The boys in blue

November 8, 2011 at 22:02 | Posted in bicycles | 8 Comments
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So it happened. The ink was barely dry on the verdict I received when attempting to defend riding a bicycle without a helmet when I saw the cops again on Pyrmont Bridge.

I rode along behind them for a while, wondering what to do. Get off and walk? Stay behind them and hope they didn’t see me?

In the end, I had to know what would happen. Would they finally leave me alone, having seen that I was prepared to fight this, and having heard the magistrate uphold my arguments (if not the technicality of my legal position)? Or would they simply see that ‘I lost’, and dish me out with more tickets?

So I rode past them, and sure enough they called me over. It was immediately clear that it was the latter course of action they had in mind. ‘So the magistrate didn’t agree with you then,’ one of them said.

‘Well, actually he did agree with me,’ I countered, ‘but he didn’t agree that it was enough to qualify for the defence of necessity.’

‘Well, we have to keep giving you tickets’, he said. So they did.

This is really getting very tedious; I have received eight tickets for riding without a helmet in the last nine months – this is after three years of riding helmetless without so much as a comment. So what to do now? Another court challenge?


My day in court

November 2, 2011 at 22:29 | Posted in bicycles | 5 Comments
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I finally got to have my day in court for the four helmet tickets I received earlier in the year. It’s taken a long time to get there – the wheels of justice turn slowly – but on Friday the day arrived. It was a bright, sunny day, so I have a lovely time riding over to the court on the Radish, dressed in my best suit.

When I arrived, the police officers who issued the tickets were there, but my expert witnesses were not. One of them would not be arriving until after lunch, and the other was only going to be able to make it if my case was heard between about 1.30pm and 2.30pm. The list of cases to be heard that day was very long, however, and I was number twenty-two, so I was hopeful that it might work out.

Initially cases get mentioned in the morning, and at that preliminary mention I asked the presiding magistrate if it were possible to schedule the case for the afternoon, in order that my witnesses could attend. She told me that it was not possible to do this, and the case would be heard when it was called. So I kept my fingers crossed that the long list of other cases would take up the morning.

And then it was really just a matter of waiting around. At just after eleven I got a text from one of my witnesses that they were on their way, and would be there in forty-five minutes or so. And at that moment, my case was called.

I made my way to the appointed courtroom with trepidation. I was going to have to ask for the hearing to be delayed in order for my witnesses to be there. When I got to the court, it was some time before the magistrate arrived, and he seemed somewhat flustered because he was actually in the middle of another case. However, he just wanted to hear the outline of the matter.

The prosecutor outlined the basics of the case, and I confirmed that the facts were not in dispute, but that I would be using the common law defence of ‘necessity’. The magistrate seemed bemused, and wanted more information, so I outlined the very basics of the way the defence would unfold – essentially that the defence allows for infractions to be excused if certain conditions can be met.

The magistrate stared at me. ‘Well, that’s what you say the law is, but I don’t know that.’

I was a bit taken aback by this. Wasn’t it his job to know what the law is?

He went on, somewhat aggressively. ‘Each of these offences carries a maximum penalty of $2000, and if you pursue this I will be unable to consider any mitigating circumstances. You need to think about changing your plea. You could end up with a very large fine.’ And with that he adjourned for morning tea.

I guess any hopes I had for a reasonable trial kind of evaporated at that point. Apparently the magistrate presiding over the case was not familiar with the legal principle I was using, and had made it pretty clear he thought I was wasting his time, with the clear threat of a large fine hanging there. So much for innocent until proven guilty!

By the time morning tea was over the first of my witnesses had arrived. This made me feel much more confident; at least I had someone on my side! The indefatigable Sue Abbott also came along to support me. However, getting my other witness to be there was starting to look like a long shot. Indeed, I had only secured his services at the last minute when my original witness was unable to make it, and had never even spoken to him on the phone, let alone met him!

The magistrate returned, and continued to deal with the case he has been involved in. I was looking at the clock, and trying to calculate whether there might be a chance to get him there. I took Sue out of the court for a second.

