Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Economics References Committee
Personal choice and community impacts

COOPER, Mr Jai, Private capacity

FRANCIS, Ms Katherine, Private capacity


CHAIR: Thank you for appearing today. Do you want to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to questions?

Ms Francis : No, thank you.

Mr Cooper : I will. Thanks for the opportunity to attend. While I am here to speak on the issue of the mandatory helmet laws, as this came up, a lot of other people raised the issue, in general, of state intrusion into personal freedoms, and my fellow Australians started sharing their feelings about wider range of things. Promoting cycling, however, is an area of personal interest and expertise and that is why I am here. Firstly, I would like to emphasise that I am not anti-helmet; it is the net effects of the law which I question. I formerly supported the mandatory helmet laws because I thought they were for the common good, yet, over time, I have changed my mind for a number of reasons.

Firstly, there is an undeniable loss of liberty and an inconvenience to cycling, which is an inherent good for health, reducing emissions and alleviating traffic congestion. Individually, as someone who wore a helmet prior to the laws, my safety has since been at greater risk due to the safety-in-numbers effect. From a public health perspective, the MHLs are arguably a net health loss, due to a range of factors, and, further, when this law is applied in marginalised communities it is a recipe for abuse. Without discounting the individual trauma, this remains an issue of public health concern.

I find many of the assertions of MHL supporters imbalanced and erring towards denialism. There are structural constraints in Australia which continue to influence objectivity, and we are affected by the discursive production of the fear of cycling—that is, how Australians are made scared to ride—which raises the wider question of the effects of ideology on the type of society we are constructing. Law reform and social change are difficult and controversial. The debate is still somewhat naive in Australia, but I see that it is maturing, which is promising. I see support for reform increasing amongst the cycling community and elsewhere, and this is thanks to increased exposure to global conversations about mobility, space and sustainability. Australian cycling culture is changing and with it is a turn away from the MHLs.

I believe that this law was well-intentioned, yet it has side effects. Those side effects—for example, prejudicial policing or risk compensation—are in the field of the behavioural sciences. What I have raised so far and in my submission are some of the insights into my perspective. I offer a depth of experience as a cyclist, an advocate and a sociologist of cycling and I welcome the members' questions and comments.

CHAIR: Do you wear a helmet, Mr Cooper?

Mr Cooper : Yes, I do in a lot of situations and I wore it before the law as well.

CHAIR: What are those circumstances? Why do you wear it some times and not other times?

Mr Cooper : I consider myself a high-risk cyclist. I concur with what Dorothy Robinson was saying just before. I ride fast, I am a mountain biker, I am a road cyclist and I am also a commuter, and for pretty much all of those reasons I know that at some stage—I have taken a couple of hits and I am glad I was wearing a helmet at those times.

CHAIR: At the times when you have not been wearing a helmet, can you describe how ordinary members of the public have treated you?

Mr Cooper : A mix at times. I could confirm some of the driver behaviour, in terms of wider passing distances. I also have examples like quite a young child yelling at me, 'Where's your helmet?' You have people in the street harassing you for that, as if there is something wrong with it. There are behaviours both beneficial and fairly negative.

CHAIR: And how have members of the police treated you for not wearing a helmet?

Mr Cooper : I have never encountered the police when I have not worn a helmet. I have avoided them at times.

Senator CANAVAN: What is the penalty here in Victoria?

Mr Cooper : I am in New South Wales.

Senator CANAVAN: Sorry.

Ms Francis : It is $186.

Senator CANAVAN: It is $186 in New South Wales?

Ms Francis : No, in Victoria.

Senator CANAVAN: Right, you are in Victoria.

CHAIR: Actually, I think it is less in New South Wales.

Senator CANAVAN: But you are not sure about New South Wales?

CHAIR: One of my staff got booked for not wearing a helmet a few of weeks ago, and I do not think it was that much. Mr Cooper, I understand that you can describe the situation of personal indebtedness that you have seen amongst young people as a consequence of not wearing a helmet. Is that right?

