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‘[I]f It’s a Public Health and Safety Thing … Why Not Just Give the Kids Helmets?’: Policing Mandatory Helmet Laws in New South Wales


Julia Quilter and Russell Hogg

In the early 1990s Australia became the first country in the world to introduce laws mandating the wearing of helmets by bicyclists. Road safety – particularly for child bicyclists – was the primary driver of change. This article considers the operation of the mandatory helmet law in New South Wales (‘NSW’) with the aim of assessing whether, in light of recent changes to the law and contemporary enforcement practices, its operation is consistent with the animating concern for cyclist safety. Analysis of quantitative data on issued penalty notices shows the law has been heavily enforced and with significant geographical disparity. Analysis of qualitative data derived from interviews with lawyers and others with knowledge of the operation of the law (n = 27) reveals a punitive fine-based enforcement system that is producing serious unintended and ancillary harms. The most significant of these are disturbing levels of over-policing and the accumulation of crippling levels of fine debt.

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(2021) 44(2) UNSWLJ 747: