The crackdown

February 22, 2012 at 20:14 | Posted in bicycles | 2 Comments
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It seems there is a crackdown going on. Right across Australia, police are focusing on vulnerable road users. ‘Hurrah!’, I hear you shout. About time some focus was put on behaviors that put vulnerable road users at risk. Surely this means an increased focus on cars that go through red lights, pass cyclists aggressively, mobile phone use whilst driving and so on.

Unfortunately no. What the ‘focus on vulnerable road users’ entails is dishing out tickets to vulnerable road users for minor infringements that put no-one at risk, whilst ignoring the ‘bull’ – car drivers swishing past, ears glued to their phones whilst they exceed the speed limit.

I saw the bicycle cops were on Pyrmont Bridge this morning, so I turned off to go another way. I could do without any more helmet fines right now, given that I just received a $198 bill for the last one (I appealed for leniency, but to no avail). However, on a very quiet back street I encountered another officer. I’m not sure if he was just sitting there to nab people going around, or if he saw me turn off prior to the bridge and rode after me.

It’s one of the guys I know well, and he was very apologetic; he asked to to understand that it wasn’t personal, but they had been told not to issue any more warnings. He’s a really nice guy, and seemed to tacitly agree that the law was stupid – I also made the point that I appreciated his polite and professional manner, and that my argument wasn’t with him or his colleagues, but with the stupid law.

So I continued to work (he was quite happy for me to continue my ride). Turning into the Kent St cycleway, a motorcycle cop shouted to me.

‘Where’s your helmet, dumbo?’

Given that this wasn’t an instruction, I ignored him and carried on. Next thing he’s powering up alongside me on his motorcycle, shouting at me to get on the pavement and get off my bike.

He was very rude, at least to start with, asking me why I didn’t get off and push, that he wasn’t wasting his breath shouting for no reason and so on. He was really quite aggressive. I thought the police were supposed to keep situations calm, not insult people and shout at them. Anyway, I was able to calm him down a bit by telling him I hadn’t understood he was giving me an instruction. Whilst he wrote me a ticket, I explained my reasons for not wearing a helmet. We had the ususal too and for about ‘the guys in the tour de France wear them’, to which I replied that drivers at Bathurst wear four point harnesses and flame retardant suits, but that didn’t mean they were needed for driving in the city.

‘But they are doing 200kmh!’ he said.

So I pointed out the TdF riders were doing 80kmh down a mountain, whilst I was doing 15km/h in a bike lane – thus rather proving the point.

His attitude did soften a a bit after that exchange, and at the end he simply advised me to wear a helmet, ‘to make your life easier’.

He also commented that he had already pinged three cyclists and two pedestrians that morning. After he left, I watched him for a few minutes, and in that time he gave a pedestrian a ticket for jaywalking, and another ticket to a helmetless cyclist. Such a great use of our tax dollars.

All very tiresome. Still, two tickets in one day must be a kind of record. I guess tomorrow I’m going to have to go the very long way round, to avoid the central Sydney police local area command. Still, it’s a nice ride, and the weather is lovely at the moment…

I am not a criminal

May 29, 2011 at 01:01 | Posted in bicycles | 3 Comments
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It all started back in January when I received a ticket for riding without a helmet. Then I got another one. After some umming and ahhinh, I decided to contest them – I just wasn’t prepared to be branded a criminal for doing something that harms no-one, and delivers benefits to society.

So yesterday I had my day in court. Going to court involves a lot of hanging around, but my case was finally called and I went to the appointed courtroom at the Dowling Centre. It was a small courtroom, and the only people there were myself, the prosecutor and the court clerk. Whilst waiting for the magistrate the prosecutor and I got chatting, and it turned out he was a cyclist too, and he commuted in from Gordon each day. All very jolly.

Then the magistrate arrived, and we were off. The prosecution outlined the evidence (essentially just the citations I have been given), and the magistrate turned to me.

‘I assume you are going to plead guilty?’ she said.

I shook my head. ‘I am pleading not guilty, your honour’.

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, and she was momentarily taken aback. ‘Well, you’d better get into the witness box then.’

As she was saying this, she began to put in what appeared to be a pair of iPod earphones. Now it was my turn to be taken aback. Was she going to listed to some funky beats whilst I gave my evidence? She then directed me to speak into the microphone, so I assume that in fact she was somewhat hard of hearing, and was using the earphones to hear me clearly.

I had to pledge to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and then I was invited to begin. As you might expect, I was a little nervous. I had written out what I needed to say, but didn’t intend to necessarily read it verbatim. However, this is what I started to do to cover my nerves. I had barely got out a sentence when the prosecutor stood up and called ‘objection!’. Ooooh, how exciting! It was just like on TV.

He objected to me ‘reading a prepared statement’. His objection was upheld, and the magistrate ordered that I turn my notes over and proceed without them.

