Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Should cyclists be compelled by law to wear helmets?

If the government has its way, the current 70mph speed limit on Britain’s motorways will be increased to 80mph in 2013. The Transport Minister, Philip Hammond, told the world that change was in the air at September’s Tory party conference. As he put it: “Britain’s roads should be the arteries of a healthy economy and cars are a vital lifeline for many... it is time to put Britain back in the fast lane of global economies and look again at the motorway speed limit which is nearly 50 years old, and out of date thanks to huge advances in safety and motoring technology.”

Mr Hammond may have a point. The existing 70mph limit was established in 1965. Since then there has been a fall of 75 per cent in the numbers of people killed every year on British roads. It may be the case that only a university-educated technician can fix today’s cars, but technology has undoubtedly made driving a lot safer than it was back in the days when vehicles resembled leviathans and power steering was practised only by weight lifters.

But if there might be a case for raising the speed limit on motorways, it seems to me that we need to be taking a far more cautious view when it comes to another form of transport, one that most of us learnt to enjoy as toddlers – albeit with stabilisers. I’m referring, of course, to cycling: an innocent, invigorating and healthy pursuit, something at which Britain excels as a sporting nation and something that huge numbers of us enjoy recreationally on weekends. What’s not to like, indeed, about cycling?

My sentiments exactly, but a recent chat with Peter McCabe, the CEO of the brain injury association and charity Headway, gave me pause for thought. Headway’s primary aim is to increase awareness of brain injury and its consequences and to initiate activities and campaigns which will reduce the incidence of brain injury.

I was chatting generally with Peter, himself an eminently reasonable man, when the topic of brain injuries sustained following cycling accidents came up. Peter’s usually unruffled demeanour changed dramatically. In fact, it wouldn’t be far short of the truth to say that he became seriously vexed by the issue. Why? Because there is a simple means of reducing, and sometimes avoiding altogether, a brain injury if you come off your bike. It’s this: wear a helmet.

The Post Office compelled its 37,000 cycling postmen and women to wear helmets back in 2003, a decision made following the deaths of five cycling post workers in the three years up to 2001. This was a decision which met with Peter’s approval. “If you spend time on a hospital ward, meeting people who’ve sustained serious brain damage after coming off their bikes while not wearing a helmet, you’d agree with me that compulsory cycle helmets are essential for children. Surely the safety of children in the UK is every bit as important as it is in Australia, New Zealand and 22 States in America (where such legislation has been in force for some years),” Peter told me. He added that it was both heart-rending and infuriating to see such damage, when the government could take real steps to prevent it by a time-honoured expedient: legislation.
What do you think? If it is prepared to increase the speed limit on motorways, on the basis that technology has made driving safer, should the government legislate to make the wearing of cycle helmets compulsory, just as it did, in 1983, the wearing of safety belts in cars? Do you agree with Peter McCabe or with London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, who seems to cycle everywhere without a helmet, intent on enjoying the wind in his flowing locks? 

For me, whatever the statistics say one thing is obvious. If you’re wearing a helmet while riding a bike and are hit by a car at 40mph, it probably won’t make a lot of difference. But if you’re wearing one and something goes wrong at under 20mph – say because you simply fall off while at traffic lights and hit the ground - it might be the difference between your chances of continuing to enjoy your life or being reduced to a vegetative state. Maybe, then, the government should be looking at legislation to protect cyclists as well as to help motorists come 2013.