Saturday, August 28, 2010

Helmet liberty upheld

In 46 years of bike riding, Sue Abbott has never worn a helmet. So when the highway patrol pulled her over in country Scone and fined her for a no-helmet offence, she decided to fight. The 50-year old mother of four has never been in trouble with the law, has never fallen from her bike, and thought it ridiculous she could not ride at 15km/h on a dedicated cycleway with an uncovered head.

A police video of the incident last year records the sergeant surmising "it's a hair thing", a view shared by many people when they first meet her. But Ms Abbott says it's nothing to do with her exuberant hair. Her objections are based on her belief that wearing a helmet increases the risk of brain damage - and that forcing her to wear one is a breach of her civil liberties.

When she tried that argument in the Scone local court, the magistrate would have none of it. He fined her $50 plus costs. But when she appealed and laid out her view in the District Court in March, she went a long way to persuading the judge that, 19 years after the laws came into force, there is still no clear evidence of their benefit.

Ms Abbott argued that if she fell from her bike while wearing a helmet she would be at greater risk of brain damage from "diffuse external injury" (see box), an injury similar to shaken baby syndrome, than if she fell on her bare head.

It may seem ridiculous to suggest helmets could do anything other than improve one's chances in an accident and reduce the number of brain injuries, but there is a serious debate under way on the subject in international medical and transport safety journals - and Judge Roy Ellis happily admitted his own doubts about the laws.

"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."

He found Ms Abbott had "an honestly held and not unreasonable belief as to the danger associated with the use of a helmet by cyclists", and quashed her conviction, although he still found her offence proven.

Now Scone police ignore Ms Abbott as she cycles to town, although one yelled at her "you're not in Paris now" - a remark which prompted her to send police a photograph of herself bareheaded on a bike on the Champs-Elysees marked "Greetings from Paris".

Ms Abbott's success in court delighted Bill Curnow of the Cyclists Rights Action Group. In several peer-reviewed publications he has argued there has been no reduction in brain injury levels due to helmet laws.

Why force cyclists to wear helmets when politicians ignored a 1998 report from the Federal Office of Road Safety that showed brain injury rates among motorists would be cut by up to 25 per cent, even where airbags were fitted, if drivers wore bicycle helmets, he said.

Associate Professor Chris Rissel and his colleague Dr Alexander Voukelatos of the University of Sydney's school of public health fuelled debate on the issue with a recent paper saying we would be better off without the laws.

But Professor Frank McDermott, who led the original campaign for them, said repealing them would be guaranteed to increase head injury rates and Dr Rissel's paper was flawed. "It'll be as backward a step as it would be to tell motorists they don't have to wear seatbelts," he said on ABC radio.

Ms Abbott said that was a ridiculous comparison. "I should be entitled to make this call about whether I can wear a helmet. "You can still smoke, we are eating and drinking ourselves into early graves, but you can't ride a bicycle without a helmet," she said.


"Insensitive" school

An Australian primary school apologised after a student was awarded first prize at a costume party for dressing as Adolf Hitler. The school sent a letter of apology yesterday to parents after several complained about the child's Nazi-inspired getup, which included a swastika emblem, The West Australian newspaper reported.

The school's principal denied allegations that classmates had roared approval with chants of "Hitler, Hitler" explaining that youngsters had simply been calling out the name of the character they thought should win, Sky News Australia reported today..

Parents at the Catholic school also objected to several more "nasty" costumes, including a vampire outfit and a student dressed as the Grim Reaper, the newspaper said. The school, in Perth, Western Australia, has not been identified.


More understaffed hospitals

The Rural Doctors Association of Queensland says central Queensland's ailing health system continues to be neglected by the state government. The RDAQ says the widespread problems experienced by region have stemmed from understaffed hospitals and failed attempts to attract doctors out west. Currently Biloela hospital is only staffed by locum doctors.

President of the RDAQ Dr Dan Halliday believes the challenge to develop a sustainable health service in the area will be a long and uphill battle for all involved. "A co-ordinated, on the ground approach needs to be taken," he said. "When one area falls behind it has an affect on the rest."

Dr Halliday said he had recently engaged in a "frank" conversation with Queensland Health district chief executive, Dr Coralee Barker where he raised concerns about staff not being overseen by a manager at rural sites.

Dr Halliday says it is crucial that Queensland Health re-investigate the ways rural doctor training programs can be enhanced. "It was agreed by the health minister Paul Lucas that the Queensland country practice model would be further developed," he said. "We are however yet to see any development on the ground."

The Qld country practice model is an employment regime that cuts the red tape and allows for doctors to work and move around remote Queensland hospitals more freely.


Extreme drunk driving OK now?

No jail, no fine. You just have to feel "depressed", apparently

Teenager Toyah Tate was so drunk she could hardly walk when police stopped her car after clocking her speed at 180km/h. She later recorded a blood-alcohol reading of 0.168 - more than eight times her legal limit as a P-plater.

Despite a magistrate yesterday finding her dangerous driving was "one of the worst cases" he had seen, she escaped jail as she is young, pregnant and depressed.

Tate, 19, of Gorokan, had a female passenger in her car on the F3 in New South Wales when she was observed speeding and weaving between traffic on her way to a Gosford nightclub in June. A motorist had reported her vehicle was travelling so fast he was "unable to further describe the car".

Police eventually caught up to the trainee hairdresser at Ourimbah - after she was clocked at 180km/h. She told police: "I've been drinking and driving." An empty 750ml vodka bottle was found near the front seat.

At Wyong Local Court yesterday, Tate pleaded guilty to dangerous driving and high-range drink-driving and was given a 12-month suspended jail sentence. Her licence was suspended for two years. She was ordered to pay $76 court costs but escaped a fine.

Magistrate Glen Walsh said that he accepted findings of psychiatric and pre-sentence reports, which the court heard found she was diagnosed with depression after the deaths of her father and boyfriend. The court heard that Tate had "ceased alcohol" since discovering she was pregnant.

Mr Walsh described her offence as "one of the worst cases, in my view" of driving in a dangerous manner but took into consideration her age, the fact it was her first offence and that she is now nine weeks pregnant. Tate declined to comment when approached outside the court.


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