Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Being cool shouldn’t come at the expense of being safe

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece in which I wondered whether cyclists ought to be compelled by law to wear helmets. Its prompt was a conversation with Peter McCabe, the CEO of the brain injury association and charity Headway, whose aim is to increase awareness of brain injury and its consequences. Peter made a strong case for legislation to make cyclists have to wear helmets, something that the Post Office made compulsory for its 37,000 cycling postmen in 2003.

By the time I’d written my piece, I was erring strongly on Peter’s side. However, I recently attended a presentation by Martin Potter QC to the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers Transport Group, and found  the biblical proverb true: ‘The first to present his case seems right, until another comes forward and questions him’.

No legal duty to wear a helmet

Martin is a barrister at 2 Temple Gardens. He specialises in personal injury and clinical negligence cases, and has amassed plenty of experience in sports-related litigation, especially involving cycling. His presentation was entitled ‘Cycle Helmets: A Duty to Wear?’ and it ably set out both the law and the arguments for and against wearing helmets.

At present, of course, there is no legal duty for a cyclist to wear a helmet. There may be circumstances when not wearing a helmet could produce a finding of contributory negligence, but they are surprisingly rare. Moreover, Martin’s presentation revealed that only last February a parliamentary debate suggested that change was not in the offing, with MPs apparently convinced that there should be virtually no barriers to cycling, precisely because it is perceived as ‘a good thing’.

Cycling increases levels of fitness and longevity

As Martin put it: “The public policy interest in encouraging and promoting cycling is widely recognised and the subject of much public expenditure. Cycling increases levels of fitness and longevity and decreases obesity, healthcare costs, traffic congestion, pollution and the burning of fossil fuels.”

Thereafter, Martin skilfully examined the evidence as to the efficacy of cycle helmets in reducing brain injuries (inconclusive), assessed the risks in cycling per se (greater in terms of perception than fact), and adduced research which suggested that promoting the use of helmets actually reduced the levels of cycling – something we don’t want, given all the perceived benefits of cycling. In summary, Martin suggested that “it is neither right nor wrong for a cyclist to wear or not wear a helmet. It should be a matter of personal choice leaving the blame to lie with the person or persons responsible for the collision.”

I am not so sure, but, in truth, I can see both sides of the argument. Both Peter McCabe and Martin Potter QC are persuasive, articulate and convincing men. Martin posited the contrary case extremely well, but is it really the case that if we insist that all cyclists wear a helmet, we drive down the numbers of people riding bikes? By extension, if we legislate to compel a cyclist to do the opposite of David Cameron and Boris Johnson – both of whom seem to frequently  eschew a helmet even on the busy streets of London – can we really be said to be encouraging sloth?

Of course not. And yet ... Martin put his case so well that I have paused for further thought and reflection. What is certain is that this issue requires research, analysis and debate. Meanwhile, I’d favour  erring on the side of caution, particularly when it comes to children. The prospect of even one child needlessly suffering brain injury is too horrific to contemplate. Cycle helmets may not be the last word in fashion but they might just make a difference when it’s needed. Better to wear one than worry about being cool.

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