‘Sue; if it looks as if this is going to go on a bit, and there’s a chance we might still be going when he’s available, could you call him and see if he can jump in a cab and get here? It’s going to be tricky for me, as it will all kick off in a few minutes.’

Sue agreed, and then the case started. A load of time was wasted at the start with the prosecution and the magistrate discussing whether there was a provision in law to exempt helmet wearing, and if a medical certificate would be acceptable. Perhaps they were looking for a way to get me off, but it had nothing to do with my defence. There are no such exemptions allowed; I know because I have checked. Interestingly though, the prosecution alleged that the police would not issue a ticket to riders who were able to produce a doctors note saying they were unable to wear a helmet. This certainly isn’t what the law says, so if the police would actually do this I don’t know; at best it would be an unofficial policy.

Then I outlined to the magistrate the basis of my case, and he interrupted several times. He had clearly been off to read up about the defence of necessity as he had his book open in front of him.

‘You are going to have to show compulsion to ride a bicycle,’ he kept enunciating, leaning forward whilst flecks of spittle formed on his lips. ‘I cannot see how you are going to do this. If there was a psychotic person wielding an axe at you and you jumped on the bicycle to get away from him – well, this is the kind of thing the defence of necessity is for.’ (Actually the magistrate brought up a psychotic axe-wielding maniac several times during the case; it seems he is a bit obsessed by them.)

I got very close to retorting that if he shut up for a moment and let me speak then he might find out how it would all fit together, but I refrained. I did say that I would indeed be able to show that, and had expert witnesses there to support the point. And then I suggested that I give my evidence.

So I did, although it was hard to get all my points across because the magistrate kept interrupting me. Eventually I got most of it out, and then I faced questions from the prosecution, including a whole load of bizarre questions about whether I could fit my bike with a device that make a light come on when I went over a certain speed(!). Eventually even the magistrate asked him if these questions were relevant, to which he limply said, ‘no, not really’.

Then it was time to call my first witness. ‘I call Doctor Veronica Harris!”, I said grandly. I have no idea if that is what you are supposed to say, but that’s what they do on TV so I went with it. Dr Harris took the stand, and I got to ask her my questions. She was superb; calm, authoritative and eloquent. It was at that moment that the atmosphere in the court began to change. I sensed the magistrate sit up a bit more, and take some notice. This wasn’t just some guy trying to talk his way out of a helmet fine; as she spoke it I think dawned on the magistrate that my outline of how the defence of necessity applied to the case wasn’t just puffery. Here was an acknowledged expert in her field clearly articulating one of the key points of my defence.

Veronica dealt with some rather trivial questions from the prosecutor (who by now seemed to be well out of his depth), and left the stand. I glanced at the clock. Not even one o’clock. So no chance my other witness was going to be there. I was going to have to try and prove another key point with the help of just a few newspaper cuttings; something that I suddenly realised was going to be impossible.

I caught Sue’s eye, and she grinned, giving me a thumbs up. Could it be? Was he here?

Figuring I had nothing to lose, I put on my best Rumpole voice. ‘I call Professor Chris Rissel.’

The door of the courtroom opened, and in walked the Professor. I only knew what he looked like from his little picture on the University of Sydney web site, but as he walked in it was like a huge choir suddenly started singing the hallelujah chorus. I was gripped by a sudden excitement. He was here! I might actually be able to pull this off!

I managed to shake Chris’s hand as he walked past and onto the witness stand, and then I asked him my questions. It probably ranks as the strangest introduction I have ever made; the first words I spoke to the man was to ask him questions in a court of law.

He too was superb. He outlined his impeccable credentials, including the significant research he has undertaken in the field of health, bicycle use and helmets, and all of a sudden I again felt the magistrate paying even closer attention. The other key point of my defence was clearly supported. The prosecutor, by now looking rather flustered, asked a few questions that Chris swatted away, and then it was time for the summing up.

