The wearing of bike helmets and car seat belts engages the classic liberty v public good argument. Bill Curnow, a CLA member, gives his opinion that there has been little evidence-based analysis of the public good. It’s time for some independent and open inquiries, he says.
Laws enforce protection, but ignore freedom
By long tradition, criminal law protects people against the harmful actions of others: individuals remain free to choose how to protect themselves from other harm. But in Australia, motorcyclists, people in cars and pedal cyclists have successively been compelled to wear a helmet or seat belt to protect their own persons.
In 1960, Victoria introduced the world’s first legislation to compel motorcyclists to wear helmets. It was a knee-jerk reaction to their much higher death rate than people in cars. No matter that motorcyclists were mainly young men, dangerous car drivers too, or that deaths had halved over the previous five years and that most already wore helmets. It was just assumed that they could not be responsible to protect themselves. The other states and territories followed Victoria’s lead.
Victoria made no scientific evaluation of the efficacy of helmets. But a study by Corner et al. in 1987 identified the main cause of brain injury as rotational force, and found that helmets don’t protect against it and can even increase it.
In compelling the wearing of seat belts in cars in 1970, Victoria was again first in the world, and again without proper evaluation of efficacy. Its action followed a two-thirds increase in deaths in car accidents in the 1960s. But the rapid increase in the first half of the 1960s, with its many first-time drivers, was reversed in the second half. Already, experience had taught safer driving, but authorities disregarded this.
By 1972, all other states had followed Victoria’s lead, but no rigorous research to evaluate compulsory wearing has ever been done. Federal authorities cite later American research which estimated that seat belts would reduce deaths of front-seat occupants of cars involved in fatal accidents by 40 per cent, but this takes no account of wearing a belt making drivers feel safer and driving a little faster, putting other road users at greater risk.
British research in 1985 found evidence of this: more injuries to other road users but no effect on occupants of cars. And in New South Wales, an academic study in 1994 concluded that seat belts had no measurable effect on the road toll.
Civil liberties were lightly dismissed. In Victoria, legislators argued that compulsion was justified to reduce costs to hospitals. Authorities in NSW were more arrogant, arguing that compulsion was necessary for the greatest good for the greatest number, to protect individuals from their own foolishness, and that it is superficial for the individual to assert that his own death or incapacity affects only himself.
In the 1980s, Victoria campaigned for helmets for cyclists, emphasising brain injury. In 1989, though the risk of serious casualty was declining, the Federal Government induced all states and territories to pass the world’s first helmet laws for cyclists. Again, evidence of the efficacy of helmets was lacking. Considering the findings of Corner et al., the laws amount to a reckless experiment with cyclists’ safety.
Unlike the previous measures, helmet laws for cyclists have discouraged cycling, especially by children. Benefits of the exercise for health have been lost and fewer children are gaining early experience in being a road user.
The bicycle helmet laws also discriminate unfairly. Though a 1998 study found that bicycle-style helmets would reduce head injuries to occupants of cars, federal authorities put this forward as a voluntary measure only.
Australian legislation that compels road users to wear helmets or seat belts abrogates the principle that protection of one’s own person is an individual responsibility. The civil liberty to choose how has been lost.
The legislation would appear to contravene the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Articles 5, 9 and, in the case of cyclists, Article 26. Despite the official propaganda that lives are saved, evidence of any gain in road safety is lacking.
Democratic processes have been corrupted. Transport authorities have compelled the use of helmets and seat belts without first verifying their efficacy.
To undo the harm of compulsory self-protection of road users, and check a trend to enforced preventive medicine, there should be independent and open inquiries into enforced self-protection, beginning with the most recent issue, helmets for cyclists. Technical matters such as evaluation of efficacy should be removed from the political process to an independent statutory authority with the requisite capability.
– Bill Curnow, CLA member, Canberra ACT
 Curnow, WJ. Bicycle helmets and public health in Australia. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 2008. 19 (1) 10-15.
 Commonwealth Department of Transport and Regional Development. Media Release. Protective headwear for car occupants. 18 September 1998. D2/98.