because of the large vents. It was still a hard shell, as was the standard of the time. I rarely wore it at other times, which was mostly riding the 5km to work and the occasional training ride along Beach Road. Typically that would be to Brighton Baths and back to Port Melbourne – about 20km. Later I’d work in Brighton and would always race home for “training”, with my fastest ever time for the 10km to Station Pier being 12:52 for a 47kph average speed. Typically my time was 15 minutes, depending on wind conditions. Suffice to say my best triathlon distances were the sprint types under an hour. I never trained for the other disciplines, other than doing a few casual runs in the week of a race to loosen the running muscles. I was happy to finish the swim leg in the lower 20% and then blitz the field on the bike and hold my place on the run to finish in the top third overall. I was happy to wear the helmet too. Races were held in the cool early morning and I could pour cold water over my head if required.

The triathlons lasted a few seasons until I was retrenched and stopped riding totally. I didn’t work for 2 years and eventually went back to school. Only occasionally I’d get the old girl out for nostalgia, usually along the bike path adjacent to Beach Road. Always I had the nagging thought of an encounter with the police, so if I was waning on motivation to ride, the helmet law would make the decision for me.

Mandatory helmet laws in action - punishing people with huge fines

The mandatory helmet regime in action – punishing people with huge fines for merely going about their daily business. Image: Daily Telegraph

It wasn’t until the late 1990s that, after becoming a blob and gaining so much weight, I began regularly riding again – to work. This was in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, from Mitcham to Hawthorn. I had no qualms about wearing the Bell V1 Pro, especially since some of the route involved busy Whitehorse Road and I would race trams, sometimes at speeds over 60kph, on the downhill going home. My dream was to get ticketed – for speeding! I wouldn’t wear the helmet on a warm day despite my belief the fine would have increased from $20 in the 8 years since the last one, nor would I ride so recklessly on such days.

My first encounter with police after resuming my riding took about 6 months. It was a glorious April day with temperatures in the high 20s. A motorbike cop was already parked behind Box Hill hospital and waved me over. No trouble, because I was proud to exercise my basic rights to ride as I felt. When he asked why I wasn’t wearing a helmet, I proudly said, “Because I choose not to wear one!”. If you’ve ever seen the Seinfeld episode, The Race, when Jerry proclaimed “I choose not to race”, this was the context I made my stand. Stunned at this response, the officer inquired further. I told him it’s too hot. He said he had to wear one. I told him he wasn’t peddling that thing. I also explained that I was a safe rider, using this back street and I always wore it at other times or, if it was too hot, I would not ride at all. He let me go.

That fact of being a safe rider really was the key. Despite loathe to wear a helmet, and even with sports cycling mentality, I was very safety conscious, particularly to the environment, and rode defensively. I avoided busy roads where possible and was very observant. The times when I choose to ride like a lunatic, it was only when conditions warranted. Racing trams was only possible because of the clearway on Whitehorse Road, and even at high school along the freeway style section of Dandenong Road that goes under the St Kilda junction, there was an entire spare lane available. Mind you, a helmet might have come in handy the day a students lobbed D-cell batteries at me from the tram. I recall one hitting the wall and ricocheted clear of me. The worst crashes I had were hitting a dog and a rock. The dog incident badly bruised my hip and grazed an elbow, while the rock, which happened at night, was only a grazed elbow. Oh, I hit a mouse once. No injuries there, at least not to me.

It wasn’t long after the Box Hill incident that I moved to the Bentleigh area, in the south eastern suburbs. We were only in Mitcham out of necessity. I had acquaintance in SE Melbourne, saw the roads were quite pleasant, many with painted bike lanes, and about 11km, as distinct from 17km, the shorter commute meant I could do it every day. In Mitcham it was only 2 or 3 times per week. Not only did I move across town for safer and more frequent riding, I was now beginning work at 10.30am so to avoid all the crazy traffic! This is the part about helmet laws that really grate: I make far more import decisions about safety that merely strapping it on a foam hat. Arguably I’m safer than most commuters regardless of wearing a helmet. Australia seems to think safety is all about helmets. It’s only in recent years that it’s finally catching on that separation from is the key safety measure, not an inch of foam on your head.