The prosecutor made a rather weak statement about how what they had heard might be appropriate for a government review of the helmet law, but was not suitable for this court, and then I re-articulated my case, emphasising how the basis for the defence of necessity had been shown. I also emphasised the urgency and immediacy of the matter, as this was something the magistrate seemed quite hung up on, and finished with an impassioned plea. ‘The law puts me in an impossible position; to which the only solution that will not cause harm is for me to not wear a helmet when I ride. These are important matters, and it seems to me exactly the kind of situation the defence of necessity is designed to address.’

The magistrate then said he needed to consider the matter, and called a lunch recess for an hour.

I was pretty keyed up, and whilst I forced down a sandwich the rational part of me knew that I was not going to win. No magistrate is going to risk setting a precedent like this one. However, a part of me was just wondering. Maybe? Maybe? Clearly we had given the magistrate a lot to think about; compared to the last time when the magistrate pretty much told me I was speaking nonsense from the instant I finished.

I was not the only one thinking there was a chance. We went back to the court and whilst we were waiting for the magistrate I asked the prosecutor for his opinion. He was looking worried. “It could set a very dangerous precedent,’ he said.

Then the magistrate came back in and delivered his verdict. He spoke at length, and clearly had spent some time preparing what he was going to say. He reviewed all the evidence presented, and basically accepted all of it as factually correct; he also made some comments about the bicycle helmet law not being ‘helpful’. He had also finally grasped how it was that my case fitted together, as he clearly laid out how my defence worked, with the various interlocking aspects. However, he did not accept that the conditions needed to fulfil the defence of necessity had been met; specifically he felt there was not enough ‘urgency and compulsion’. There was no axe-wielding maniac. And so I was found guilty.

I walked away with a token $50 fine, and a kind of warning that the next time I came to court the fine would be larger. However, I think the case was a success. I was clearly able to demonstrate that this was not just a trivial matter; I forced the magistrate to take me seriously and he had to spend an hour thinking about it, and perhaps struggling a bit to find a hole in my arguments he could use to dismiss the case. It also highlighted the absurdity of the bicycle helmet law to the point where he was prepared to criticise it on the record.

Now I just need to consider whether to appeal…

My first day in court

May 20, 2011 at 22:45 | Posted in bicycles | 1 Comment
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After receiving two tickets for riding without a helmet, I went to court this week to start my challenge to this ridiculous law, and to plead my innocence.

I was hoping to get the matter dealt with on the day, but my hearing was deferred until Friday 27th May. I pleaded ‘Not Guilty’, and on the 27th will attempt to argue that I can be excused from wearing a helmet on the grounds of ‘necessity’; a legal device in NSW that essentially means you do not have to follow a law that puts your life or health at risk.

The whole experience was quite interesting. The courtroom has the presiding chair (normally occupied by the judge or magistrate) at the back on a raised stage, with a lower dais for the court officials. Facing this (on ‘ground level’) is a table, and behind the table are a few rows of chairs. I was one of the first people to get into the courtroom, and sat in the front row of chairs. A swarm of other people rushed in and grabbed the few chairs at the table, with some others taking the chairs next to me.

Finally the court was in session – it was the Registrar’s court, so rather than being where cases are heard it is kind of the sorting room for cases to be sent off to be dealt with elsewhere.

It was quite chaotic. Someone at the table would jump up, and call out ‘I’d like to raise the matter of Joe Bloggs’. The Registrar and prosecution would ferret around a mountain of paperwork to find Joe Bloggs’ papers, and some discussion would ensure about why the case needed to be deferred, or brought forward, or whatever. A decision would be made, and then the next person would leap up.

I soon twigged that all the people swarming to get to the table were lawyers, and it seems the rule was simply to shout loudest, and thus get your case heard. There were some comical moments, including the lawyer with a long list of names whom he called, and then admitted that he had received no instructions from any of his clients, and therefore did not know what to plead, nor if they needed more time. There was also a lady barrister who was unable to get a word in edgeways, as every time she rose to speak some other lawyer would jump in in front of her, as she made despairing faces at her client, including shrugging her shoulders and mouthing ‘how rude!’.

