Northern Ireland doctors welcome compulsory helmet law vote but opponents voice concern

Opponents of compulsion highlight experience of Netherlands and Denmark

by Simon_MacMichael   February 3, 2011  

Stormont (wknight94, Wikimedia Commons).jpg

The compulsory helmet law being proposed by Northern Ireland Assembly Member Pat Ramsey, who earlier this week saw the second reading of his private member’s bill passed by two votes, has been welcomed by doctors in the province, but  opponents say it will deter people from cycling and ignores wider aspects of the road safety debate.

Under the proposed legislation, cyclists would be fined £50 for not wearing a helmet, although on first offence they would have the option of going to a shop and purchasing one, producing the receipt to have the fine waived.

As reported on road.cc earlier this week, national cyclists’ organisation CTC and the sustainable transport charity Sustrans joined forces in expressing their opposition to Mr Ramsey’s bill, but in a debate lasting more than two hours on Monday evening which you can watch on the BBC Democracy Live website or read on Hansard, the SDLP politician claimed to have the support of the medical profession.

In presenting his bill, the SDLP politician claimed to have the support of the medical profession, and following the outcome of the vote, Dr Paul Darragh, Chairman of the British Medical Association’s Council in Northern Ireland, quoted on the 4NI website,  said: "BMA welcomes that the Cyclists (Protective Headgear) Bill - sponsored by Mr Pat Ramsey - has been passed by the Assembly.

"As part of a range of measures to improve cycling safety, BMA has advocated that cycle helmet wearing should be made compulsory.

"It is doctors who witness and treat the range of cycle related injuries after they occur and see first hand the devastating impacts cycling injuries can have."

Dr Darragh added: "Best evidence supports the use of cycle helmets. They have been shown to reduce the risk of head injury and its severity should it occur in non-fatal collisions.

"The consequences of traumatic brain injury are significant not only to the individual involved, but to their families and to society as a whole.”

Mr Ramsey himself acknowledged that concerns expressed by CTC, Sustrans and others that his proposed law might lead to a reduction in the number of people cycling were valid, and said that as a result he envisaged the ban coming into full force only after a three-year introductory period.

“I am not for one minute dismissing claims that cycling incidence reduces after the introduction of helmet legislation,” he explained. “In fact, it is out of concern for any negative impact that I have proposed a three-year introductory period, if the legislation were approved, during which there would be a publicity campaign and time for schools, the Department and other parties to enter into a full awareness campaign. That full three years would allow ample opportunity for those groups and other cycling groups to come on board and to become aware of the regulations.”

Mr Ramsey, a former Mayor of Derry, added: “It surprised me that some cycling organisations are opposed to the Bill. The reason why it surprises me is that in organised cycling events, even informal rides out, cyclists are invariably helmeted. It also surprised me because the main governing body for cycling racing, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), has made helmets compulsory in all racing events.

“It is, therefore, surprising that some cycling organisations argue against the same level of protection for children and adults as they insist on for themselves. Let us face it: most cyclists are not professional; they cycle on roads that are shared by motorised traffic, with the obvious accompanying risks.”

Speaking against Mr Ramsey’s Bill, Alistair Ross of the Democratic Unionist Party, highlighted that he believed that enforcement of a ban and fines would be a waste of police and court resources, as well as the fact that he believed it would lead to fewer people cycling, and underlined that the issue of cyclists’ safety needed to be viewed within the context of the wider road safety debate.

“Denmark and the Netherlands have many cyclists and among the best road safety statistics and the fewest injuries for cyclists,” said Mr Ross. “Importantly, they also have among the lowest numbers of cyclists who wear helmets. We have to ask ourselves why that is,” he continued.

“If people in the Netherlands and Denmark are not wearing helmets, why do they still have a better road safety record? It is down to issues such as public awareness and the fact that the number of cyclists changes drivers’ attitudes. Drivers are more aware of cyclists and the dangers for them, and they adapt their driving accordingly. In some towns in the Netherlands, cycling traffic is separated from motorised traffic, which is also important.”