Around 2005, on one stinking hot day, I was finally pulled again over for the heinous crime of riding without a helmet. I gave the same story as in Box Hill, albeit not as brashly. I explained the heat simply made helmets too hot, I knew the law, and accepted the punishment. Asked if I had ID, I falsely said no. Like I said, I accepted I broke the law, so gladly gave my name and address. After being issued the ticket, for some reason, the officer, a rookie, had second thoughts, and wanted to go through my saddle bag. He never said why. I told him to keep his hands clear. He opened it, felt in, and pulled out my underwear (remember, I’m on my red Reynolds complete with bike knicks and cleated shoes from my triathlon days). He spotted my wallet and wanted to go through it. I refused. The other cop then appeared, a senior one, to check on this sudden commotion, and gave me the spiel about identification. I told him I gave it and will pay the fine right now. He said without proof of identity, they’ll need to take me to the police station until I can prove myself. Fine by me, I said. Shocked at this he then suggested if there was someone to ring now. I told him my boss. They confirmed my identity and off I went. It was quite an experience. The fine was now $50, which I figured if I can keep to one per year was fair enough for a “helmet choice tax”.

Several years of carefree cycling continued. While I often saw police cars, they didn’t pull me over. I’d ride everyday to work with a helmet, except if it was hot. Hot was sort of anything above 30 and might have only equated to 10 days per year that I’d leave it home. Even on warmish days, I’d remove it for the last km or, hang it on the handlebars, so to cool down. I figured it’s better to hang it than not bring it at all, because police would be more tolerant. True enough, the occasional one overtaking would yell to put the helmet on. That I did, before removing it once it became irritating again.

During winter I would wear the helmet all the time, primarily for warmth. If I had to wear something, why not a helmet? Besides, I’m not an idiot to think it would never help. It’s the same reason I bought a Stackhat all those years ago. Committed to daily commuting now, I also swallowed my pride and added mudguards to the Reynolds. I was becoming more pragmatic about riding and less focused about image. The mudguards were the detachable type, with the rear one extended by using a second set and permanently fixed and the front one attached only if raining. My only other riding now was the odd shopping or errand on the Raleigh, and the very rare weekend ride along the beach – because I simply refused to destroy the joy of these rides by wearing a helmet. The Raleigh had lost the mudguards by now, spare alloy wheels were added, and was reduced to a six-speed and the toe-clips removed to make it more utility type. I wouldn’t wear a helmet while shopping because it was such a hassle to hang or lock it, and I certainly didn’t want to be a dork and wear it while walking around as is a popular cultural phenomenon in this backwards country. The old 3-speed was long gone, except for the Sturmey Archer hub. I had ideas about building a new bike around it in the future. The Hallmark from my childhood? I still own.

Raleigh 12-speed bicycle

My original Raleigh 12-speed bicycle – in its final form

The year of 2010 was pivotal. Riding merely 500 metres to the local shops on the Raleigh, coming home I spotted a cop car waiting to turn left as I crossed the road. Panicked, I rode onto the footpath thinking, with it much safer there than the road, it might diminish the seriousness of the crime. No chance. In fact, the police kindly informed me being on the footpath was illegal. I asked the fine for the helmet crime, expecting around $50 still. When it was announced as $156, I exclaimed “WHAT!”, and the officer said the fines all recently went up. I was fuming. $156 for merely riding to the shops. Ridiculous!

Even though I was an entrenched Labor voter, I vowed to never vote for them again at state level for their disgraceful actions. I had seen the news about fines increased, with the Premier all smug that cyclists would be treated as seriously as all “vehicles”. I thought that was for serious offences like blasting through a red light or pedestrian crossing. With a state election imminent too, a few weeks later a candidate stopped me at the supermarket to discuss it. I checked her sign, saw Liberal, and told her not to worry, she has my vote and I’m never voting Labor again. She was a nurse so was a bit bemused by my stance on helmet crime. She was happy at least to get my vote. I was over-joyed that Labor were booted out in a minor upset, with my seat won by a whisker and it one of the crucial swing seats to fall. Even though the helmet law was irrelevant to the government’s demise, my conscience felt vindicated. Four years later I sort of broke my anti-Labor vow. With the Liberal government achieving nothing, I voted informal.

Within a year, I got my next fine. This time within a kilometre from work. Still with the trusty Bell V1 Pro, it was hanging on my handlebars after it became intolerable on the warm, humid day. The cops were highway patrol – in flashy, fancy marked cars – and I quickly learnt these guys were no mercy. Despite it obvious the helmet was extensively worn and I was showing signs of being affected by the heat, I got a ticket. In fact, they argued that if motorists can tolerate seatbelts and professional road racers can manage helmets, so could I. As if! A seatbelt doesn’t compare to an oppressive foam hat strapped to your head, and since when am I a professional athlete with support vehicles following to pour water over my head? I contested the fine by writing a letter, citing my close proximity to work meant I wouldn’t remove it unless it was necessary. It was refused so I paid it. I was now thinking $156 might be the “helmet choice tax” and one per year would still be acceptable.