It soon became clear that the order of proceedings had nothing whatsoever to do with the times on the sheet pinned up outside the courtroom, and that if I wanted to get heard I would have to join in the scrum. Accordingly when a lawyer vacated a chair at the table I leapt into it, and then quickly stood up and called out that I wanted to raise the matter of my own case.

My paperwork was found, and I confirmed that I wanted to plead ‘Not Guilty’. The registrar asked if I had any witnesses, and I said I did not, and furthermore would not need the police officers to attend either as I was not going to contest the facts of the case. There was some discussion of this, and then the prosecution agreed that no legal brief would therefore be provided, and I was given a hearing date.

So I go back to court on Friday for the real thing. My chances of winning are very slim – but there is just a chance I could set a NSW legal precedent. Which would be handy as I have another outstanding ticket pinned to the fridge.

The best part of the day, though, was riding to court. It was a beautiful day; sunny but cool and crisp, and I rode all the way in my best suit; sitting upright and stately on the Radish and feeling like a million dollars. (I was secretly hoping to be photographed for Sydney Cycle Chic, but I suspect I’m not good looking enough…)

I rode up to the court and hopped off my bike in front of the police officers standing outside. Without wearing a helmet, obviously.

Double crime!

February 21, 2011 at 19:07 | Posted in bicycles | 2 Comments
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On Thursday last week it was Baby Chillikebab’s first birthday. A momentous event that the North Sydney police evidently felt the need to mark by patrolling the foot of the Sydney Harbour Bridge cycleway staircase looking for commuting fathers trying to get home early. As I rolled up on the Radish, the two cycle cops called me over.

‘Good afternoon sir. Could you tell me why you aren’t wearing a helmet?’

Sigh. Here we go again.  It seems the nonsensical police crackdown on dangerous cycling scofflaws is still in force.

I trot out my rehearsed line. ‘I choose not to wear a helmet for personal safety reasons, Officer.’

Cue normal slightly puzzled expression, and then ensuing dialogue. They weren’t as busy as the last time, so I was able to have a bit more of a chat with them. At one stage the officer actually taking my details seemed quite interested in the issues and the supporting evidence, but his colleague warned him to ‘not get into a discussion about the research and all that stuff’. There was one quite comical moment when I asked him if he was actually going to give me a ticket, or, given that I had received a ticket just a few weeks before that was still pending review, he could perhaps exercise his discretion and simply give me a warning.

“I’m going to have to give you a ticket because you already had a warning, and, well, you didn’t learn the lesson, did you?’.  As he said this, his voice tailed off as he realised how nonsensical this sounded when faced with someone who has absolutely no intention of wearing a helmet, and can spout dozens of research articles to support his position.

I then had a nice chat with them about how I might be able to combine the two tickets into the same court appearance, to save time – they were most helpful.  And we then had a chat about the Radish; they were quite enthused and interested if it could carry a passenger. Perhaps I should have offered to take one of them for a ride!

Anyway, it now seems I will get another ticket. What a complete waste of everyone’s time and money. Whilst the policeman was taking my details, a car drove through a red light at a nearby pedestrian crossing. I pointed this out to the officer, and asked him whether he considered this a more serious crime than me riding a bike without wearing a polystyrene hat. He dodged the question, saying that they were there to enforce all aspects of the law and were looking out for rogue drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. I was tempted to say that they weren’t going to nab many rogue motorists as they were positioned thirty metres away from the road, but I refrained.

The whole interaction was very polite and professional, but riding away I must admit I was fuming. Not about the police (who are just doing the job assigned to them by some unimaginative superior officer), but the nonsensical helmet laws we have to put up with in Australia. To my mind, I was doing something rather good that afternoon. I was reducing road congestion by not driving. I was reducing my impact on the environment by not burning fossil fuels. I was making the roads safer for others by operating a low-speed, lightweight vehicle rather than a fast, heavy one. I was keeping myself fit and healthy. All things that have a positive impact on society. And my reward for all that common good? To be branded a criminal. It’s enough to put you off cycling…


(Note: the image is a library pic of a NSW police bike squad; I forgot to take a picture of the actual officers involved).