Mr Ross claimed that “It is slightly disingenuous to argue that this legislation will prevent tragedies. There is evidence from around the world that in many tragedies involving cyclists — each one is a tragedy — the wearing of a cycle helmet would have made no difference. In accidents involving lorries or larger cars, cycle helmets make minimal difference. I listened to the arguments about seat belts and motorcycles, but the situation with bicycles and cycle helmets is different because protection is afforded only to the head. It is important to bear in mind those arguments.”

He also rejected the notion that a compulsory cycle helmet law was comparable to previous legislation making motorcycle helmets and seatbelts compulsory, as well as laws against smoking in public places, saying: “There are differences between the mandatory wearing of seat belts and motorcycle helmets and the smoking ban. I do not think that that is a fair comparison.

"We know that motorbikes travel at considerable speeds and accelerate very fast, and cars are much the same. Likewise, seatbelts are different because they protect the whole body and other passengers in a car. If those in the back seat are shunted forward in an accident, the people in front of them are protected. There is a wider issue there.

“Mr Ramsey talked about the smoking ban. In that case, the personal choice of someone to smoke has a direct effect on other people. Again, it is a different argument to make.

“Many Governments around the world have debated the issue of cycling helmets and have ultimately decided against implementing legislation, with the exception of Australia and some states in the United States. It is my understanding that the Executive have discussed the issue but could not agree on it and will not support the Bill,” he continued.

Mr Ross added: “I have considered the issue and have looked at the evidence from many places around the world. I have listened to the concerns of cyclists and cycling organisations, and I have decided that I will not support the Bill. “

However, he said that he hoped that Mr Ramsey would continue his efforts “to ensure that there is greater understanding and awareness of cycling issues in an overall road safety strategy, perhaps to improve cycling standards or, speaking as someone who did his cycling proficiency test in primary school a long time ago, to ensure that children are taught safe techniques when they are learning to ride their bicycles.”

The bill now proceeds to the committee stage, and there is still a long way for it to go – and many potential hurdles – before it becomes law, and we will of course keep you updated on developments here on road.cc.
 

18 user comments

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Dr Paul Darragh, Chairman of the British Medical Association’s Council in Northern Ireland wrote:
"The consequences of traumatic brain injury are significant not only to the individual involved, but to their families and to society as a whole.”

Presumably the BMA would also therefore welcome laws such as...

* Compulsory gas masks for OAPs during 'flu season, so inconsiderate elderly folk don't clog up hospital wards and upset members of their family by getting ill.
* Banning of all foods other than the soft pastes currently eaten by babies, to prevent selfish b*st*rds who eat steaks, and thus risk choking, from burdening society as a whole with the need for people to learn the Heimlich Maneuver.
* Full body armour for golfers, especially the many doctors who play the game, to prevent traumatic injuries sustained by anyone thoughtless enough to be struck by a flying golf ball from causing guilt for the person who hit the ball.

...of course people could just take care of themselves and others - cover their mouths when sneezing, chew their food properly, and shout "fore" when clubbing a ball down the fairway - but that would require the authorities to trust ordinary people. Which is something those in power have increasingly been unwilling to do in the last 50-80 years, as social structures that previously kept people in their places have broken down.

posted by handlebarcam [527 posts]
3rd February 2011 - 10:16

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Quote:
Speaking against Mr Ramsey’s Bill, Alistair Ross of the Democratic Unionist Party, highlighted that he believed that enforcement of a ban and fines would be a waste of police and court resources, as well as the fact that he believed it would lead to fewer people cycling, and underlined that the issue of cyclists’ safety needed to be viewed within the context of the wider road safety debate.

Refreshing to hear the DUP talking sense! The quoted comments from this guy sum up a sensible approach to a 'T' - shame the law passed anyway.

posted by mad_scot_rider [536 posts]
3rd February 2011 - 11:11

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haldebarcam man, what about this statement?