With those two ridiculous fines, the big change now was the termination of my recreational weekend riding and any riding for errands. I was restricted to the short commute to work. I tried one weekend to ride along the beach path south as far as it went, saw a cop car going the other way, so veered down one of the beach access paths in a minor panic. I didn’t need the stress. Now needing to rely on a car more, the old Sigma I owned had to go. I bought a secondhand 1999 Lancer in its place and began to use that for shopping and errands and visiting associates.

Despite the trauma of these fines, I still felt that if it was a hot day I could ride to work without a helmet – that the police would be sympathetic. Wrong! It wasn’t long until the next altercation. This time the officer seemed to sympathise, and let me go on my way. Then about 2 months later I got a “reminder” in the mail for a fine not paid. Apparently the officer still issued the fine once back at the station, and probably mailed it. I never got it. I wrote to explain that if you’re to issue a reminder, at least issue a fine in the first place. Upon rejection I wrote again to reaffirm the situation, and to at least issue the original fine. I got the next stage of a court order, complete with more costs. I again wrote that I was never issued a fine in the first place and there’s no way I’ll pay anything with extra costs. They sent another court order before I finally ticked the box to hear it at court.

At court, I told the police prosecutors my story, who then repeated it to the magistrate, while saying they accepted my complaint about the fine. The magistrate banged his hammer and dismissed the case. I never even said a word as I planned to contest the validity of the fine. I sensed the magistrate didn’t understand the police only agreed the extra costs should be wiped, not the entire fine. I didn’t care. I was elated – especially that the officer on the day used his discretion and let me go. He even said “don’t let me see you riding away”. I never felt it a fair fine, even if there’s such a thing as fair helmet fine.

One of side effects of the law is vigilantes trying to tell you to wear a helmet. I had one yell at me once, which would always get a vociferous “mind your own business” in return. Often it was a monotone “helmet” as they pass by, or they’d point to their head or even shake their head. I try and yell no or give a thumbs down if there’s enough time. Often the “helmet” call is after they pass, the cowards. Anyone without a helmet these days I give a thumbs up. Once, when waiting at traffic lights, one vigilante enlightened me that modern helmets were apparently cooler than going bare. I figured I should try. Cost is the real issue, with top helmets well over $300 (US$250). I settled to spend $100 on an Adura, primarily because it had channels right to the brim. I figured less padding touching the head the better. While it was cooler, particularly having front vents so low, it was still hot and uncomfortable in heat.

The other problem is I get quite warm, even in winter you’ll rarely see me in more than an extra t-shirt, and my head sweats a lot, so the helmet only creates more sweat and, worse, it cascades into the eyes. Bare headed it blows over the top. They also become very itchy, especially around the padding and areas where the foam is very close to the skin. It wasn’t long before I gouged deeper channels into the foam of the Adura, especially at the brim, and removed the side padding. Particularly without side padding, I felt a better rush of air around the head. The deeper channel didn’t do much other than eventually cause a minute fracture. Oh well. Avoiding a fine is its primary purpose. It’s also worn quite loosely. No ultra tightening of the harness that’s recommended. That is really uncomfortable. Wearing it as I did, the protective capacity was much reduced. Apparently loose fitting is a 50% drop in the maximum impact it can take – down from the 20kph design standard to 10kph.

By now, the poor old Raleigh rarely left the house. It’s only action were the two occasions the Reynolds was in for repairs to the frame. Otherwise it would only be moved to inflate the tyres and rotate the wheels. Occasionally, on a hot day, I’d take the risk and ride the 5km to the beach for a swim. It’s a unique experience living under such a regime. Fear would dissipate over time and you’d build courage and become adventurous. Then once out, the constant vigilance for police, which in turn distracts you from riding, it’s so stressful and you realise it’s simply not worth it.

Becoming frustrated and missing my glorious weekend recreational rides, and gaining weight again, I figured I had to make my work ride longer. On favourable days (tail or zero wind), I’d ride to the Beach Road beach path and take that all the way to Port Melbourne, and then the trails through the city and the MCG, through Richmond, for a ride of over 27km and just over an hour. I figured police would be unlikely to loiter during these times of the week. Wrong was I. Two bicycle cops were on the path one day. Thankfully it was a cold day so the helmet was still on. Normally on the bike path, it’s off immediately to enjoy the beautiful sensation of the wind through the hair.