Mr Cooper : In terms of repeat encounters with the law, yes; I can think of a couple examples of young people. I work with young people a lot, and the helmet law is a primary vector through which they encounter authority. It is very easy for the police to see them and so, in some ways, it is a rite of passage for youth at risk to taunt the police in that way. If you are aspiring to a position of crime later in life and if that is what is valuable in social status—to have a barbwire tattoo like your uncle—then the helmet laws are a very easy way to enter that process.

CHAIR: Are you referring to Aborigines imprisoned for non-payment of helmet fines?

Mr Cooper : Yes, one individual I know, and non-Aboriginal people as well.

CHAIR: Can you describe some situations you have witnessed?

Mr Cooper : I have had them described to me by individuals. One was a local Aboriginal man in my town, and he reported that he had received a number of fines, was not able to pay them and ended up incarcerated. Another young man I was talking to recently was in Dubbo, and he explained that he had somehow accrued several thousands of dollars in fines. I do not know whether he was incarcerated for that, but it certainly put him in—he described himself as effed—such a position, financially behind, that it was difficult for him in other parts of his life.

CHAIR: You said 'provocation to authority', or words to that effect—how widespread do you think that is?

Mr Cooper : I think it would be a substantial percentage of young people. If I go down to my local skate park, there are always plenty that are not wearing a helmet and would see it as an opportunity. At times, when I have ridden without a helmet, I have seen the police, and there is an adrenaline rush to that. I expect that young people who are in that situation are getting a similar kind of experience. In terms of the percentages, I think most folks, their parents, say: 'You should wear a helmet; it is a sensible thing to do.' I have worked a lot in mountain-biking coaching. We encourage people to wear a helmet because we introduce them to ideas of managed risk, and they see wisdom in that.

CHAIR: Do you have a view of how Australian cycling, 50 years from now, will compare with the rest of the world?

Mr Cooper : This would be a fairly pivotal—reform of the helmet laws would make a significant difference. At the moment, we are extremely polarised. Our culture is highly geared towards sporting cycling, with mountain biking and road cycling. It is highly commodified and, if we continue down that path, the cycling problem, which transport ministers often face, would be approached from an increasingly regulated strategy that would be—as Duncan Gay has been discussing in the last couple of years—the discussion of licensing and registration. I would see that as resulting in the collapse of our cycling culture. That has failed in other countries. I think it would cause a much lower participation rate and, obviously, have other side-effects. The helmet laws are fairly pivotal in the direction in which our cycling culture is heading. It would enable an expansion of the emerging cycle-chic movement—

CHAIR: The what?

Mr Cooper : Cycle chic.

Ms Francis : Stylish cycling.


Ms Francis : No.

Mr Cooper : No, in fact quite an opposite to that. We have indulged our commodity experiences into lycra and high-performance racing bikes. The obvious next progression I can see that cycling culture would take in Australia is into cycling chic, moving more towards the hipster model. With the absence of the helmet laws, it would probably allow for a greater breadth of expression and performance of cycling types.

CHAIR: Before I come to Ms Francis, there is a note in your submission in relation to gender inequity, and you said:

Australia is renowned for a poor gender ratio in cycling ... with women having a comparative low representation.

You probably heard previous witnesses referring to perceptions that it is dangerous, due to the obligation to wear a helmet, but you make an interesting point there about helmet hair and vanity not being a big thing for you, but it is to others. What is your experience that helmet hair in particular is a factor in women not wanting to wear a helmet and therefore not wanting to ride?

Ms Francis : Are you asking me?

CHAIR: I was asking Mr Cooper, but you probably have a better understanding.

Ms Francis : No, I do not think that is the most significant factor.

CHAIR: You don't?

Ms Francis : No. If you are talking about style, that may affect women more; it may not be the helmet hair as such.

CHAIR: It might be the whole helmet!

Ms Francis : Other factors are more important to women, like the perception of danger that the helmet symbolises. Women are risk averse. If you tell them they need to wear a helmet to ride, they will assume the activity is more dangerous. Women are also more likely to be utility cyclists. Utility cyclists find the helmet inconvenient. I would say a number of things come before helmet hair.

Mr Cooper : Can I elaborate on what Dorothy Robinson said as well? The safest cyclists are women. Our gender imbalance in Australia is obvious.

CHAIR: Ms Francis, you have been a non-wearer of helmets for some years now, I understand?

Ms Francis : Close to 40.

