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Melbourne cyclists plan protest against Australia's compulsory helmet laws

Civil disobedience protest launched by new campaign group Freestyle Cyclists

Cyclists in Melbourne will next month take to the city’s streets bareheaded in an act of civil disobedience protesting against compulsory helmet laws. The city is the capital of Victoria, which in 1990 was the first state of Australia – indeed, the first jurisdiction anywhere – to make helmets mandatory for all cyclists.

The protest is being organised by a new group called Freestyle Cyclists, the aim of which is to have compulsory helmet laws in Australia and New Zealand overturned. Cyclists riding without a helmet in Victoria currently face a fine of A$176.

According to Melbourne newspaper The Age, the group has around a dozen core members, although more than 600 people have signed a petition backing the group’s manifesto, which states:

“Our objective is to reform bicycle helmet laws in Australia and New Zealand, to remove the discouragement of cycling they cause.

“The key to getting more people to ride bikes is to make it as attractive as possible.  Dangerising cycling and blaming the victims of poor road infrastructure and car-centric road culture has the opposite effect.

“The more people who ride, the faster governments will improve roads for cycling.  In turn, as the roads are improved, more people ride.  This virtuous circle needs to be encouraged, not discouraged by making it less attractive and less convenient to cycle.

“By signing up to support Law Reform on our home page, you add your voice to the campaign.  When we have enough supporters the law will fall, and Australia and New Zealand will rejoin the rest of the world.”

- Freestyle Cyclists

The Freestyle Cyclists’ ride will take place on October 6 along Merri Creek, and beforehand supporters will attend a talk at CERES Community Environment Park in East Brunswick for a talk by Chris Rissel, professor of public health at the University of Sydney.

Rissel is longstanding and vociferous opponent of helmet compulsion who has published widely on the subject.

Opponents of helmet compulsion insist that the benefits of cycling to wider public health outweighs any potential reduction in head injuries as a result of making helmets mandatory, and Freestyle Cyclists spokesman Alan Todd says that compulsory helmet laws deter many people from riding bikes.

''It's hurting the people who might ride but don't,'' he maintained, ''and they are exactly the people we want to get more active.''

Citing a 1999 review which reported an 88 per cent reduction in head and brain injuries and 65 per cent fewer upper and mid-facial injuries, James Holgate, director of road user safety at state highways agency VicRoads said: “Helmets are designed so that the foam material they are made from spreads the force of an impact and absorbs the energy, greatly reducing the risk and severity of head injury in the instance of a crash.”

Professor Jeffrey Rosenfeld, head of neurosurgery at Sydney’s Alfred Hospital says that the compulsory helmet laws should remain.

“I'm the one who sits at the hospital looking after the victims of road trauma,” he explained. “There are many cyclists among them, and I can't help but think that if they weren't wearing helmets their injuries would be significantly worse,” he added, and said that the idea that the legislation deterred people from undertaking exercise was “specious.”

A spokesman for Victoria Police said that the force would monitor the protest ride and take action “when appropriate.”

Australia’s compulsory helmet laws have been blamed for usage of bike-sharing schemes in Brisbane and Melbourne that is at low levels compared to those in cities elsewhere, as outlined in this On Your Bike blog post written by Michael O'Reilly and published in The Age.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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