Another occasion on this long commute I spotted a police car cruising the promenade at St Kilda beach so skipped onto the road, put the helmet on and sped off. Another time I was pulled over by a female officer in South Melbourne. I told her sweat ran into my eyes, showed the helmet was well used, and she sympathised and said I need to do something. I told her I was on the path, not the road, so it was safe. She was content with that and I said thanks for understanding. She might have been in a rush anyway. Other times I’d spot police at a breath-test station and whack the helmet on in plenty of time. Near the office one day, police did a u-turn to apprehend me. I’d already put the helmet back on. Same answer as I gave to the female cop. They saw it was true, I showed my sweaty sleeve that I used to wipe my brow. One more time the police came from behind. You hear them slow down, so I immediately wipe my brow. They said to get off the road to do that. Which I did, and they move on.

All these little altercations showed one key trend: the police were far more energised, if not excited, to apprehend cyclists. Even though helmet wearing seemed to have a near 100% compliance, raising the fines obviously made it worthwhile for police to persecute cyclists. True enough, raising the fines had nothing to do with compliance – particularly relating to safety. Dead and injured cyclists were overwhelmingly wearing helmets. The genesis of this overhaul, which stupidly included new offences for bicycles like passing a stationary tram, was about “equality” on the roads and earning “respect” from motorists. Bicycle Network of Victoria was behind this, with spokesmen Garry Brennan saying cyclists must be “prepared to cop equivalent fines to other road users if it means we are accorded the full rights we are entitled to under the law”. What a sell out.

Six years on and there’s still no respect. In fact, the state of NSW recently increased helmet fines by 500% and is about to enact ID laws. Again, nothing to do with solving a problem; only about appeasing motorists. On the back of that, NSW police regularly set up stings to ping cyclists for the most frivolous and pedantic of offences – like no bell on the bike. Brennan said NSW’s “mean-spirited move is more like punishment than encouragement” and it’s unfair “hammering them (cyclists) with the threat of huge fines and with oppressive regulations about carrying identity cards”. Is this guy serious? The hypocrisy in his stance and the temerity to even say it is outrageous when his mob were the ones at the forefront of the “punishment regime”.

The transition from encouragement to punishment really is the key. When the helmet laws started, the imposition on freedom was seen as minimal that you might consider the imposition was more about the fine than wearing the helmet itself. The thinking was to encourage cyclists to wear a helmet, not to seriously force them, and certainly not to plaster them all over newspapers as vile criminals. How wrong it’s proved to be, and it’s not over yet, as the laws are constantly used as leverage to justify other measures. We already see motorists spiteful and jealous against anything done for bicycles, whinging “when will they start obeying the road rules”. Bicycle groups like BN are also ferocious about supporting the helmet regime so to keep their state government funding, while the only “win” from the NSW anti-cycling measures was the sordid “1 metre law”. These lobby groups don’t realise that for a bicycle to “share the roads” and be treated like a “vehicle” is sheer insanity. Bicycles are their own unique and distinct class of transport and should be treated that way. Laws should be relevant and sanctions appropriate, not based on some sort of ridiculous quid pro quo with motorists and feckless bicycle lobby groups.

A second trend that emerged from all those altercations with police is that sweat in the eyes, which was legitimate problem by impairing vision, seemed an acceptable excuse. I was also aware I wouldn’t be so lucky to escape fines forever. So I bought a “summer helmet” – a cheap helmet from Target that I severely modified to create more airflow. It was almost like wearing nothing. While it was obviously illegal, police don’t check helmets, only the helmetless. I also attached a loop on it for more secure hanging on the handlebars. I could cope with the longer commute via the beach to work now, especially those final sections along the road through Richmond and Hawthorn. So it came to be the helmet regime pushed me into wearing a useless helmet all the time when on the roads in the warmer months rather than a good one some of the time.

Crashes? Thanks to my sensible and defensive riding, I’ve never had even a close call with a car. Ironically, the decision for that longer commute eventually led to my first serious crash. I soon realised I could link up with the Yarra trail to go through Richmond, which also meant more helmet-free riding. Yeah! Then I began to consider how far that trail went. I’d occasionally see other commuters pop out of side streets as I rode home on the roads, so figured they must be using a trail. One day in May of 2013, for the ride home I went back to the Yarra trail, which, by this point, had split into Gardiners Creek Trail, and decided to see far it could take me.

