Law, Social policy, Health, Arts, culture & society | Australia

10 August 2015

Making it mandatory for cyclists to carry identification is an idea pedalling speedily towards discrimination, writes Craig Richards.

Everyone has an opinion about how bike riders should behave. What’s intriguing is that the debate quickly moves from influencing behaviour to controlling it. When it comes to bikes, harsh words like compulsory and mandatory enter the conversation quicker than Anna Meares sprinting off a velodrome embankment.

One of the magical things about bike riding is the freedom that comes from independent mobility.  So it’s rather ironic that people are so quick to propose restricting that freedom. Because freedom is what makes our society so great, great care should be taken with any plan to restrict it.

A classic example happened in July. The New South Wales government called for the mandatory carriage of identification by bike riders. The rationale was that it’s a good idea to be able to identify a rider if they’re hurt. No argument there. Many riders were even happy to submit saying, ‘I carry identification anyway, so what’s the big deal if it’s compulsory?’

They’d failed to consider two serious issues. The first is equality and its evil twin, discrimination. The second is freedom and its sibling, slavery. They should be our guiding lights whenever we consider whether a good idea should be mandatory.

In 2015 it’s widely understood that it’s wrong to discriminate against people on the basis of gender, race, religion or sexual preference. Equality is one of the basic tenements of a free society. That’s why we should take great care with any proposal to discriminate against a class of persons based on the fact that they pedal a bike.

Night bike

Image by Powerslide on Flickr.

The question to ask is, ‘is there a reason bike riders should be treated differently to others? What about pedestrians? Surfers? Trampoline jumpers?’ The answer is it’s clearly just as good an idea to be able to identify the others if they’re unconscious.

It seems that bike-rider-only ID is whipping up hatred against a class of persons whose only sin is believing that bikes are fundamental to a livable community. It sounds frighteningly like discrimination to me. Of course, whenever discrimination raises its head we need to lance it quickly before it becomes an epidemic.

Now, if compulsory identity-carrying for a class of persons infringes our right to be treated as equal, but it’s a good idea, the next question to ask is, ‘should it be mandatory for everyone to carry identification?’ Thankfully freedom from slavery squashes that notion.

Try this activity. Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper. On the left-hand side write down as many laws you can think of that require all people to do something. Now on the right-hand side right down as many laws as you can think of that require all people not to do something.

The left-hand side of the page will be pretty bare. Most people write ‘pay taxes, go to school,’ and then start to struggle. The right-hand side should be pretty full. Murder, steal, rape, assault people, drop rubbish, the list goes on.

The reason there’s not many all people do something laws is because we put a high value on freedom. It’s why almost all of the 10 commandments start with, ‘Thou shalt not.’

In our free society we can spend our day anyway we choose. If we want to spend the day staring at the clouds, throwing cards into a hat or classifying our toe nail clipping collection, that’s our choice.

My passion is getting people physically active. With two thirds of Australians not physically active it’s costing us over $13 billion a year (factoring in health care, productivity and mortality) and could lead to an early death for four million Australians, if you consider the health risks of inactivity and the likelihood of lifestyle disease. Instead of me working to get people riding bikes, the government could solve physical inactivity by just passing a law.

Every morning it could be mandatory to gather in the town square in our government issue grey tracksuits and do star jumps for 30 minutes. While we have them assembled we could make everyone eat five serves of vegetables, drink two litres of water then clean their teeth. All these things are good ideas but making them mandatory is abhorrent because freedom is even more important.


Image by Ed Dunens on Flickr.

So where do bike helmets fit in? It’s a good example of a positive obligation law for a certain activity. Other examples are seat belts in cars and life jackets on boats. It brings us to a third question, ‘does the benefit of the restriction outweigh the imposition on freedom. ‘

There’s currently a ‘Nanny State’ federal parliamentary inquiry looking into tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, bike helmets and film classifications. It’s a single inquiry into the economic and social impact of legislation, policies or Commonwealth guidelines, and it seems an odd collection of issues. No doubt the key will be assessing the evidence to see how much harm has been prevented and whether it outweighs the impact of the restriction on freedom. The evidence of saved lives should help put the bike helmet issue to rest.

In summary, before you either join the chorus arguing for mandatory things for bike riders or you sit passively and watch it eventuate, I’d urge you to think carefully. Apply the robust filters of equality and freedom rather than just the easily passed good idea test.

One final thought. Millions died over hundreds of years defending our freedom and fighting for equality. The fundamentals are enshrined in our most famous documents like the Magna Carta and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s disrespectful to our forefathers to give it away without scrutiny every time a good idea wobbles down the road.