CHAIR: Close to 40 years; that is a fairly lengthy record. You have been booked a few times, I understand?

Ms Francis : I was booked in the early nineties. I have not been booked recently.

CHAIR: You have not been booked more recently. Your submission, and I understand your story, includes being arrested for non-payment of fines associated with cycling. Is that right?

Ms Francis : That is correct.

CHAIR: You were subjected to some undignified treatment as a result of being arrested—was that right?

Ms Francis : I was taken to the local lockup and strip-searched, is that what you are referring to?


Ms Francis : I did not put that in my submission.

CHAIR: Somebody advised me about it. What was the outcome of that? Did you lodge a complaint? Were you convicted?

Ms Francis : I believed it was what they did to everyone who was arrested, that it was part of the punishment for being a criminal.

CHAIR: Were you a criminal?

Ms Francis : I had not paid my fines.

CHAIR: Does not paying fines make you a criminal?

Senator CANAVAN: But you were not convicted of anything. You had been arrested.

Ms Francis : No, I had not been to court. I was arrested for not paying my fines.

CHAIR: Were they on-the-spot fines?

Ms Francis : Yes.

CHAIR: So you had never been to a court?

Ms Francis : No.

CHAIR: For not paying on the spot fines?

Ms Francis : Yes.

CHAIR: You were arrested?

Ms Francis : I was arrested without warning as well.

CHAIR: You were arrested without warning, and you were strip-searched in a police station. Were you held for long?

Ms Francis : I was transferred from Kyneton to Keilor, because the Kyneton jail was not adequate. I was pregnant at the time, and it was not safe enough, so I was transferred to Keilor. I spent 24 hours in Keilor, and I was then released on a community service order. I should add that I was supposed to serve the community service order from the start, but there was confusion over what they were going to do with me, and that never happened. That is why I accidentally ended up in jail.

CHAIR: In your submission—and I will refer to your submission now—you talk about mandatory helmet laws giving the local police something to do. Can you tell us how the police have treated other cyclists in addition to you?

Ms Francis : I think they just fined every cyclist without a helmet. They were very zealous about this particular law. We were not expecting this. We thought that it was too trivial for the police, and it surprised us. Kyneton is a police training centre, and possibly some of the police that were training were training on the cyclists because not wearing a helmet is an easy offence for them to spot. We were not badly treated; we were just issued with fines. Within a couple of years, all the transport cyclists from Kyneton had stopped riding their bikes. I think Dorothy has already said that people in rural areas do not need helmets. They have very safe conditions on their suburban streets. We have wide streets with no traffic. So they were not wearing helmets before the law came in, and when the law came in they did not put them on. They then received fines, and most of them stopped cycling.

CHAIR: Have you cycled since they locked you up?

Ms Francis : Yes.

CHAIR: In Australia?

Ms Francis : Yes. I stopped 99 per cent of my cycling in Australia after I was locked up. I have started cycling more carefully now to avoid the police. I do not want to go through that again. I ride on bike tracks in Melbourne, and I ride in back areas in the country. I enjoyed riding last year in Byron Bay, where there is no policing of the helmet law, and I ride overseas.

Senator CANAVAN: I noticed 'velophobia' in your submission. Can you explain velophobia? It is the first time I have come across the word.

Mr Cooper : It is a term in cycling media circles regarding the fear of cycling, and it comes in two forms. One is the physical fear of cycling—that you might be injured while doing it—and there is also the fear of a cyclist identity, becoming a cyclist.

Senator CANAVAN: Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course! On the fear of being injured, I suppose it is your evidence that the introduction of laws has increased people's fears. Is that what you are saying? The public health campaign around the introduction of laws helped do that?

Mr Cooper : It is a bit of a paradox within cycling advocacy circles that we are our own worst enemies sometimes. We talk about all these injuries and things that are happening, and our own education programs to say, 'Be safe and warn people,' scare people out of cycling as well. There is a point at which we try to maintain an objective level of risk and be able to calculate that. It is clear that there is a lot of cycling promotion that is based around fear.

