Act of aggression

A site dedicated to cycling rants about Brisbane ...and a board game

An open letter to the Queensland Premier

1 July 2014


Mr Campbell Newman

Premier of Queensland

PO Box 15185 City East

QLD  4002  Australia


Dear Premier,

I'm after your advice.  How can Queensland implement good public policy?  All the usual, democratic processes of good government don’t seem to work under your government.

So far I've sent quite a few letters to you and to your Minister for Transport, Mr Scott Emerson MP, about Queensland's mandatory bicycle helmet laws (MHLs), referencing all the available research on the issue which clearly supports changes to MHLs.  

In one of your responses to me on this issue, you wrote "I have an open mind on this but there would need to be some very good data supporting a change."

So in my letters I've pointed out all the overwhelming research showing that MHLs significantly discourage utility riding (i.e. riding to the shops, to work, to school etc.), and probably makes no difference to cycling injuries. I've provided some data that even shows MHLs may even make cycling more dangerous.  Actual, published, peer reviewed data.  I've also provided Census data showing that this type of everyday cycling, the type that reduces car use, saves Queensland a motza and helps fight obesity, has declined since the introduction of MHLs.  I've provided links to lengthy and detailed critiques of the small bit of evidence used by the Transport Minister and CARRS-Q and to justify keeping MHLs. I’ve even met with TMR policy advisors on this issue.

My local member, Jason Woodforth MP, even campaigned in my electorate on his opposition to MHLs and is now part of your LNP government (although I suspect he won’t get pre-selection next year, poor fellow).

The responses I get from the Transport Minister, his advisers and TMR, just regurgitate false information like dictatorship propaganda: as if saying the same rubbish over and over again will somehow give it credibility.  I'm sure your Chief of Staff will flick this letter to TMR (I even mentioned 'Scott Emerson' and 'Transport' in the second paragraph so your staffer didn't have to waste too much time in deciding where to flick it) and the response I get to this letter will no doubt be the same.

The falsities regurgitated include referrals to the Cochrane report on helmet efficacy (over 20 years old now and discredited by more recent research, not least because it was based on research conducted by the reviewing authors themselves); CARRS-Q's infamous 2010 monograph which misquoted a significant amount of the research it purported to review; and, more recently, a claim that the Netherlands have heaps more head injuries than Australia and this can be blamed on their lack of MHLs. 

Of course TMR suggests this has nothing to do with the fact that cycling accounts for something like 30% of trips in the Netherlands, compared to Australia’s average of under 2%. Because, you know, the Netherlands doesn’t have disincentives to cycling like MHLs.  

In one remarkably poor piece of Ministerial letter writing, TMR even had the audacity to claim that MHLs were introduced "on the basis of a substantial body of evidence indicating a diminished risk of injury through helmet use."  Of course, this is a lie and there was no evidence except the anecdotally based (although no doubt heartfelt) campaigning of a handful of trauma surgeons when the laws were introduced, as a condition of Federal funding. 

That's a bit like banning children from playgrounds, or banning stairs and bathtubs, based on emergency presentations. 

Then we had a Parliamentary Inquiry into Cycling Issues.  You may have forgotten about Queensland's Parliamentary Committee system, it doesn't get used that much any more.  In the absence of an upper house, it is supposed to ensure legislative amendments reflect good, evidence-based public policy, not ideology or the personal whims of one Minister.

The Transport, Housing and Local Government Committee published a very good report called “A New Direction in Cycling”.  A number of people spent a considerable amount of time and effort  to give very detailed submissions to assist the Committee, in the belief that it was the way to achieve good, evidence based public policy, and the belief that our Parliamentary system actually worked.  The Committee, made up of members from both sides of the house but predominately from your party, prepared a detailed report with 68 recommendations including measured, academically based amendments to MHLs.

Mr Emerson, however, supported most of the recommendations only in part, predominately on the basis of whether the recommendations would cost money or involve actual legislative change. For MHLs, however, Mr Emerson very publicly rejected any change even before the report was published. 