It was quite dark in sections, so my flicking front light didn’t provide much illumination. Solar lights on the ground were of some guide on parts of the path; under bridges they were obviously not installed, and that’s when disaster struck. Going through the winding section under High Street in Malvern, it was hope and pray. Then I could see the lights resume on the other side, and immediately figured to steer right a little to line up with them. Just as I thought that I found myself riding down an embankment and somersaulting over, with the helmet taking a knock in the somersault. My first thought was “wow, the damn thing proved useful”. Not really because my right shoulder and left arm took most of the force. Then I heard a tyre go flat and my second thought was whether I could fix it being injured. Before I could linger on that thought, my body went into shock from the pain so I lay on my stomach to recover. All this happened in a matter of seconds.

Gardiners Creek Trail under the High Street Bridge

Gardiners Creek Trail under the High Street Bridge. So dark at night that I rode straight off the side and down a 6-foot embankment.

About 5 minutes later I was helped up by other riders, and they called an ambulance, which took almost an hour to arrive. I had to reassure the paramedics I didn’t land on my head. They checked the helmet and saw no damage. The end result was a broken right collarbone and a broken left wrist. In an indictment on our hospital system, the wrist took 6 weeks to eventually diagnose. Suffice to say, as soon as my arm was out of a sling for the collar bone, my wrist was in a cast for the next 16 weeks – 8 weeks longer than normal because of the botched diagnosis. I chuckle today at the irony that to avoid the dangerous roads, I ended up with a dreadful crash. Still today, and despite my complaint, the authorities have not installed lighting in that area. At least the delicious bacon and egg toasted sandwiches from the cafe made the regular visits to the Alfred Hospital appealing.

Both wheels of the Reynolds were wrecked in that crash, so instead of replacing them, I decided on a new bike. Parts were also becoming difficult to find. Despite my heart set on a similar racing bike, I was talked into a hybrid cyclo-cross type. Stronger wheels, fatter tyres, more comfortable frame angles and disc brakes – and still with drop bars. I needed to fit mudguards too, and modern racing bikes simply don’t have the room. I wanted 30 years out of it like I did the Reynolds, hence the recommendation for a Trek Crossrip Elite. It felt a tad nippier than the Reynolds anyway, and was way more comfortable. The only immediate problem was the aero bars I still had on the Reynolds were often used to carry stuff and could not be fitted to the Crossrip. I figured I could add a pack rack if required. I bought the Crossrip during the final weeks of the cast, and because the bike also had small brake levers on the tops, I could actually start riding immediately.

Reynolds 531c bike after the Gardiners Creek crash

Reynolds 531c bike after the Gardiners Creek crash

I resumed my commute, using the Gardiners Creek Trail (GCT) to and from work. This trail seemed cursed, because it wasn’t long until I fell again. After leaving it for the final road section home, I rode through a car wash to avoid the lights and then fell straight onto my elbow as I turned back onto the road. Some super-suds must have attached to the wheel because I went down so fast. Other than a nasty gash and a tetanus shot, all OK. I had the summer helmet on, not that it was required. In January of 2015 another crash. On a damp day to work, the rear wheel slid out on the painted line on a corner of the GCT as I overtook a pedestrian. Down I went on my hip, back and right elbow. I was badly winded and later the hip would seize up. For nearly 3 days I could barely walk and to get around at home I’d roll myself on my computer chair. It was probably 1 month until I was at full walking pace again, and 3 months before I could run. Riding wasn’t a problem. The summer helmet was on the bars this time, not that it was required.

By this time I was emboldened by the freedom my summer helmet gave me. I began my weekend rides again, riding the Crossrip one way on the beach bike path and then the other way along the Yarra and GCT. On these rides it spent 80% of the time hanging on the handlebars. Even though that’s potentially dangerous in itself, it was worth it. Then on a mild May day 2015, on such a ride, another crash, this time cutting through a service station on the way to the GCT. I clipped the lip of the driveway at such an acute angle and at such a speed, and probably leaning into it slightly too, that I went down before I knew it. The summer helmet took some of the force as I slid along the ground and possibly prevented a graze (can’t be certain because the bulk of a helmet makes your head a bigger target for impact). Mostly, I was furious at such a careless crash, particularly that I used this shortcut for years on the regular road route to the office. I got up contemplating whether to continue, as I wasn’t that far from home.