Quote:
"Best evidence supports the use of cycle helmets. They have been shown to reduce the risk of head injury and its severity should it occur in non-fatal collisions.

You cant argude that NOT scraping your head along the ground due to wearing a helmet reduces injury. They are doctors, trying to reduce injury. Im pretty sure they always suggest things like face masks, cleaning your hands and other such things to reduce risk of ill health to others, if there is a commonly available sensible way to reduce risk of injury then they will support it, hence most doctors will suggest you wear a helmet.

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posted by STATO [410 posts]
3rd February 2011 - 11:32

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How many members of the BMA actually ride bicycles them selves? I suspect that most of them don't, they take the attitude expressed my an American motorist who shouted at a cyclist "you should wear a helmets, then I wouldn't have to drive safely!" Sadly we have more of the Taliban approach to road safety...

posted by Kim [127 posts]
3rd February 2011 - 12:01

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STATO wrote:
haldebarcam man, what about this statement?

Quote:
"Best evidence supports the use of cycle helmets. They have been shown to reduce the risk of head injury and its severity should it occur in non-fatal collisions.

You cant argude that NOT scraping your head along the ground due to wearing a helmet reduces injury. They are doctors, trying to reduce injury. Im pretty sure they always suggest things like face masks, cleaning your hands and other such things to reduce risk of ill health to others, if there is a commonly available sensible way to reduce risk of injury then they will support it, hence most doctors will suggest you wear a helmet.

Sure. But the reduction in physical activity as a consequence of helmet compulsion has a net negative effect on the health of the society. This is not something you can readily appreciate if you are sitting in A&E treating injuries.

Cycling is not a sufficiently dangerous activity to warrant compulsory safety equipment.

two wheels good; four wheels bad

posted by cat1commuter [1324 posts]
3rd February 2011 - 12:19

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The question for Northern Ireland has to be, why does NI worst child pedestrian fatality statistics (0.59 per 100 000 population) in Europe? The problem is not cyclist and pedestrians, it is drivers. Surely doctors should be able to understand that you need treat the cause and not the signs and symptoms. Helmet compulsion is a complete red herring and will do nothing to make the roads safer.

posted by Kim [127 posts]
3rd February 2011 - 12:49

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One can make a case for anything if one wishes.

posted by 5339 [21 posts]
3rd February 2011 - 14:05

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Is it safe to assume that Mr Ramsey has cyclists safety first and foremost in his agenda? If so I am sure we will see him demanding mandatory 20mph in urban areas. Manslaughter charges whenever a vunerable road user is killed by a motorist coupled with a lifetime driving ban? Somehow I think not! But if this goes through and I have the misfortune to be hit by a speeding two ton lump of metal driven by a SMIDSY and am lying in a hospital bed with pins and severe internal injuries. I can take comfort in the doctors words of "at least you were wearing a helmet"
The wearing of helmets should continue to be adviory. - let the cyclist decide whatsbest

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posted by giff77 [1036 posts]
3rd February 2011 - 15:49

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Kim wrote:
The question for Northern Ireland has to be, why does NI worst child pedestrian fatality statistics (0.59 per 100 000 population) in Europe?

Following the logic pursued above compulsory helmets for child pedestrians must be the solution.

Kim wrote:
The problem is not cyclist and pedestrians, it is the drivers. Surely doctors should be able to understand that you need treat the cause and not the signs and symptoms. Helmet compulsion is a complete red herring and will do nothing to make the roads safer.

I couldn't have put it better myself.

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posted by Simon E [1896 posts]
3rd February 2011 - 16:16

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This policy proposes that it is the responsibility of the victim to protect themselves.... it's a bad precedent.

