It seems that the rather bizarre resolution on making cycle helmets compulsory will be discussed by individual WI groups, before being considered at the annual meeting of their National Federation in May 2012.
The WI has 210,000 members, and 7,000 local organisations. Many of us have relatives, friends, or neighbours who are active members of the WI. This looks like an opportunity to get wider issues relating to cycling and road safety onto their agenda, and to help them to reach a more informed position on cycling helmets and safety.
Points they might be encouraged to consider include:
- If they are going to take a stance on making cycling helmets compulsory, then delegates will want to find either conclusive evidence, or a high level of consensus which supports their position. Although it might seem obvious to the layman that using a cycle helmet will improve safety, in reality the issues are quite complex. Before deciding where they stand on this issue themselves, delegates who expect to be taken seriously will want to study a range of evidence. This is one starting point. And this is another. Delegates may also wish to survey the position taken by their friends and neighbours who cycle. Many regular cyclists know from experience that a helmet can protect them from certain injuries in certain cases (typically, bumping their head as a result of a straightforward tumble). As a result they will normally wear a helmet, and encourage others to do so. However, few will be under any illusion that a cycle helmet will provide worthwhile protection in the case of a more serious incident, such as collision with a car. This broadly matches the conclusion reached by the Transport and Road Research Laboratory in 2009. However, wider research will uncover a variety of views, and evidence that is far from conclusive.
- A number of different approaches are currently used to improve cycling safety. Examples include special training for cyclists, campaigns to raise driver awareness of the risks, devices attached to large vehicles to improve visibility, and investment in separate cycle infrastructure. Before they endorse mandatory cycling helmets as the preferred solution, delegates will wish to consider alternative safety initiatives, and assess their effectiveness and the wider implications. The WI has a wide reach, high visibility, and considerable credibility. They will want reassurance that by endorsing one particular approach they are not encouraging drivers, cyclists, policy makers, and the general public to ignore or resist other safety measures that might, in practice, have greater potential to improve safety.
- Cycling has been encouraged by successive governments on the basis of environmental and public health benefits. The WI has a history of supporting environmental causes, campaigning to reduce carbon emissions, and an interest in public health issues. Road traffic accounts for 22% of the UK's carbon emissions, and contributes to pollution, poor air quality, congestion and noise. Many see cycling as a viable alternative to using the car for shorter journeys; as a means of reducing the environmental impact of traffic, and of making the roads more accessible to people who have no alternative to using a car. While there are risks associated with almost any physical activity, many cyclists feel that the risks they face are exaggerated, and argue that, from a wider public health perspective, the risks associated with cycling are outweighed by the public health benefits. Changes to government policy in this area will be challenged by a vocal cycling community which generally believes that any disincentive to cycling will have a knock-on effect on policies related to public health and the environment; and that international experience suggests that encouraging more cyclists onto the roads is an effective way to improve safety for all cyclists. A claim that compulsory wearing of helmets will encourage more cycling will need to be substantiated.
- The government faces a number of different issues, and is committed to reducing regulatory burdens and red tape. Any decent government is concerned to represent interests across the whole of society. So before recommending additional legislation in one particular area it would be prudent for the WI to develop a persuasive case why cyclist safety should take priority over other risks. Why, for example, should the deaths of 111 cyclists and injuries to 2,600 cyclists a year take precedence over 800 deaths due to obesity, 4,000 children who fall out of windows, 9,700 people injured as a result of drunk driving, or 500,000 elderly people admitted to A&E departments as a result of a fall at home?
- It has been long established (in principle and practice) that roads are a shared asset, funded by general taxation. Everyone is entitled to use them, whether in a vehicle, on a cycle, a horse, or on foot. With a mix of traffic, the free flow of vehicles, and the safety of all road users depends on a high degree of collaboration and consideration. In principle, all those who share the roads have a responsibility to consider the safety of the more vulnerable. In practice, though, things are more confrontational. Many cyclists have experience of motorists shouting abuse, throwing things at them, or driving aggressively. Similarly cyclists are widely criticised for not considering the needs of motorists, and the safety of pedestrians. The WI is in the rare position of being able to encourage, on behalf of all road users, a more balanced, collaborative and considerate approach. If they end up endorsing the mandatory wearing of cycle helmets they risk being characterised as seeing the most vulnerable as being solely responsible for this aspect of safety; and siding with those who argue that those who face the highest transport costs have the greater level of entitlement.