I sat down with a passer-by, and next thing I knew several people were hovering over me after I fainted. I’m a chronic fainter – particularly after any sort of adrenaline rush and not fully dehydrated. Even a blood test after fasting I’ve fainted twice, and I knew I was on the dehydrated side before I left home for this ride. To my annoyance an ambulance had been called. I had to reassure the passers-by I was fine. Once the ambulance arrived, they confirmed I fainted. They still wanted to take me to hospital. I refused because I knew I didn’t want to waste hours there only to be sent home. They were also obsessed about head injuries, really checking the helmet. Needless to say the paramedic didn’t quite approve of the modifications. I told her it’s the only I could wear the thing. By this time my shoulder began to get sore. They did a few checks and it only hurt when stretched out wide. I figured it’s a muscle strain and promised them I’d go to a doctor on Monday if required. They took me home. End result was torn ligaments in the AC joint. That meant my first ever operation (which was fun), two weeks off work and six weeks off the bike.

Trek Crossrip Elite - 2014 edition

Trek Crossrip – replaced the Reynolds as the commuter bike. It’s filthy after a wet winter.

One thing I noticed from his sudden spate of crashes is the hysteria about head injuries. Even if it’s clear there was no impact, passers-by especially would thoroughly check the helmet. It happened on the GCT for the January crash, and happened for this one through the service station. This is the climate we’ve created that cycling really is perceived as so dangerous that a head impact is almost guaranteed in any sort of crash. The paramedics you can accept them as being thorough because that’s their job – especially if someone fainted. On the way home that day I cheekily asked the officer the typical injuries cyclists get. She said to the arms. When I asked about motorists, she said everything. They also note in their reports if a helmet is worn, so now I wonder if that becomes a statistic of a helmet wearer avoiding a head injury?

By now I was getting nostalgic for the bikes I had as a kid. The Raleigh wasn’t suitable for utility riding. While the drop bars were bad enough, the frame geometry meant a really hunched position – even worse than modern racing frames, which are more elongated to reduce the weight supported by the shoulders. It was a tired, clunky bike made with bits and pieces, including 700cc wheels on a 27in frame. While I did poke around on various websites looking at appropriate bikes, and still considered building a new bike out of my old 3-speed hub, it wasn’t until I checked Reid Cycles – a brand I was seeing more and more on the streets – and presto, I found the Reid Blacktop. It was a mix of my flatbar Hallmark and my 3-speed, and was so stylish too. It was perfect. In December of 2015 I visited the store in Windsor, they already had one in the correct size on the floor, and I was done. I soon added a rear rack and my first ever set of pannier bags. As I kid, I’d simply strap everything down with octopus straps.

The Blacktop was such a joy to ride that I began using it more and more, and the car less and less. I had to carefully plan new routes to avoid police, which involved using back streets as much as possible. After taking some photos of the Raleigh and stripping a few of the parts, it was thrown out. Its wheels went onto the Reynolds, making it rideable. The plan is to sell it, sans those $120 aero bars of course! I don’t need 3 bikes.

Reid Blacktop

Reid Blacktop – replaced the Raleigh as the utility bike

Of course, some things didn’t change, and they were the altercations with police. On the longer commute via the beach, I was ambushed at the St Kilda Marina with my summer helmet hanging on the bars. This is a common place for police to loiter, and I really should have whacked it on just prior. The problem is you do get complacent over time, and a weekday morning was unusual time for them to be there too. Explaining about the sweat in the eyes worked again, and I whacked it on and went. The officer noticed the modifications and I told him my flat head meant I had no choice. I demonstrated it provided full coverage, and he was fine with it. Despite these more frequent confrontations, I still found them stressful and would rather avoid them. Something new this time was a spiel from the officer about being “sick of attending cyclists on the road”.

That spiel would repeat in January of 2016 on a warm, humid ride home, when riding at walking pace through a pathway at a local train station. In the carpark was a police car. Again, helmet on the bars as I really was taking a break to cool down and clear the sweat. I rode calmly up to him and explained myself, including showing my sweaty t-shirt sleeves that I used to wipe my brow. No. Not only did I get the spiel, almost verbatim, about being “sick of attending cyclists on the road”, I also got the one about the impact on state accident insurance. If I knock my head, apparently it will destroy the fabric of the system, forcing everyone to pay more and leaving them in financial ruin! That was the tone of it anyway. I looked around in disbelief at a carpark almost totally devoid of cars. Come on! I’m about to die here? He said a car could jump from anywhere. It was absurd. He said a fine would arrive in the mail.

Withing a few days, the fine arrived. I wrote a letter stating it was outrageous, that this fine is the not the spirit of the law, and if it’s so dangerous, why are pedestrians free to walk around? I ticked the box for a court case and said to refer it if the fine is not withdrawn. In May I got a whole bunch of papers in the mail about the case from the officer. No date of any hearing among it. To date, still nothing. It’s so unusual. Normally you get a summons, and that’s it. I’m presuming he withdrew it and sent the papers as a taunt. The lesson here is to always refer the fine to court because it forces the police into so much paperwork. Even pleading guilty, you can still plea for a reduction in the fine or even a warning.