Because he personally thinks they're a good idea.  Because they've saved his noggin plenty of times.  

I assume, of course he's talking about recreational, sport riding.  I've been riding for transport for 40 years and my helmet has never hit the tarmac (except when I drop the damned thing because it is a bugger to carry around everywhere on daily business).  Admittedly I don’t wear my helmet all the time, like when I’m overseas: Australia and NZ are the only two countries in the world that enforce the law.  Even when in one of the few overseas cities such as Vancouver where there is also such a law, local police know the law is stupid and don’t enforce it.  A number of cities have quite recently repealed their MHLs.  And guess what, there was a lot more people riding bikes. No mass carnage.

As for the more dangerous sports cycling, helmets will always continue to be part of the uniform irrespective of legislative amendments. Just like it is in all the other countries of the world where MHLs aren't needed, and people are allowed to dress appropriately to suit the activity they're doing. Lets face it, if the pro teams started wearing fluffy bunny ears on the Tour de France, Saturday morning on the river loop would like Easter drinks at the Annex.

If Mr Emerson really has taken that many tumbles off a non-racing bike, he’d better give bikes away completely and stick to Segways.

Thankfully the poor suffering policy people in TMR didn't let Mr Emerson formally blow a fat raspberry at the Committee's recommendations on MHLs, and instead crafted something based on the non-peer reviewed CARRS-Q submission, and on the terrible rate of head injuries plaguing cycling in the Netherlands.   

There’s no point explaining the bias behind the CARRS-Q 2010 report.  I‘ve already done it several times in previous letters to Mr Emerson.  As an aside, one of the bits in that Netherlands publication that TMR chose not to regurgitate says that, in the Netherlands, only "One third of the cyclists who are admitted to hospital with serious injury after a road crash are diagnosed with head or brain injury."

According to Australian research, our cycling related head injuries account for the highest proportion of critical injuries (73%) and severe injuries (86%) to cyclists.

The Netherlands fact sheet quoted also recognises that “it may be the case that the less serious neck injury takes the place of serious brain injury, which means that the finding is positive when the two injury types are considered in combination. This is indeed what was concluded: if all injuries to both head and neck are considered in combination, the risk increase is smaller but still present (factor of 1.18.)”

That fact sheet also says that “Based on the experiences in Australia and Canada, it cannot be ruled out that compulsory helmet may decrease bicycle use ...”  

But TMR chose not to use that bit either.

The same poor policy officer responsible for crafting that response to the recommendations to amend MHLs, is probably the same person thanklessly tasked to drafting a response to this letter.  I feel sorry for them, having to try to engage with me, understand my issue, somehow blame it on the previous government and still keep Dr Graham Fraine and Dr Mark King happy, given their TMR careers are based upon MHLs remaining unquestionable (given their involvement in their introduction).

The problem is, Premier, at the end of all the arguments about what percentage of safety helmets might offer, the actual risk of falling off a bicycle and risking a head injury is incredibly small. If it represents a risk significant enough to be dealt with by legislation, then MHLs for drivers, pedestrians, and bathtubbers would prevent many, many more head injuries and should be instituted immediately. 

What is clear from the research, however, is that the majority of death and injury to cyclists is caused by cars, and the best way to get drivers to look out for cyclists is to get a lot more people cycling.  MHLs are significant in preventing this from happening.  Spending millions on separated cycling infrastructure would help too, but then (a) we would definitely not need helmets and (b) amending the MHLs as recommended by the Committee is something Queensland can afford to do (both politically and economically).

So Premier, I need your advice.  My local member of a majority government strongly supports MHL repeal.  TMR has been provided with all the relevant academic research showing that this legislative change reflects good public policy.  Queensland's own Parliamentary Committee system recommended reform. And yet, the Transport Minister refuses to fix this problem. 

Please, what else can be done?  I'm afraid I don't personally have the money to lobby you directly through dinner parties and party donations.  I can only rely on good old fashioned democratic processes.