Senator CANAVAN: If I could play devil's advocate for one second, there is certainly compelling evidence that there was a reduction in cycling use surrounding the mandatory helmet laws. However, one interpretation of that could be that people became more understanding or observant of what the risks were and made a judgement, 'Well, I won't cycle; I'll do other things.' How do you counter that potential interpretation that people are still making their own minds up, but they have had more in-your-face evidence about what the risks are and decided not to ride?

Mr Cooper : I think there is a lot more promotion in Australia, if you look at other countries. It is almost like it goes hand in hand with the laws, in that we have to validate. The Dutch model is that they leave the promotion of helmet use to private enterprise. If you look at other sporting activities—I am a rock climber and a whitewater kayaker—at the sale of the products, I wear those. I wear helmets for them. It is really that we look at it objectively and say, 'Is that what I need for the activity?'

Senator CANAVAN: You mentioned in your opening evidence that there is the safety-in-numbers effect. Can you explain that a bit? You could presumably still—and I see plenty of pelotons on the road from time to time. What in the mandatory helmet laws has led to a reduction in the safety-in-numbers effect?

Mr Cooper : Professor Rissel probably covered this a little bit. It is not simply the loss of numbers but actually the types of cyclists that are removed from the equation as well. Cycling is associated with a morality. It is a moral performance of good health and environmental responsibility. If, for example, at an early age you are excluded from cycling by the police harassing you for not wearing a helmet, you end up with a different identity, and I think that underscores some of the motorist behaviour that underlies the aggression towards cyclists.

If you look at the surveys that explain the key reason for cyclists not riding, it is fear of motorists. It is fear of the danger on the road. A lot of people will not simply admit that it is the helmet laws, but what we have generated are these people who otherwise—I can think of my mates when I was young, who, instead of being cyclists, when the helmet law came in, found it was easier to perform that type of behaviour in a car, where you can be aggressive to others and scare other people. If you are a cyclist, you are on the end of it. I think it is those people who we took out of the equation who I would much rather have as cyclists because a bike does not hurt anyone else.

Senator CANAVAN: In your submission, Mr Cooper, you talk about some of the potential options we have for policy changes. You go through some of the alternatives. What would you recommend? What would your preferred model be?

Mr Cooper : I agree with Professor Chris Rissel on the trialling of the 16-year-olds retention of the law and exemptions for adults—that was my understanding of his position—and then observing the results, with potentially further reform in future. That sounds like a simple reform. It is not all or nothing, and we do have a very blunt instrument. There are a number of other options there in terms of policy strategies which might be exemptions for hire bikes or applying it only to road cyclists or specific applications, but I think something a little bit more nuanced might be more effective in getting the public health outcome. The age one makes sense to me. A kid can see that their parents can drink alcohol, read pornography, vote or serve in the military, but they do not have the same capacity. I think that would probably involve more parents in cycling with children as well.

Senator CANAVAN: Ms Francis, do you have any particular preferred policy options for us?

Ms Francis : Yes. I would go for the full repeal for over-16s, and I would go for a massive investment in infrastructure to make it safe for children to ride, commencing with the approaches to schools. When the infrastructure is in place for children, I would repeal it for children as well. I should point out that anywhere that it is not safe for a child to ride without a helmet is also not safe for a child to ride with a helmet. Putting a helmet on a child will not make them safe approaching a school if there are careless drivers in the vicinity of the school.

Senator CANAVAN: I know your ideal option would be full repeal. We discussed earlier how the Queensland parliament recommended a limited repeal around bike paths and also, I believe, low-speed roads. Would a recommendation of that kind still assist your issues around the rural and regional areas? I am just trying to think. If there were a push for no need for bike helmets on roads below 60 kilometres an hour, would that cover most of the roads in your area?

Ms Francis : No. I could not get to work on roads of less than 60 kilometres an hour.

Senator CANAVAN: Where do you live?

Ms Francis : I live in Kyneton. We are never going to get bike tracks there because we do not have the population for them, although I would dearly love to have them.

Senator CANAVAN: Is there any alternative restriction? I am just trying to think of how to protect those issues you are talking about. How else could you define something to say that regional areas or a road with fewer than such and such cars a day could potentially be exempt as well? Has anyone looked at that?

Ms Francis : Do you mean a road with a speed limit of 100 kilometres an hour?

