Thursday, August 02, 2012

Whatever Bradley Wiggins said, compulsory cycle helmets are a bad idea

This morning's papers were full of reports that Bradley Wiggins had called for the wearing of safety helmets to be made compulsory for cyclists. However, later reports, such as this one on BBC News, suggest that was not his intention.

I am not an enthusiast for compulsion. As Julian Huppert, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, says on the Spectator's Coffee House blog, there are many other practical things that can be done to make cycling safer:
We need to improve dangerous road junctions, install priority traffic lights for cyclists and we need the adoption of a 20mph speed limit in residential streets. Every city should have a cycling commissioner promoting and advising on cycle safety. 
Sadly, the dedicated cycle paths and routes that I see in my own constituency are seriously lacking across many other parts of the country where consideration and safeguards for cyclists fall far below that which is desirable let alone acceptable. 
I would also like to see more training for drivers, especially those of heavy goods vehicles, on how to deal with cyclists. This should be covered fully in the driving test.
Besides. there are strong pragmatic arguments against making cycle helmets compulsory too.

I have often heard it said that the chief result of introducing such a measure in Australia was to reduce the number of cyclists - and worsen public health as a result. I have now found some evidence to support that claim.

In 2006 D.L. Robinson from the University of New England in Australia published a paper entitled "No clear evidence from countries that have enforced the wearing of helmets" in the British Medical Journal.

His conclusion on the effect of compulsion on the number of cyclists was:
Before helmet laws, cycling was increasing. Australian census data show cycling to work increased by 47%, from 1.1% in 1976 to 1.6% in 1986. This trend continued in states without enforced helmet laws, where the average proportion cycling to work increased in 1991, contrasting with an average decline for other states. By 1996, when all states had enforced laws, only 1.2% cycled to work, with a similar proportion in 2001. Thus all available long and short term data show cycling is less popular than would have been expected without helmet laws.
His Table 1 gives the figures from observations of the number of cyclists made at the same locations before and after the law was changed.

So compulsion is questionable both in principle and practice. Of course there are times when it is sensible to wear a helmet, but there are also times when there is little need and I would rather leave that judgement up to individual cyclists.

After all, as a society we suffer from too much attention to possible risks rather than too little.

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