Remember when you were young, you'd jump on your bicycle and go for a ride to the park, to a friend's place or to the park? Not a care in the world, using your handy companion to get from place to place? Perhaps the last thing you'd be concerned about would be getting pulled over by a police officer and issued with a penalty notice.
Well times have changed, and concerns about the potential consequences of collisions involving bicycles have led to the enactment of laws which make it mandatory to wear helmets when riding.
Dangers of riding without a helmet
Statistics suggest that one in five people injured on Australian roads are cyclists, and research – and perhaps common sense – says your injuries can be reduced by wearing approved head protection.
So, what are the laws when it comes to wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle in New South Wales?
And are they justified?
Australia was the first country in the world to implement mandatory helmet laws.
Victoria implemented the first laws in 1990, and the rest of the country followed suit shortly thereafter.
In New South Wales, Rule 256 of the Road Rules 2014 states:
The rider of a bicycle must wear an approved bicycle helmet securely fitted and fastened on the rider's head, unless the rider is exempt from wearing a bicycle helmet under another law of this jurisdiction.
Does the law apply to everyone, even kids?
Yes. The applies to all bicycle riders, regardless of age, including kids on bicycles with training wheels and those who are being carried as a passenger on a bike or in a bicycle trailer.
What is an approved bicycle helmet?
An 'approved bicycle helmet' is one which has a sticker or label certifying it meets the Australian and New Zealand standard, which is AS/NZS 2063.
Helmets manufactured after 31 March 2011 must have an identifying mark from a body accredited or approved by the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand (JAS-ANZ) certifying compliance with the standard.
What is a road-related area?
The requirement to wear a helmet applies to roads as well as 'road-related areas', which under Rule 13 of the Road Rules include:
- an area that divides a road,
- a footpath or nature strip adjacent to a road,
- an area that is not a road and that is open to the public and designated for use by cyclists or animals, and
- an area that is not a road and that is open to or used by the public for driving, riding or parking vehicles.
What is the penalty for not wearing a bicycle helmet?
The maximum penalty a court can impose for the offence is 20 penalty units, which amounts to $2200, but most cases are dealt with by way of 'on-the-spot' fines in the sum of $344 (at the time of writing).
The fine for not wearing a helmet in NSW is the highest in the country – by comparison, the fine is currently $207 in Victoria and $25 in the Northern Territory, and critics argue the enforcement of fines is little more than a revenue raising exercise for police, with 17,560 penalty notices being issued for the offence from 2016 to 2019.
Can I Get an Exemption?
Whereas there are laws in a number of Australian jurisdictions which clarify the situations in which an exemption from wearing a bicycle helmet can be obtained, New South Wales is one of the strictest jurisdictions when it comes to getting an exemption.
Applications for exemptions can be sought from the Roads and Maritime services on grounds such as medical requirements and religious obligations, and are determined on a case-by-case basis.
Do Mandatory Helmet Laws Work?
Considerable controversy exists regarding the efficacy of mandatory helmet laws.
Whilst there is no doubt wearing a helmet in an accident could save your life, requiring helmets often means less people are willing to cycle.
An analysis by Professor Piet De Jong from Macquarie University found that the benefits of mandatory helmet laws were negligible compared to the potential health benefits of more people riding.
Regular cycling has considerable health benefits including cardiovascular fitness, increased joint mobility and decreased risk of obesity. It is arguable that this net public health benefit is considerable compared to the isolated risk of injury.
Concerns have also been raised that helmets may make some forms of injury more likely. Critics of current laws often cite that helmets can cause a form head rotation injury called a 'diffuse axonal injury'.
This injury occurs due to the rapid acceleration and deceleration of the head such as in whiplash.
In 2010, anti-helmet activist Sue Abbott successfully had her conviction and fine quashed on appeal to the NSW District Court arguing that the laws made riding more dangerous due to risk of diffuse axonal injury.
Although District Court Judge Roy Ellis still found the offence proven, he did have this to say on bike helmet laws:
"I frankly don't think there is anything advantageous and there may well be a disadvantage in situations to have a helmet – and it seems to me that it's one of those areas where it ought to be a matter of choice.''
However, Ms Abbott's theories have been disputed by many medical experts. For example, an analysis of cases by physicians through the University of Sydney in 2013 the risks of severe head injury times higher in non-helmeted cyclists that those wearing a helmet.
The debate regarding cycling helmets is unlikely to end any time soon with many activists longing to ride with the wind in their hair, without a hit to their hip pocket.
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