With that fine hanging over my head, I stopped the longer commute and all recreational riding, and began holding the helmet in one arm whenever I needed to remove it on my commutes. At least in one arm it looks temporary, as no one would ride that way for long distances. It’s ridiculous that’s the lengths we need to go for our basic freedoms. I still kept my local riding on the Blacktop going. I had an armoury of excuses prepared if I ever get pulled over. If I’m at a major intersection, I’d actually dismount just in case a cop car comes past. That’s when you’re most vulnerable. So far, I’ve been able to beat the helmet regime on the Blacktop.

Now into September 2016, with the warmer weather approaching and still nothing about that January fine, I began to think about resuming my recreational riding. I also began thinking about using the Blacktop because it was more conducive to this sort of riding. Wearing normal shoes also meant I could walk around at the destination to make it more of an excursion. Needing to meet associates in town one day, I thought, damn it, I’m riding in on the Blacktop. I still wore cycling knicks for comfort, as it’s a 35km round trip, and brought normal shorts to wear over the top once there. Also, I didn’t bring any helmet either. Bonus! Circumstances meant I used the Yarra Trail both ways, rather than one way and the beach bike path the other. The beach is far more exposed to the road and the police menace in general, so the real test of my mettle about leaving the helmet at home altogether would not occur until I rode the beach bike path.

Ironically that day, I also picked up a helmet at Reid Cycles. I thought for a few years to try my luck again, that I could find something better than the Adura. With plenty of vents and at $60, it was a good price. While it is a bit cooler and fits a bit better, the full padding around the brow and sides does make it irritate more once it gets hot. I’m happy enough with it to not modify it at all, and I’ve been using it instead of the Adura since.

Helmets through the years - Bell V1 Pro, Adura Sprint and Reid Aero

Helmets through the years – Bell V1 Pro, Adura Sprint and Reid Aero

D-Day was four weeks ago. Even getting to the beach path, particularly from the CDB, you are far more exposed to persecution. Helping to offset that, heading south, the traffic is going the opposite way, so police are unlikely to spot you early enough to stop and pull you over. It’s a 5km section between Port Melbourne and St Kilda, and it wasn’t long until I had one idiot point to his helmet. Get stuffed, I thought. That was at South Melbourne. At Albert Park I spotted a police car and, in a panic, immediately swerved off the bike path towards the walking area in hopes I’d not been seen. I then increased the speed to get far away as possible.

At St Kilda, around the back of the Catani Gardens, the road was blocked with a sign advising cyclists to dismount onto the footpath. A festival or something was on. I could see ahead most cyclists kept riding anyway. Then bang, a cop car going the other way stopped and began to do a u-turn. I stopped anyway and moved to the kerb to prepare for the chat. They didn’t anticipate this and drove past me. Once they stopped, it was panic mode again. I had a choice to wait or escape. I chose escape. I looked over the sea wall to possibly hide. It was 2 metre drop to the sand. I lowered the Blacktop as far as I could then dropped it. Then I followed, sat back and had a drink. If apprehended, my intention was to pretend I was taking a rest, not doing any sort of a runner. I looked up and saw a guy standing on the sea wall, seemingly trying to connect the commotion of a returning police car and me jumping over the wall. After 20 minutes, I figured it was safe to move on. Realising there’s most like police nearby, I elected to walk 100 metres to the shoreline and walk the 500 or so metres past the Catani Gardens to St Kilda beach. I could see police cars everyone near the Gardens, obviously for crowd control. Once at St Kilda beach I remounted and rode on.

I was still wary of more police, particularly at the Marina. I’d have dismounted had I seen anything. Then approaching Elwood beach, a cop car, a highway patrol, just reversed from a parking spot and was about to drive off until he spotted me. It’s quite possible he was sent there to wait for me, or even ping other riders. Just before the Catani Gardens, I’d overtaken two people going helmet free on bikeshare bikes. I remain curious if they were pinged. Whatever, I wasn’t prepared to be caught so kept riding. Elwood is almost the last section you can be easily ambushed, so I was both proud and relieved to get through unscathed. Of course, I was also furious that a simple exercise of riding a bike could create such fear and anxiety. What sort of country is this?

tw160924

The day that will live in infamy in my fight against the mandatory helmet regime

Once I was home, that was it. I reconciled the fact that after more than 3 decades of harmless and safe riding, I’m banned from my beloved Beach Road bike path. Never again will I put myself through that harrowing experience. To think my only crime is the fundamental human right to pursue happiness without harming other people, and this absurd country has instituted a vigorous and vicious police state to try and stop me. It’s staggering to believe that the law sees me as much as a menace to society as a motorist speeding through a school zone. The fines are the same, and the vilification even worse. It’s the craziest thing in the world. You can’t make this stuff up even if you try.