I am a criminal…

January 19, 2011 at 21:06 | Posted in bicycles | 8 Comments
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Well, it finally happened. I guess it was inevitable. Riding to work last week I given a ticket by the cops for not wearing a helmet. They were waiting at the foot of the steps at the north end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, handing out tickets to any cyclist not wearing a helmet. And there were a lot of them – just while I was there they nabbed another three renegade cyclists who dared to take to the streets on a bicycle without wearing a polystyrene hat.

This just seems to me a complete waste of police resources, and I daresay the cops on duty felt the same way. However, their local area command had decided to have a ‘crackdown’ on scofflaw cyclists, so there they were.

I did explain to the office why I don’t wear a helmet; in summary:
– they are unnecessary, as cycling is no more dangerous than walking
– they can actually make things worse in the event of an accident
– they make it more likely that you will have an accident
– there is no compelling evidence that they actually work
– they are hot and uncomfortable and put people off cycling

He listened somewhat sympathetically, but without disputing any of my points said he was there to uphold the law, and therefore he had to give me a ticket. Fair enough. I was of course very polite; funnily enough whilst I was talking to the officer another (helmeted) cyclist came by and started shouting at the police for being so stupid, and that what they were doing was ‘incredibly bad PR’.

I’m less worried about the police’s image than about the many cyclists who, having been given a ticket that morning, will now give up on cycling. This is a great pity for lots of reasons; however one of the most ironic is that fewer cyclists means cycling is more dangerous for those that remain (due to the ‘safety in numbers’ effect). Such is the effect of our ridiculous and misguided helmet laws.

The cops were there again the following week; however on this occasion a kind (helmeted) cyclist coming the other way cross the bridge warned me before I got there. I did consider continuing and getting another ticket (civil disobedience can be, after all, a noble thing). However, on balance I decided I could do without the hassle, so turned back and instead caught the ferry across the harbour – hence the picture. This made for a nice change, although the police had gone by the time I rode past.

So I now have a choice; pay the $57 fine (and get a criminal record), or contest the ticket in court. There is of course a precedent for this; last year a lady called Sue Abbott successfully fought her helmet conviction, arguing (to the satisfaction of a senior judge at Sydney District Court) that wearing a helmet was more dangerous than not wearing one, and thus her actions were protected by a NSW state statute that says people are not compelled to follow laws when doing so would put their lives in danger. I’ll let you know what I decide to do…

Butternut Snap Cookies

May 29, 2010 at 16:14 | Posted in biscuits | Leave a comment
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The Butternut Snap Cookie is, I think, the companion biscuit to the Choc Ripple. It comes in the same sort of packaging, and is the same size and texture. Rather than cocoa, however, this biscuit is flavoured with coconut and golden syrup. It’s made with a good proportion of butter, giving it a rich, butterscotch flavour.

However, it does share the Choc Ripple’s bizarre tendency to going stale within about two minutes. Not that they are unpleasant when they do so, however they quickly become rather less ‘Butternut Snap’ and rather more ‘Butternut Chew’.

They dunk into tea rather well, changing to a slightly gooey, chewy richness.

There’s not a lot more to say about them, really. I actually rather like them – they are a great everyday biscuit that hold up well against other more expensive varieties of ‘cookie’ that one sees sold in boxes.

Why is it, by the way, that ‘luxury’ biscuits are sold in boxes? It seems to be a universal rule. In the UK, for example, the McVities Digestive is a very everyday biscuit, and is sold in a normal pack. However, McVities clearly saw an option to play on the heritage and ‘importedness’ of them in Australia, and they are sold here in a box (with a criminal price mark-up, I might add).

Anyway, the Butternut Snap is very nice. Eight out of ten.

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