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12 Responses

  1. simon batterbury says:

    I have indeed thought very carefully about bike helmets as the author recommends, being an academic over 25 years and a cyclist over 45 years, in many countries. “The evidence of saved lives should help put the bike helmet issue to rest” – indeed it does – more lives are saved by getting the population mobile, and this does NOT require a mandatory helmet law.

    Having just spent 4 months researching bicycle cultures in Europe and North America, I can safely say that they are happy without a compulsory helmet law, and leave it to individual riders to decide whether to wear one. Most do not, and their cycling participation is much higher than Australia’s. Any rider dissuaded from regular cycling because they don’t like wearing a helmet is one more person potentially at risk of insufficient exercise. This is a ‘demand side’ issue that is cultural and behavioural; it is not resolvable with CHLs . The rest of the world seems to see this; Australia and New Zealand do not. Australia’s CHL is a classic example of a failed policy intervention; it was hastily introduced, effectively supported the car manufacturers and motorists lobby by saying cyclists should protect themselves rather than motorists being penalised much harder for hitting or killing them, and effectively ‘criminalises’ bike riding by elevating the number of fines that cyclists are subject to in what should be a joyful, wind-in-the-hair activity. This is how cycling began, and how it remains in the rest of the world.

    It is amazing that Bicycle Network, with its focus on health, refuses to see that CHLs = less cycling = worse health outcomes, as Chris Rissell and others have pointed out very clearly [Rissel, C., Wen, L. (2011). The possible effect on frequency of cycling if mandatory bicycle helmet legislation was repealed in Sydney, Australia: a cross sectional survey. Health Promotion Journal of Australia, 22(3), 178-183. Rissel, C., Martin, P. (2011). Trends in head injuries and helmet use in cyclists at an inner-city major trauma centre, 1991-2010. Medical Journal of Australia, 194(4), 215-216]. While Western Australia may be the first state to reduce or remove the CHL legislation to encourage more cycling, following the partial removal in the NT, let us hope the rest follow.

  2. Etienne says:

    Most cycling organisations outside of Australia have certainly not “put the bike helmet issue to rest” and rightly reject all-ages helmet laws as bad for cycling. Just about every prominent cycling advocate that visits Australia cannot believe that we persist in this policy. Bicycle Network continues to sell out everyday cycling while supporting this criminalisation of a safe and healthy form of transport.

  3. William matthews says:

    Common sense has gone out the window here in Australia. If me and my partner are casually riding through the park on our bikes then why in the world should we be considered criminals? Mandatory helmet laws overstep the mark by a long way and discourage casual bike riding by adults.

  4. Colin says:

    Why criminalise an ordinary activity like riding a bike when it has such significant positive externalities compared to the significant negative externalities of its main transport rival, driving? The author seems to understand this with regards to laws for carrying ID, but fails to understand it when it comes to helmet laws.

    People who see cycling as a sport see helmets as just part of the sports gear, but helmets are NEVER going to be part of ordinary life for most people; going shopping, going to dinner, going to work etc. Compulsory helmet laws are a major barrier to growing cycling beyond “sport”.

  5. Kathy Francis says:

    This article is really quite odd, in that it sets out the case for not introducing mandatory ID for cyclists with a series of arguments that are used by those arguing for an end to mandatory bicycle helmets.

    Craig Richards argues that with bicycles we rapidly move from influencing behaviour to controlling it. That is what happened withe bike helmet laws where bike riders are targeted by police for a clothing offence. He states that words like ‘compulsory’ and ‘mandatory’ enter the conversation. So too with bike helmets. He notes the authorities are quick to restrict the freedom of bike riders and that they are subject to unequal and discriminatory behaviour. If that isn’t also a description of the much hated helmet laws I don’t know how else it could be described.

    After making all these points Mr. Richards rather bizarrely describes bike helmet laws as a “positive obligation law for a particular activity ” . Well this euphemistic phrase in no way explains the illogical distinction Mr. Richards makes between mandatory ID and mandatory helmets.

    What Mr. Richards neglected to say was that his organisation is one of the only bike ‘advocacy’ groups in the world who support setting the police onto bike riders who do not wear helmets. The ‘evidence’ he mentions has been assessed by the rest of the world and Bicycle Network remains isolated in their opinion.

  6. Darren Allen says:

    Good read Craig, it makes sense to me. It’s a real pity all the passionate cyclists who read and comment on this can’t find the common ground to make the positive change on the stuff that matters. Don’t worry , you’re ok, you have 50,000 members who believe in you.

