A Letter to the Women’s Institute – Mandatory Helmet Laws Will Not Encourage Cycling
Cyclists in the UK have some new supporters. The Women’s Institute are eager to get more people cycling, and make it safer. One problem: they’ve got the totally wrong idea about how to do it:
“The health and environmental benefits of cycling are very much in line with past and current Women’s Institute mandates and compulsory helmet wearing may encourage more people to take up cycling, whilst improving the overall safety of cyclists.”
Soon, the members of the Women’s Institute will be voting on whether or not to support a motion which encourages the Government of the United Kingdom to make wearing a helmet compulsory for cyclists, despite the fact that such laws have reduced levels of cycling in every country they have been introduced in.
Along with the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, Danny of Cyclists in the City and Mark of ibikelondon blog, This Big City is calling on the Women’s Institute to rethink this motion, and we need your support. Read our letter to the members of the WI below, and lend your name to our call for making cycling safe and comfortable for all (and for those in the blogosphere supporting our message, please feel free to reblog this letter).
Dear members of the Women’s Institute,
We are writing to you today with regards to the 2012 proposed resolution (6) which the Women’s Institute is currently considering regarding bicycle helmet compulsion.
We at the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain welcome the fact that the Women’s Institute is taking an interest in the safety of cyclists. Far too many bicycle riders, young and old, are killed and injured on the UK’s roads every year.
Many more will never even contemplate something so simple as riding a bicycle – or have tried and given up – through being too scared to mix with heavy and fast traffic on Britain’s main roads. We do not believe that the way to remedy this situation, and to increase cyclist’s safety, is through compulsory helmet laws.
As is stated in the summary of your resolution in the pros and cons, the focus of the resolution as it stands is currently very narrow and is likely to put people off cycling; something we have already seen happen in Australia and New Zealand. Both countries adopted compulsory bicycle helmet laws in the 1990s and both now see almost a third fewer cyclists on their roads. Recent research published by the Health Promotion Journal of Australia found that 1 in 5 adults would start cycling, or cycle more, if such laws weren’t in place. In 2008, the New Zealand Transport Safety Minister Harry Duynhoven publicly acknowledged that such laws are putting people off cycling. Urban cycle hire schemes in Melbourne and Brisbane have struggled to find an audience, with Aukland’s equivalent folding after failing to cover its costs. This whilst equivalent schemes in Paris, Barcelona, Montreal, Toronto, Washington DC, Mexico City and London (to name but a few) have seen huge success with hardly any accidents. London’s accident rate is a minute 0.002%. It can be argued that the consequence of a compulsory helmet law is a greater risk to public health than making cycling safer in other ways.
With fewer people engaging in everyday exercise like cycling, as in Australia and New Zealand, the risk of obesity and the many associated health problems increases. Even if cycle helmets protect against head injuries – and it is imperative that the Women’s Institute is made aware that there is no conclusive evidence or academic consensus that they do – compulsory cycle helmet laws bring with them their own negative health repercussions. Obesity cost the NHS an estimated £4.2 billion pounds in England alone in 2007, with the NHS themselves expecting a £50 billion annual cost by 2050 should current trends continue. Any motion which encourages easy, everyday exercise like cycling should be applauded, but there is not one single example of a compulsory helmet law increasing rates of cycling.
We at the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain believe in prevention rather than cure. Cycle helmets do not prevent accidents from occurring the first place and we believe it is more effective to reduce cyclist’s exposure to danger rather than try and mitigate against being exposed to it.
Whilst there are opportunities to improve training for cyclists and drivers, too often it is the design of our roads, particularly our junctions, which bring bikes into conflict with larger, heavier vehicles. Many of the high-profile deaths of cyclists, particularly in London, have been women riders who were wearing a helmet, and who were experienced – neither factors which saved them when they got hit by an HGV. We believe that safe areas for people to walk and cycle should be created, particularly in populated areas where people live and go to school or work or the shops. At present approximately 75% of all regular cyclists in the UK are men; we believe that focusing on creating attractive and safe conditions for riding a bicycle have a much larger possibility of enacting positive change within society – most especially for women and families – with all the wider benefits that increased riding will bring (less congestion, less pollution, fitter population etc).
Mandating helmet use for those who are comfortable cycling in our present road conditions, whilst not considering those who would like to cycle but are too afraid is not the way forwards for a safe, successful and equitable society.
A lot of us are able to remember that when we were children, our bikes were our passports to freedom and independence. There is no reason why this cannot be the case for current generations. There are cities and countries who already achieve safe mass cycling rates; we should look to their successful examples rather than countries, like Australia, where mandatory helmet laws have been disastrous. In the Netherlands, children are still free to go to school unaccompanied, on their bikes, on average from the age of eight. That is because their roads and towns are designed to make cycling safe for all ages, from children with stabilisers all the way up to grandparents and great grandparents. The result is civilised streets and happy children. In a 2007 UNICEF study, the Netherlands came top for safest roads and child wellbeing. The UK came 21st.
Whilst levels of cycling dropped by almost a third in Australia, obesity increased dramatically. Australia now has the fastest growing obesity rates of any developed country, with 1 in 2 people overweight. Additionally, since introducing mandatory cycle helmet laws, neither Australia nor New Zealand has seen a reduction in head injuries beyond the general trend for the population at large.
Traffic safety in the Netherlands is the best in Europe, and obesity is among the lowest of any developed country in the world. We believe that with pragmatic problem solving at the root cause, and hopefully a bit of imagination, the UK could achieve the same.
The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is a newly formed organisation campaigning for just that. We’d be thrilled to have the WI on our side on this. Your resolution shows that you’ve the interests of cyclists and their safety at heart but we hope that you’ll be able to think wider than just helmets and training to infrastructure based on the Netherlands model that has had proven success giving freedom of movement and empowerment to all. We’d be delighted to give you more information, or come and talk to your groups in person about the wider issues at stake. Above all, we would be honoured for you to join us in a proper cycling revolution.
This letter is from the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. It comes to you with the support of the campaigning group Cyclists in the City of London and the websites This Big City and ibikelondon. The undersigned call on the Women’s Institute to reject Resolution 6 calling for compulsory helmet laws and to focus instead on creating conditions in which all members of society will feel safe and comfortable riding a bicycle:
This article first appeared in the blog thisbigcity
Image Courtesy of Toban Black on Flickr