Emotion, Reason and Mandatory Helmet Laws at the Nanny State Inquiry

Reform of Australia’s mandatory helmet laws (MHLs) came one step closer to a ‘Castle’ moment last week in Melbourne.

It was just ‘the vibe’ at the Senate Inquiry into Personal Freedoms and Community Impacts – also known as the ‘Nanny State Inquiry’.

A day of testimony from expert witnesses saw strong representation from academics, advocates and activists supporting reform of the laws. Opposed to reform was a selection of academics, road safety bureaucrats replete with legal advice.

The hearing was chaired by Democratic Liberal Senator David Leyonhjelm and ably assisted by Senator Matt Canavan of the Queensland Liberal National Party.

The day was clearly won by those recommending reform. A broad spread of experts of various ranks (representing public health, road safety and actuarial studies) argued on both sides. Reformists made up the majority of the attendees. However, it was the pro-law group who came in for the most uncomfortable scrutiny. As questioning exposed the cracks in their arguments and evidence, the egos of MHL supporters faltered and we witnessed the emergence of emotive rhetoric.

Three key emotions surfaced: fear, frustration and pride. Supporters of the law exhibited deep fear of cycling as a dangerous activity. Frustration emerged upon finding that their arguments had not won over either their opponents or the Senators. Finally, they retreated to a narrative of pride to avoid admitting to legislative over-reach. Outside the chambers, the by-play confirmed that they were definitely rattled.

It was clear from this hearing that the foundations of the MHLs are shaky. Australia’s example has not proven worthy of widespread replication globally. Resistance to reform is not dead yet, however, it seems likely that this law will be reformed, it is a case of when and how far – complete repeal or modifications such as adult exemptions or geographic exemptions? While this was a federal government inquiry, it is the state and territory governments which are responsible for administering the road rules. The process is not exactly clear, perhaps changes to rule 256 in the Australian road rules would provide the impetus for states and territories to come into alignment.

It was tempting to counter the bluster of some MHL witnesses with a retort of ‘suffer in yer jocks’. However, reasoned reform would suffice.