Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals

Senator’s call for return of cracker night … and burns, amputations and blindings?

Personal fireworks have been banned from sale in Australia since the 1980s. Scott Akerman/Flickr, CC BY

With massive public displays of fireworks set for New Year’s eve tonight, the accidental Senator David Leyonhjelm has recently called for the abolition of the ban on personal purchasing of fireworks throughout Australia so that people can again “set off a few double bungers”.

Leyonhjelm won his Senate position because of a combined donkey vote and many asleep-at-the-wheel voters confusing his Liberal Democratic Party with the Liberal Party. He now uses his position as a soapbox for his pet causes.

Fireworks have been banned from personal sales in all Australian jurisdictions except Tasmania and the Northern Territory since the 1980s.

Leyonhjelm’s news release argued that:

Most of us who grew up with fireworks will remember good times and using common sense to manage our own safety. This was a good lesson that children no longer receive.

Leyonhjelm’s news release. Press release.

I’m the same age as Leyonhjelm and grew up with the excitement of letting off fireworks. The lesson I recall receiving was that you could buy unlimited gigantic red bungers and cause mayhem. They were sold from every corner store and petrol station with none of Leyonhjelm’s dreaded nanny state dampeners on selling only to responsible adults.

I and my mates thought it was hilarious fun to load people’s letterboxes with bungers the size of a sausage and see what damage we could do. Accounts were legion of kids terrorising cats and dogs, throwing them at passing cars and cyclists, and of valorous guys who would hold an inch long double-happy while it exploded (I would only hold tom thumbs).

But when early injury surveillance work began to show that all this mayhem was not just “great fun” but caused often serious injury and very occasionally death, governments acted to make firework displays public events, set off by professionals.

It’s highly unlikely that anyone among the millions watching tonight around Australia will be injured by public fireworks.

In 2014, monitoring of five Northern Territory hospital emergency departments found there were 21 firework-related injuries. Nineteen were burns. The majority were male (71%), young (median age of 18 with six being children). One severe injury required hospitalisation. Another 14 injuries were moderate, with the rest minor.

The Northern Territory has about 1% of Australia’s national population. So if we extrapolated the NT’s 2014 firework injury rate nationally, we might expect 2,079 injuries elsewhere in Australia, with 99 being severe.

However, it is probably wise to consider the NT’s 2014 rate as abormally high. A ten year study of post-ban firework hospital admission in NSW between 1992 and 2002 found 114 cases, with an age-standardised rate of 0.19 per 100,000 population.

The injuries sustained were not little mozzie-bite level singes. The report states:

Almost one in five separations were for traumatic amputation of part of the upper extremity. These included four complete or partial amputations of thumbs, 14 complete or partial amputations of other single fingers, one traumatic amputation at a level between the elbow and wrist and one amputation of the upper limb at an unspecified level. Other injuries included a variety of open wounds; fractures of nasal bones, mandible, ribs and bones of the arm, wrist and hand; traumatic pneumothorax; and traumatic haemothorax.

In the United States between 2000 and 2010 there were 97,562 firework-related injuries treated in emergency departments.

Just search Google images for “firework injuries” and you’ll get a good idea of what’s involved.

Leyonhjelm’s fetish for eradicating Australia from the vice-like grip of his loathed nanny state regulations has seen him delineate an important ethical distinction. He is not opposed to drink driving laws and other road injury-reduction measures because most of these do not just protect drivers from “choosing” to harm themselves, but such laws also protect those harmed by the actions of freedom-exercising drivers with a skinful or a liking for speed.

Similarly, while the tobacco industry-funded Senator opposes most tobacco control because of his belief that smokers ought not be nudged into quitting or non-smokers into not starting, he does not oppose laws which prevent smokers from smoking near others, because of the mountain of evidence that secondhand smoke harms others.

But in calling for free access to fireworks, Leyonhjelm has now apparently abandoned this critical ethical distinction. In the Northern Territory study, half of those injured were bystanders. Risks to their safety are apparently just acceptable collateral to the rights of individuals to blow their own fingers off.

We also live in very different times to those when he and I got fun from letting off bungers or snapping throw-downs under people’s feet to startle them. With rising vigilance about terrorism, it takes little imagination to consider the prospect of hoons letting off volleys of bungers in crowded or culturally targeted places. We recently saw footage of Parisians panicked by exploding fireworks in the post terrorist days as they laid tributes.

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