It’s not like I’m asking for much either. It’s merely the right to choose when I want to strap a foam hat to my head to ride a bike. Currently it ranges from 60% during the warmer months to 90% in the cooler months. The bizarre thing is, without the helmet law, my helmet habits would unlikely change. While the summer helmet would go, it would be replaced by the proper helmet and worn occasionally, particularly on the commute when I’m in a more serious and faster mode of riding. In cooler months, nothing changes, because it provides warmth, and I like the security of it when riding in the dark. In fact, I might wear it even more. Local streets near work and home it’s off. There’s no real reason for this, other than to rebel. Recreational and utility riding, I rarely wear it anyway, and often my motives are to rebel. Such civil disobedience is satisfying in the war against the helmet regime.

With other cyclists, nothing much would change either after a repeal. People have been scared senseless by the helmet hysteria anyway that it would take an entire generation to undo the damage. A study from the University of Sydney found almost half would never ride without a helmet. The same study also found more than 20% would ride more if a helmet wasn’t mandatory. The main difference you would see post repeal is numbers slowly increase in safer riding environments, like paths and local streets. Non-riders will begin to see that looks fun, safe and convenient, and start to ride. On the roads? Most cyclists can see that is dangerous so would keep wearing helmets. This is already evident outside Australia, particularly in countries like USA and Britain where helmet fear-mongering is almost as bad and cycling rates similarly as low. Even in Stockholm, where I visited in May, 60% to 70% of cyclists wore helmets. So you don’t need fascist laws to advocate helmets. Authorities here seem to think it’s only their precious laws that are keeping helmets on people’s heads. It’s absurd and typical of politicians thinking they know better than everyone else.

Let’s not think this is about one person whinging about a few incidents either. People have criminal convictions trying to defend their right to ride a bicycle. People that have refused to pay fines have either had bikes confiscated or served time in jail. Incidences of helmet fines, including 1098 alone in NSW in March and April of 2016 after they strengthened their anti-cycling laws, shows there’s a constituency of many, many thousands of people each year that do at times ride without a helmet. Again, why are we so obsessed about stopping them? Remember, these are only the ones caught. You can easily multiply that by 10 for the real number of people riding without helmets, so we could be around hundreds of thousands every year. Compare that to motorcyclists, where no one goes without a helmet. That’s an example of an accepted law.

Next time you think “helmet law”, actually consider the real consequences of it: “I want any cyclist not wearing a helmet to be severely punished and dragged through the courts if necessary”. As you see in Australia, what turned out to be a law with good intentions and a trivial penalty, has become a rabid police state of huge penalties, strict enforcement and a vigilante mob rule. As much as Australia is immature about cycling, it’s fully mature when it comes to the impact of mandatory helmet laws. Twenty five years of oppression has seen a repressed and resented culture created, an activity that is not any safer and perceived as suicidal, and a group of people marginalised and frequent recipients of discrimination and abuse. As a case study, it’s a damning indictment, especially when the alternative is merely allowing the freedom to ride our bikes with dignity. Don’t let it happen to your country. Resist it, fight it, squash it. You’ve been warned.

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From → Cycling Free

5 Comments
  1. Thanks for the long post. You’re wrong about one thing though – motorists speeding through school zones are considered less of a problem!

    I think there is one typo: “scared senseless by the helmet hysteria anyway that it would take an entire damage to undo the damage” – I assume you mean ‘entire generation’.

    • I had to read that typo 3 times to finally see it. It’s amazing how rigid a phrase becomes in our head that we’re blind to such obvious errors.

      The post was never intended to get so long. Originally it was meant to focus on the incident four weeks ago as an example of the ultimate effect of using the law for advocacy or promotion. Then I got carried away and it became a life story. It was fun recalling it all.

  2. Amy Blomer permalink

    Nice to see the time line of the bikes all laid out. I think I can finally keep track of them!

  3. Jim Moore permalink

    Very good writing. The length of the article is important too as it shows how this sorry, stupid saga of MHL just goes on and on and on. I wish there really was karma and a special circle of Hell, not just the ignorant, self-serving State politicians who introduced MHLs but for the many more who have held power since and could have repealed these laws but chose not to.

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