Cycling minister target of media helmet hype

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Cycling minister Norman Baker doesn’t seem like a bad chap. Think jovial English teacher (for he was one) and you have a measure of how bad-ass he is. (Not very.)

Cycling Minister, Norman Baker

cycling minister, Norman Baker MP, looking not the least bit reckless

And conveniently, for a cycling minister, he seems to get it when it comes to day-to-day journeys by bike and he talks sense in his media appearances. Not recklessness, you understand, just steady, reasoned sense.

 Surprise, then, that this unsensational character could kick up a storm in tabloid and broadsheet newspapers alike for his irresponsible attitude to his own safety. When he went on a visit using one of London’s hire bikes, the press cried havoc because, (wait for it…) the cycling minister and his companion were not wearing cycle helmets.

Journalists who probably couldn’t care less whether Mr Baker wears a styrofoam bonnet, but who suspected their readers would, “jumped on the tutting bandwagon”, as one commentator put it, and tried to sound outraged.

What did the national cyclists’ organisation make of this storm in a teacup?

I asked CTC’s campaigners if they thought they should defend Norman’s right, and the right of everyone, to do as Norman did. They agreed and wrote this in response to one of the articles:

A letter to the Editor of Metro newspaper from the CTC (Cyclists Touring Club):

The Minister for cycling, Norman Baker, shouldn’t need to defend his decision to cycle without a helmet.  In countries like Holland, helmet use is almost unheard of, yet cyclists there have an excellent safety record.

Cycle helmets are (and can only be) designed for minor knocks and bumps, not being hit by fast or heavy traffic.  What’s more, any limited protection they may provide in a collision could well be outweighed by the increased risks of having a collision in the first place.  Cyclists who wear helmets are 14% more likely to have a collision per mile cycled than those without.  Maybe this is because they ride less cautiously, maybe it’s because drivers are known to leave less space when overtaking them.  There are several other possible explanations.

All we know is that increases in helmet use have never been linked with lower cycle casualty rates.  And that the one proven effect of telling people to wear helmets is to put people off cycling.  This is not only bad for our health and the environment, it may be bad for cyclists’ safety too.  Cycling gets safer the more cyclists there are: cyclists really do gain from ‘safety in numbers’.  So, if you deter cyclists, you may worsen the risks for those who remain.  And by adding to our obesity epidemic, you would also shorten far more lives than could possibly be saved by helmets, however effective (or ineffective) they might be.

Cycling is not a particularly high-risk activity – you are less likely to be killed in a mile of cycling than a mile of walking.  For the sake of our health, and that of our streets, communities and the environment, it is far more important for politicians to demonstrate leadership by showing cycling as something everyone can do, in whatever clothes you would normally be wearing.  Whether or not you wear a helmet is irrelevant.

 Alex Bailey

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