    • simon batterbury says:

      They could have more if they changed their policy. They would add members. The existing membership would hardy resign.

  7. Nic W says:

    Most arguments I see on the CHL revert to the participation argument – so I assume there is no argument around safety? I’m interested to read what people think will happen if the CHL is repealed. I suspect most serious – on & off road – riders would continue to use a helmet (myself included), and maybe general participation will increase. Alternatively, is there thought that we’re just the generation of change & need to tough it out: Future people (Worldwide) will ride – wearing a helmet – en masse, without thought of taking it off?

  8. Evan James says:

    I am not allowed to ride 500 metres, to my local fresh produce market, on the footpath, on my upright bicycle, with thongs on, at the same pace as a jogger, without risking a $150 fine. I would be a criminal, and a red flag to any police car driving past, who delight in derogatory and demeaning comments as they write you tickets for this ridiculous law which restricts FREEDOM and EQUALITY.

    Yes, equality – motorists, joggers, ladder climbers, 10m pool divers, pedestrians etc and so on, are all NOT required to wear a helmet y law, yet still suffer head injuries (and lots of them).

    And yes, freedom – cycling is a right, not a privilege (which driving is). It has been a right of every human being since the bicycle was invented. You can not ban a person from riding a bicycle, but you can make it a criminal activity if you aren’t wearing a foam hat.

  9. Ross says:

    I don’t understand what all the fuss is about regarding wearing helmets. The issue seems to be not so much the wearing of the helmet but being told that we “have” to wear one. This is quite an immature attitude to have.

    The reasons some people come up with for not wanting to wear helmets are comical at best. Gems such as their hair will get messed up (what happens while to their hair while riding at 20km/h without a helmet or walking and a 20km/h wind gust blows?) or the high cost of a helmet (Australian Standards compliant ones available from $15, possibly even cheaper if you shopped around).

    As for people saying that helmets aren’t needed while tootling along the bike path around the lake at 10km/h, I beg to differ. In the 20 odd years of my adult life that I’ve been riding bikes the worst crash I’ve had (only had 2…touch wood) and potentially the most life threatening was at just over walking pace where a bag I had dangling off the handlebars (yes, very silly of me to do this, learnt my lesson the hard way!) got caught in the front wheel and I went over the handlebars and headfirst onto the ground. I’m no doctor but don’t believe I need to be to state that the helmet I was wearing saved me from serious injury as my head struck the cement. Luckily I was able to walk away with just a headache.

    • simon batterbury says:

      Everybody has an individual accident story. I have several, but that isn’t epidemiological evidence. The Dutch regard the injury risk as lowered by cycling-in-numbers, and can prove it. So they have many, many cyclists and occasional bad accidents. We will probably never reach that ‘critical mass’ in this country. We have few cyclists and occasional bad accidents. This is a worse situation to be in for population health. The problem is not that teenagers and others dislike helmet hair and so-on; it is that helmets promote a general perception that cycling is unsafe.

  10. Matt Banks says:

    Hang on there, Craig. Your article doesn’t pass the sniff test. You simultaneously complain that a bike rider ID scheme is discriminatory and should be stamped out (on the basis that discrimination is bad, you know, against the UN Declaration of Human Rights and stuff), while defending mandatory helmet laws as an example of a ‘positive obligation law’.

    Huh? Why is a bike rider ID scheme discriminatory while MHLs are not? Ahh, that’s right, because MHLs are just like seat belt laws…

    But any scientifically rigorous person will call BS on that claim right away. The causal relationship between seat belts and reduced car accident injury is mostly settled. Study after study has confirmed that seat belts save lives in a wide variety of accident scenarios (largely because the mass and speed of motor vehicles involve some pretty impressive forces when they crash or collide).

    The same cannot be said for the causal relationship between bicycle helmets and their effect on reducing head injuries (let alone bicycle fatalities). The literature is full of competing claims that suggest that helmets work wonders in some accident scenarios and don’t do much in others. This is even more apparent when you examine the impact of MHLs at a broader level of analysis (i.e., at the entire population level, rather than at the individual level).

    No one suggests that helmets have no utility (they do), but their efficacy is hotly contested and falls far below a reasonable threshold to justify the imposition of a ‘positive obligation law’.

    All this is to say that you’re right: it is disrespectful to our forefathers to give up our freedoms without scrutiny. It’s your most persuasive argument against rider IDs – and, ironically, MHLs.

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