Helmet laws explained through the concept of Markedness

I’m angry. One of Australia’s peak motoring bodies the NRMA, the makers of murdering machines Subaru, and a company called TOLL who make money from speeding, have joined forces with the well meaning but misguided Amy Gillett Foundation, and Bicycle NSW. With so much collective power, it’s a shame this alliance wants to just wag their fingers at cyclists for not wearing helmets:


I don’t give much thought to mandatory bike helmet laws. I live in a hilly city where, frankly, even the off-road trails are quite treacherous. I also listen to podcasts or music while cycling, so am quite partial to these imitation side levers called cat-ears that cut out the wind noise. So it’s really only when I ride my boy up to school in the morning that I don’t wear a helmet. I’m so glad there are no bus shelters between my home and his school. Because if I had to look at this sign I would be back at 2 in the morning with a blue marking pen, to draw a blue star of David on the girl’s arm.

Polen, Ghetto Litzmannstadt, Ghettopolizei Armbinde

Forcing adults to wear helmets at times when they can judge for themselves that they are as safe as the billions worldwide who, today, will also ride bikes without helmets, is a form of marking.

Markedness is a standard concept in linguistics that feminist scholars are aware of, and that I think cyclists should be aware of as well. Once you see how linguistic and other forms of marks work to keep power with dominant groups, and just how insidious marking can be, you will want to take a marking pen to every example.

A classic example of a marked term is the word “female”, comprising the unmarked word “male” and the mark, “fe”. Us dudes are spoken of as though we are simply human, while you lassies are spoken of as though you are human, except for the “fe” , to indicate something dubious about you, perhaps that you’re fairer, or prone to hysteria, or possibly witches.

Marking yourself is never a problem. You can have your tattoos and funny hairdos. It is being marked by individuals or groups with power over us that we ought to be wary of. Farmers mark livestock to sort them for slaughter. German Jews were marked by the Nazis not long before they met the same fate. Putting on a bicycle helmet to ride along the footpath to your local shop, for no real reason except the state says, is accepting a kind of a mark.

I’ve been quite happy wearing my helmet (for most trips) in my hilly city since I moved here two years ago. Plus I see enough other people riding around with no helmets to be fairly sure the police here in Tassie couldn’t care less, having enough poor-on-poor murder and rape to attend to. But this finger waging poster has raised Australia’s mandatory bike helmet laws as an issue again in my mind, and one I have to respond to.

If the law were about head injuries it would extend to skateboarding, surfing, driving and possibly soccer. Since it doesn’t, I can fairly assume it is about marking cyclists. Law makers’ and capitalists’ motives for wanting to do that are obvious, really: we cyclists are transgressing an embedded principle of city planning, which is that everyone has to pay money to someone for the use of machines if they want to move. This is an implicit tax that has crept in, on which many depend, for example those owning shares in NRMA, Subaru or indeed TOLL who move things for people who choose to stay home.

These free riding cyclists need to be marked. Any who refuse, the poster reminds us, are breaking the law. Furthermore (and I’m looking at my country’s flag on that helmet), they are un-Australian, or in other words traitors. Looking at this poster I see a dog-whistle message to bigots that it is okay to kill anyone they see on a bike who will not bear the mark the authorities have said they must wear.

NRMA employ someone named Daniel to remove “offensive” messages from their facebook page:

NRMA jpgExcuse me while I use more fitting language to remind NRMA that they are not at liberty to park their roadside maintenance vehicles on footpaths or in bike lanes. It’s the law. imgres


  1. Andrew says:

    So what exactly did you say on the NRMA Facebook page?

  2. James says:

    “If the law were about head injuries it would extend to skateboarding, surfing, driving and possibly soccer.” You forgot pedestrians. Back in the 80’s, well before mandatory helmet laws existed, the ATSB produced a cross modal risk analysis document that shows cyclists as having very similar risk of fatality to motorists, but pedestrians as significantly higher.


    If helmets did actually work, it would seem prudent to mandate walking helmets, no?

