Judge Sides with Helmetless Rider in Australia

SMH Screenshot

A District Court judge in New South Wales, Australia has overturned a ruling against Sue Abbott, a long-time bicyclist who chooses to ride without a helmet despite the mandatory helmet law in Australia. From the Sydney Morning Herald:

“Having read all the material, I think I would fall down on your side of the ledger,” the judge told Ms Abbott after she had spelt out her case against the laws that exist in few countries other than Australia and New Zealand.

”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.”

It’ll be very interesting to see where this leads.

Read the article

9 Responses to “Judge Sides with Helmetless Rider in Australia”

  • Andy says:

    I know the use of helmets is debatable and I won’t go further into that discussion. But, I am surprised a judge can do that. If there’s a law, isn’t it the judges job to determine whether or not the people being cited have followed the law? This seems pretty clear that the judge is making a personal decision that has nothing to do with the law that cyclist obviously broke.

  • Alan says:


    I agree, Andy. That’s why I’m wondering where this might lead. It sure doesn’t seem like the end of the story.


  • Graham says:

    Unless the judge is ruling that this law runs counter to an older or superceding law or ruling, in which case they can rule the law invalid. Or maybe the judge is a maverick and just makes it up as he goes… hard to say, really.

  • kfg says:

    “. . .isn’t it the judges job to determine whether or not the people being cited have followed the law?”

    If you are in Paris, but we have police evidence that she is not. Under systems descended from British Common Law judges are invoked with judging the basis of the law under higher legal principles, whether the law itself is, in fact, legal.

    Creating this legal philosophy is one of the reasons why King Alfred is the only English Monarch given the epitaph “The Great.”

    “Judicial Activism” is the point of having the judiciary as an independent branch of government in the systems of checks and balances against government abuse in passing and enforcing unjust laws. That’s why we call it a “Justice System” rather than a “Legal System” (or at least we used to, back in the day when understanding this was a requirement for graduating secondary school).

    The reason we have juries is so that The People(tm) themselves can refuse to enforce laws.

    @ Alan

    Are you getting your news from Australia by passenger pigeon these days? Have thought of using The Internet? :)

  • Alan says:


    “Are you getting your news from Australia by passenger pigeon these days? Have thought of using The Internet? :)”

    I actually picked up the story from BikePortland today. Apparently Jonathan is using passenger pigeons… :-)


  • kfg says:

    “Unless the judge is ruling that this law runs counter to an older or superceding law or ruling”

    There is an entire body of legal philosophy as well as legislative law dealing with the issue of whether such laws can be en-forced.

    The gist of it is that there must be a compelling public benefit (and simply “saving lives” is not in and of itself a public benefit; that’s why you can legally do risky things like take a shower, drive and wrestle crocodiles if you wish) and it must not be discriminatory.

    In this case there is no current empirical basis for saving lives and it is discriminatory ( you don’t have to wear a helmet to do riskier things like taking a shower, driving or wrestling crocodiles).

  • Tim Churches says:

    Firstly, as stated in the article, the judge found that the offence of failing to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle on the road was proven, and as such this case does not set any precedents in case law. Rather, the judge merely decided that no conviction should be recorded – such discretion is commonly exercised for first-time offenders charged with misdemeanours.

    However, many found the judge’s acceptance of the theory that bicycle helmets increase the risk of diffuse axonal injury rather surprising. Bill Curnow, a retired public servant (and not an injury expert) has promoted this theory for nearly two decades, but the empirical and epidemiological evidence in support of it is vestigal. Here is a relevant excerpt from a public affairs radio program on cycling helmets which aired here in Australia in August 2010 (the full program as a podcast and a transcript is available at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/backgroundbriefing/stories/2011/3082680.htm

    “Wendy Carlisle (presenter): On the morning The Sydney Morning Herald reported the judge’s remarks, Background Briefing was in the office of Associate Professor Andrew McIntosh, a specialist in the biomechanics of impact injuries at the School of Risk and Safety Sciences at the University of New South Wales. As he read through the story, he shook his head, amazed the judge could reach such a conclusion.

    Andrew McIntosh: Well because the judge has probably been given material by this advocacy group, that’s all. The judge hasn’t actually read the science, or is unable to interpret it.

    Wendy Carlisle: So what do you think the implications are of that?

    Andrew McIntosh: I think it will make people just decide not to wear a helmet if they don’t want to wear one, on the expectation that they won’t be convicted.

    Wendy Carlisle: She told the court, according to this that a helmet can increase angular acceleration to the head.

    Andrew McIntosh: It doesn’t do that though. She would probably not be the person who could give evidence along those lines, but the evidence that she was given to give to the court isn’t correct.

    Wendy Carlisle: Andrew McIntosh says helmets actually reduce the angular acceleration forces on helmets, which in turn, further reduces diffuse axonal brain injuries.

    Andrew McIntosh: They are unusual in cyclists. They tend to be say, motor-cyclists, it might happen when they’re riding and crash at very high speed, some motor vehicle occupants in high speed collisions. It’s unusual for cyclists to have these injuries unless they are hit by a vehicle at high speed for example. So angular acceleration is an issue in causation of brain injury. It is actually reduced by wearing a helmet. So when I did my PhD, I looked at the pedal cycle crashes, pedal cycle helmet performance, and also the tolerance of the human head to impact. And I found that with padded impacts to the head that the angular acceleration as well as the liner acceleration, was reduced. So it does actually reduce the angular acceleration.”

    Finally, the Sydney Morning Herald article also mentions research by Alex Voukelatos and Chris Rissel, published last year, which questioned the effectiveness of cycling helmet legislation in Australia. EcoVelo readers should note that that research has been found to contain serious arithmetic and other data errors – see http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/authors-admit-errors-in-study-on-bike-helmets-and-head-injuries-20101229-19a9x.html

  • Aguilera, AOL, Arianna and bikes » Cyclelicious says:

    […] time Australian helmet scofflaw Sue Abbot fought the law and won. Via Eco Velo and […]

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    Monumental! Wonder whether the mandatory law will eventually be repealed; am certainly staying tuned.

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