Senator CANAVAN: I suppose what I am saying is that, if you put the speed limit at 100 kilometres an hour, you are obviously going to capture then a lot of roads in urban areas which are very busy. Indeed, a lot of roads of 60 kays in urban areas will be very busy and potentially quite risky as well. Has anyone in your industry or cycling organisations looked at a way to black-list or white-list particular roads or areas based on their riskiness apart from speed limits? It is a bit of a blunt instrument. You see what I mean. Is there any way to look at it?

Ms Francis : There are safer routes and more dangerous routes, but any route with a 100-kilometre-an-hour speed limit is best served by a separated bicycle track, in my opinion.

Mr Cooper : One of the European countries has it as out of town, as soon as you exit the city limits.

Senator CANAVAN: Particular areas.

Mr Cooper : They have a geographical exemption to it.

Senator CANAVAN: So something like that could potentially be something to look at for ours.

Mr Cooper : Yes. It makes sense that, as soon as you hit an 80-kay road, you are not going to be going at the 15 or 20 kays per hour that Dorothy suggested. You are probably not a commuter cyclist, or, if you are a commuter cyclist, you are commuting 15, 20 or 50 kays, and if that is the case you are probably on a road bike and you want to have a helmet on, so that makes sense on a geographic basis. Something like the 60 or 80—80 would be an obvious place that you would probably keep the law and for 60 you would not. That is one potential model.

CHAIR: Mr Cooper, I just want to go through a couple of statements. You are a youth worker; is that right?

Mr Cooper : Yes, I work in environmental training, and also I do a bit of part-time teaching in Newcastle uni—a lot of work with youth.

CHAIR: Does that include Aboriginal youth?

Mr Cooper : Yes.

CHAIR: There is a page in your submission that has attracted my attention. First of all, what is a 'cyborgian' cyclist? Even though you tried to explain, I am still struggling with that.

Mr Cooper : The cyborgian cyclists are those of us like me. I have a physical impairment, so I cannot walk very long distances. There are quite a lot of ex-trail bikers who have busted knees and shins, so the bike is almost like our wheelchair. It is for mobility. It is a mobility aid.

CHAIR: I see. I have the page open where you refer to some of the impacts you have observed. You have 'Introduction of youth to chronic debt'. There is a quote that says:

I got five thousand dollars in bike helmet fines. I was [expletive] by then.

And then an Aboriginal male said he received a custodial sentence based upon his inability to pay bicycle helmet fines:

I got sent-up just for not paying helmet fines.

Are those one-offs, or is there more than one example?

Mr Cooper : It is really the last few years that I have started working in this field. The issue of the bike helmets, because I discussed the issue of cycling sociology, has come up more. One of the things that I have noticed is that people expect me to be a pious, 'healthist' cyclist. Where you are thinking of the reform of this law, it is actually people like me that they are worried would shame them for not wearing a helmet. After the discovery that I am actually open to considering the reform, the stories start coming out. Since making an effort, I am starting to get these kinds of accounts far more often. I think that is one of the things about those cycling advocates who remain in Australia. People simply do not talk to them about those issues, because they are scared of the shame: 'Oh, you're not wearing a helmet? Oh, horrible!'

CHAIR: Another one that attracted my attention was a paragraph that begins 'Suspicion of police motivation':

… one Aboriginal youth in a NSW country town explained to me, "you see that car, that's their unmarked one, we know it, when the cops want to give us some grief, they just do a helmet run … "

Mr Cooper : Yes.

CHAIR: Does this mean the cops want to give them grief? What do you think they mean by that? What does 'giving them grief' mean?

Mr Cooper : That was an example from a country town in New South Wales. If there are a lot of young people who are truants or there has been a spate of house robberies or a house fire—that young person was suspecting that they would want to give them grief. Basically, it is to get them off the streets and back into school or wherever. So it is strategic policing and the helmets are an easy way of doing that. The kids for the most part believe that they can ride around without a helmet and it is only at certain times that they are experiencing that.

CHAIR: Then you report on a distinction between Aborigines and non-Aborigines, as to whether or not they get fined.

Mr Cooper : That was an account from a non-Aboriginal male near Moree. He was speculating that the police would not fine the Aboriginal people because they would not be able to pay the fines anyway.