    Since the 80’s there has been much effort aimed to reduce the risk for those in the biggest group (motorists), that their risk has measurably reduced. Very little by comparison has been done to improve the situation for pedestrians and less so for cyclists. We don’t carry air bags or have crumple zones and ABS and ESP, or even a roll cage. They’ve mandated a foam hat for cyclists, but it has dubious efficacy to even reasonably protect the small part of the body it covers – leaving most of us totally vulnerable to the smashing consequences of being collided with a motor vehicle.

    They peddle a foam hat as the panacea for cycling crashes and do nothing to address safety in the same way as they have for motorists – and it’s a disgrace that our cycling advocates follow the pied piper, going along with the foam hat propaganda.

    Bicycle Network (Victoria), AGF, BNSW, etc., they’re all the enemy in this fight.

    Why I admire Chris Boardman and wish he was ours…

    • James says:

      I nearly forgot, even the Cycling Promotion Fund, headed up by Stephen Hodge and Co., who make money from the cycling industry and helmet sales cannot be trusted, and have supported helmet laws as they are.

    • Steven says:

      Thanks again for a spirited comment! Are you sure the organisations you have cited “support” the helmet law, or just don’t think it’s worth actively opposing this side of lower speed limits, infrastructure, strict liability laws, and all of those equally pressing concerns? That said, I would be pleased if all the groups you have mentioned had a read of my post, and stepped up their position against this stigmatising law.

    • James says:

      Mr Hodge hands out foam hats like hot cakes…


      I don’t trust any of them. Bicycle Network in particular, and it’s allies in other states. Experience with BN shows they side with motoring orgs who sponsor them and Vicroads who haven’t a clue about bicycling.

      Even the Australian Cyclists Party toned down their policy and decided to do a study, IIRC.

      It is not too difficult to oppose the mandatory helmet laws while supporting other initiatives. Some orgs oppose them in private but are unwilling to say it in public, afraid of ridicule and lost sponsorships.

      Those of us with nothing to lose speak our mind.

  3. rdrf says:

    After some 30 years of scepticism, concern and worry about cycle helmet advocacy (not to mention laws), which I have written about in my book http://rdrf.org.uk/death-on-the-streets-cars-and-the-mythology-of-road-safety/ Chapter 11, I have to say this is one of the more interesting pieces I have read.

    Markedness indeed. Stigmatising is another way of putting it.

    And for evidence on the effects of helmet laws, do see http://www.cyclehelmets.org and http://rdrf.org.uk/2013/12/17/the-effects-of-new-zealands-cycle-helmet-law/ and

    Amy Gillett Foundation very mistaken. Note their links with Volvo, who in Europe have just delayed bringing in less dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists lorries.

    Dr Robert Davis

  4. Scott Aitch says:

    Helmets are definitely a barrier to participation in cycling. When the mandatory helmet laws were introduced in the late 80s / early 90s, my bike spent a few years in the shed, because I just didn’t want to buy and wear a helmet.

    In the meantime, some Tasmanian motor bike riders think cyclists should all be identified with a registration plate:


  5. crank says:

    that’s a nationalistic helmet. is she wearing fatigues?

  6. matthew says:

    Laws only work by consent. Like some other people in history, I don’t obey laws I believe are cruel, unjust, unreasonable, stupid or bigoted.

    However I have found mandatory helmet laws have one use. It’s an easy question to ask people to see if they are capable of independent assessment of evidence and ideas, or if they just accept societal norms.

  7. Jai Cooper says:

    Great article, Steven.

    Marking with bike helmets is a good way of applying prejudicial policing, eg. biking while black.

    Only the sub-cultural practice of helmeted-cycling is legal in Australia. It will be good when cycling is made legal again.

    Keep up the good work, Jai.

  8. Dmitri Fedortchenko says:

    Steven, for ear protection sans helmet, check out ear bags, they work!



  9. Bec S says:

    I grind my teeth whenever I see those patronizing, infantilising posters. (gendered cartoons just compounds it) Completely removed from the mandatory helmet issue. Mind you the culture is so awash with this nonsense – at every turn. Just noticed a “Mr Muscle laboratory” advert today – yes the bathroom cleaner – which was filmed during a mothers and children lab open day presented by a CG body builder, it appears.

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