I was temporarily floored. I was very familiar with the material, but for a few moments flustered a little getting back into my stride. On reflection, I think this was a little unfair. It was my first time in court, defending myself, using a defence based on a relatively technical legal argument. And I was not permitted to use notes. Telling me not to read, well, perhaps. But not allowing me to have my notes in front of me?

I continued, and after a few fluffs the argument began to flow. I explained I would be using the defence of ‘necessity’, and explained the three elements that it was necessary to show for this defence to be upheld.

The first item was my belief that wearing a helmet puts the ride at increased risk of serious injury. I pointed out that there was significant scientific research on the subject, published in peer-reviewed journals that supported this belief. Half way into making this point, I was interrupted by the magistrate, who pointedly told me that I couldn’t use this argument in my defence unless the author of the research was there to support it. We had a bit of too-ing and fro-ing about this and the matter of whether talking about Sue’s court case was relevant, but when I was able to get a word in edgeways I explained that I was not attempting to conduct an examination of the science, but that the defence of necessity merely requires me to prove that I hold the belief on reasonable grounds – and that the very fact that there was peer-reviewed science to support my position was indeed reasonable grounds.

I managed to land this point quite well, and it did cause the magistrate to pause, and then accept the point. However she then instructed me to move on to the next point, so I was unable to explain the relevance of the judge’s comments in Sue’s case – essentially that it seemed reasonable to me to take the same position as a District Court Judge who had previously examined the evidence.

So we then moved on to the second item; that of necessity. The magistrate got very hung up on telling me that ‘this cannot be about you riding a bicycle’, which was kind of odd given that the entire case was about me riding a bicycle. I made a few salient observations about the necessity to ride to safeguard my health, and then was again hurried onto the final point, meaning was unable to make the argument about the need to reduce my carbon footprint.

The final point was to demonstrate that no harm was caused by me breaking the law. I commented that no harm had been caused by me riding, and indeed a number of benefits had been accrued, such as benefits to my health, and to reducing congestion.

And that was that, I was stood down from the witness box, as the prosecution had no questions.

The judge then delivered a little speech. She praised my passion and conviction, which was nice. However, she then launched into a rant about how I had failed to demonstrate that I had reasonable grounds to believe that wearing a helmet increases the risk of injury. She called my argument ‘ridiculous’, and whilst she acknowledged that my belief was ‘honestly held’, she commented that she knew someone who honestly believes that we are descended from aliens that landed in a spaceship, and whilst they held that belief honestly it was, like my argument, not reasonable. ‘It is simply irrational’, she continued, ‘to believe that wearing protective equipment does not reduce the risk of injury.’

I must admit, I struggled to keep a straight face through this. The irony of the matter was stark; I was the one with the rationally held beliefs, based on a long and careful study of the science, and yet apparently the opinions of a magistrate with no expertise in the matter at all were more valid. I wonder if she knows that she is essentially calling her learned colleague Judge Ellis ‘irrational’ and ‘ridiculous’, as after considering the evidence he too came to the conclusion that wearing a helmet was more likely to do harm than good.

She also rambled on about how injuries do cause a cost on society, and she did therefore not accept my argument that no harm was caused. This reflects her incorrect grasp of the law; the defence of necessity only requires that no harm was caused on the specific occasion under consideration (which in this case can be shown, as on that day I caused no harm by riding my bike), however she took the argument to the general case that riding without a helmet may, at some point in the future, cause harm.

The one part of my argument she did not comment on was the point of necessity – the argument that I had to be riding my bike on that occasion. This was by far and away the weakest part of the case, and one on which I think it would have been quite easy to dismiss the argument.

After heading her speak, I was braced for the verdict. A large fine? Or perhaps slugged with court costs for wasting her time?

However, at the very end of her speech, her tone changed slightly. She warned me that ‘this is not the right way to go about this matter’; she made the point in a rather oblique way and I found it hard to really follow the point she was making. However, it occurred to me that she was aware this was as much a political argument as a legal one, and was acknowledging that – if also trying to warn me off using the courts as a way of grandstanding the issue.

She summed up by saying she accepted the offence and that the law had been broken. And then she noted that on this occasion she would record a non-conviction, and that I was free to go.

Slightly gobsmacked I left the court – no criminal record, no fine. Did I win? Well yes, I suppose I did, but the whole thing just left a sour taste in my mouth. I had spent a long time preparing my arguments, and was frustrated that I had not been given room to make them. And I was annoyed by her holier-than-thou attitude on a matter about which she knew nothing.

I left the court and jumped back on my bike to ride home. The sun was shining, and I rode along upright and resplendent in my best suit. On the way home I passed a film crew filming cyclists passing on the Union St cycleway. I was curious as to who they were, so turned around and cycled back towards them; as I reached them I heard someone shout ‘cut!’.

They explained that they were making a promotional item on the City of Sydney cycleways to be aired in local cinemas.