CHAIR: So they do not bother, although the other example was they do bother and then they get jailed for it.

Mr Cooper : Yes. Part of the problem with any of this data is there has been no research done into what is actually going on within the police service. It is obviously going to be problematic data to gather. So it is all speculation by other members of the community. Hence, it is questioning the motivations of the state as to why the helmet laws exist: for revenue raising or for selective policing? All of these are speculation by other members of the public on what is going on within the police. I have spoken to two police about it and the impression I got was more about what is not being said, rather than what is being said. It is a case of I think we know but it would not be the sort of thing you would expect police to own up to.

CHAIR: It seems you are implying that the enforcement of helmet laws is occurring in certain circumstances at least for other reasons than just simply that people are not wearing helmets. Is that right?

Mr Cooper : It is certainly a suspicion among the community.

CHAIR: But concerning revenue raising, the fines for not wearing a helmet in New South Wales are not huge.

Mr Cooper : No. I do not think that is the significant one; I think probably the one would be the selective policing, trying to manage truants. In some ways, if you retain the law for under 16s, at least the police still have the power to do that.

CHAIR: The idea would be the police would pursue truants on the grounds of not wearing a helmet and that would then give them leverage in terms of getting back into school.

Mr Cooper : Yes. I guess you would have to talk to the police about their strategies. As I said, all of this is speculation on what the police behaviour is and it is really detailed data that would be very difficult to get hold of. They are conversations I have had were with two police officers who were off duty, fellow mountain bikers. There appears to me to be a reluctance about the helmet laws and I get the impression it is because of those reasons. They do not want to be implicated. They have more important things to do. It is also police resources. There is a paper that some of the critics did of the statistical errors in anti-helmet arguments, that UNSW did. They deny the cost-shifting exercises within government. I think it is absolutely true that there is cost shifting within government from the use of funds which could go into bike paths or safety infrastructure. I have seen budget line items that say 'cycling promotion', which is actually cycling regulation activity. It would otherwise go into things that would really benefit cyclists' safety.

CHAIR: Finally, I want to talk about civil disobedience, which you raise. I will be interested also in the views of Ms Francis, since she is an enthusiastic non-helmet wearer too. Your suggestion, Mr Cooper, is that disobedience continues on a large scale and that revoking the mandatory helmet laws would not have a significant negative effect on helmet usage, basically because not many people are wearing them now anyway, or a lot of people—

Mr Cooper : In certain areas. Byron Bay is a good example of where there is quite a lot of nonobservance of the law. The cyclist's reputation as a scofflaw gets formed, predominantly, through the helmet laws. In the recent Operation Pedro in New South Wales, once you subtracted helmet offences from the numbers, they ended up issuing more traffic infringement notices to motorists than to cyclists, so it appears that there is still a significant amount of disobedience to the law. I am aware that there are social media networks that notify cyclists of helmet cop activities, so people are sharing police locations to avoid the law.

CHAIR: What you are saying, I suppose, is that not wearing a helmet is being orchestrated now to ensure that it does not actually end up in people paying fines?

Mr Cooper : Yes.

CHAIR: Ms Francis, in the time since you ran afoul of the police on this issue, what is your impression of the rate of enforcement of the helmet laws? Do you think it has altered over the period you have been interested in this issue?

Ms Francis : I think it varies enormously around different parts of Australia. What is emerging is there are a very large range of cycling cultures in different places, depending on the amount of the fine, the risk of the riding situation, the level of enforcement and the size of the fine. In Melbourne, we have got almost complete compliance with the law, because nobody can afford to break it. In areas where it is not enforced, I think it often comes down to about 50 per cent noncompliance.

CHAIR: That, essentially, suggests that the only reason people are complying with it is that they do not want to be fined, not because they believe it is—

Ms Francis : In a situation where they believe they are at a high risk of being injured, they may be wearing helmets, but there are a number of situations where they are at no risk and, in those situations, they will be complying with the law to avoid a fine.

CHAIR: Isn't it amazing what adults do when they have the opportunity to be rational and act in their own interests? It is quite remarkable! Are there any more questions?

Mr Cooper : Thank you, Senator.

CHAIR: Thank you very much.

Proceed ings suspended from 11:58 to 12 : 50