‘You look fantastic!’ the director enthused. ‘I saw you coming and said ‘We’ve got to get this guy – he looks great!’

That cheered me up enormously. I rode the rest of the way singing to myself, enjoying the fine weather and the gentle swish of my tyres on the road. Who knows, perhaps you’ll see me appear on the big screen next time you go to the movies. Or perhaps not – after all, they may choose not to use footage of people breaking the law. You see, I wasn’t wearing a helmet…

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).


A flawed argument

January 28, 2011 at 21:26 | Posted in bicycles | 4 Comments
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In this previous post, I discussed how all cyclists – whether supporters of helmet use or not – should take issue with Dr Michael Dinh’s recent article in Australian Cyclist which, amongst other things, painted cycling as a uniquely dangerous activity. Such rhetoric, I argued, does nothing except scare people off their bikes.
However, there is more to Dr Dinh’s article than this; he links the fact that injured cyclists get brought into his hospital with the need, in his opinion, to maintain mandatory helmet laws. As I shall explain, this is a flawed conclusion – and it is not necessary to be sceptical of the effectiveness of helmets to appreciate this.

It’s probably necessary to say right at the start that this article is not about bicycle helmets. Or more accurately, it’s not about the efficacy of cycle helmets. There is much impassioned debate about how well bicycle helmets work, and just how many head injuries they prevent – but this article does not venture into this territory. Indeed, for the purposes of reading this piece, it is useful to assume helmets ‘work’, in the sense that they prevent a sizeable percentage of potential head injuries in the event a cyclist is unlucky enough to strike his or her helmeted head.

The point, though, is that just because something is effective at reducing injury does not mean its use should be mandatory. Long-handled BBQ tongs reduce the risk of receiving a burn, but that does not mean legislation is needed to criminalise the use of short tongs! This point may seem a trivialisation, but it is an important analogy.

Unfortunately, bicycle helmets seem to attract this kind of flawed thinking. If cycle helmets reduce the risk of head injury in the event of an accident, then wearing one may well be a good idea. However, jumping from that thought to supporting mandatory helmet legislation fails to take account of a range of other factors which also need consideration – factors which are not related to the performance of helmets, but rather to wider societal impacts. Some of these are outlined below:

1) Cycling without a helmet is better for you than not cycling at all
Cycling is a health-giving activity. People who cycle live longer than those who sit on the couch – even if you ride without a helmet. This is an important consideration; as a medical professional does Dr Dihn really feel that criminalising a behaviour that reduces the incidence of disease and premature death is the best approach to delivering improved health outcomes in Australia?

2) The barriers that helmet legislation place on cycling participation are not trivial
People reading the magazine Dr Dinh’s article appeared in are, by definition, committed cyclists. To a committed cyclist, wearing a helmet is not an inconvenience. Indeed, many would do it irrespective of the law. However, many such committed cyclists fail to appreciate that, for most people, a bicycle is very ‘take it or leave it’ option. When mandatory helmet legislation was introduced, around 40% of people stopped using their bikes; these were not the committed cyclists (who were by and large already wearing helmets), but the occasional ‘pop down to the shops’ bicycle users.  It is only when bicycle programmes that are expressly aimed at non-cyclists – such as bike-share schemes – are introduced that we see the issue anew when for example comparing ridership numbers for Melbourne’s bike share with almost any other international deployment you care to look at.

3) A tenet of our civil liberties is that we should be free to do that which harms no-one else
This argument sometimes get dismissed as either whining or aggrandisement, but it is an important principle. Our entire societal fabric is built on the presumption of personal freedom; that we are able to pursue the goals and activities we value in the manner in which we wish to pursue them. Curtailment of those freedoms can only be justified where the execution of them impinges on the lives of others. For example, smoking (a very dangerous activity that kills around forty people every day in Australia) is legal, yet there are significant curtailments on smoking in public places because this exposes others to something unpleasant and harmful that they would not otherwise choose to be exposed to. Any argument about mandatory cycle helmets needs to address this issue; essentially it is necessary to show that not wearing a helmet places an unacceptable burden on (or limits the freedoms of) others – something that Dr Dinh does not even attempt to address.

There are other arguments that I could make, but the point is clear. Several different arguments in favour of mandatory helmet legislation can be made, but simply claiming ‘it is necessary because helmets prevent injuries’ is not a valid one. There is an important debate to be had about mandatory helmet legislation but if Dr Dinh wants to further that debate he would do well to present better reasoned arguments that do not immediately fall flat on their face because they contain a basic logical fallacy. As it is, his article does nothing to support mandatory helmet laws, however much he might claim that it does – and this should be something that is clear to everyone irrespective of their views on helmets. And something else that all cyclists should agree on is that we desperately need a higher standard of debate on this important topic, especially from those that purport to speak from a position of authority.

(note: Australian Cyclist articles are usually available online around two months after the magazine is published; the article referred to should be available here in a few weeks time)

Read part three of this article here.

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…

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