Time to buy share in stab-vest manufacturers...

posted by Roadkill [43 posts]
3rd February 2011 - 16:27

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If Northern Irish doctors had their way, Barry McGuigan would have been a third rate pub singer.

posted by wild man [278 posts]
3rd February 2011 - 19:00

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STATO wrote:
You cant argude that NOT scraping your head along the ground due to wearing a helmet reduces injury.

Actually you can - by increasing the diameter of the head and providing greater purchase, helmets have been found to increase torsion injuries (AKA broken necks!) in most off-centre impacts (i.e. almost all of them)

The point is, that the case is not proven so why has it become compulsion

posted by mad_scot_rider [536 posts]
3rd February 2011 - 19:25

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I don't know whats to debate or argue about.
If you have a brain in your head then protect it.
Over the years I have had a couple of serious incidents both of which I would have been a lot more seriously injured had I not been wearing a helmet.
I cycle a lot and being professional or not has very little to do with the fact that accidents are always going to occur no matter who's to blaim.
When flesh and bone make contact with tarmac or metal there's only going to be one winner.
More fool the cyclists that chooses not to wear a helmet, for I'm sure a very valid reason, but take a moment to think about the people that care about you, is it really not worth wearing a helmet??? Thinking

jasonchatty31

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posted by chatty31 [74 posts]
4th February 2011 - 13:55

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This isn't about whether you should wear a helmet it's about whether you should be criminalised for choosing not to.

This law suggests that people who choose not to wear a helmet need to be protected from themselves....

Were we to write a list of groups who do need protecting from themselves Northern Irish politicians might well appear near the top Wink

posted by Roadkill [43 posts]
4th February 2011 - 15:03

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This is partly a pragmatic health issue and partly human rights - the health issue is that whether you like it or not, many opeople won't ruide a bike if they have to wear a helmet. Either because it messes up their hair, or it doesn't look cool, or because it isn't cool (when the weather is warm) or because it makes them fear that cycling is dangerous.

The human rights issue is that people should not be forced to do something against their will unless it thereby prevents an infringement of someone else's rights. Unlike motorcycle helmets or car seat belts, there just isn't the conclusive empirical evidence that helmets would reduce casualties and thus improve access to NHS facilities otherwise blocked by loads of head-injury cyclists

posted by Paul M [305 posts]
4th February 2011 - 18:41

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Does anyone know statistics regarding head injuries and fatalities for 'unlidded' cyclists in Holland etc? We live in a country where the driving test does not take into account vunerable road users apart from a few random theory questions! The majority of motorists disregard speed limits and the UK must be the only country where you can drive a weapon, take a life and have your sentence quashed!!! As far as I am aware, the majority of cycling fatalities involve either speeding vehicles or lorries, neither of which a bit of plastic is going to prevent death! Politicians and doctors should maybe pushing for lower speed limits!!

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posted by giff77 [1036 posts]
4th February 2011 - 23:08

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Part of the problem with respect to the support for this coming from doctors is that a lot of medicine is palliative, so they are bound to see so-called "road safety" in similar terms of treating the symptoms.

posted by mr_colostomy [29 posts]
28th February 2011 - 15:20

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giff77 wrote:
Does anyone know statistics regarding head injuries and fatalities for 'unlidded' cyclists in Holland etc?

The helm wearing percentage here in the Netherlands is low. This makes any analysis complicated and anecdotic.
Also the two groups (wearing/not wearing) are not comparable in age, riding behaviour, personal risc assessment, etc.
For sure a helmet wearing law would reduce cycling dramaticly.
Also, not really proven but often theorized, wearing a helmet might make you feel safer and thus behaving more riscful. The same might be argued for seat belts raisng the average speed of cars.
For children a helmet is relatively heavy and large, creating a larger "head size". This introduces realistic riscs for neck injuries.

More interesting, for car drivers head injuries are very common. So they should wear helmets too. Also pedestrians, crossing streets, should wear helmets.
A british coroner could 'match' over a prolonged time every cyclist's injury with a pedestrian with comparable injuries in the same period.
As already said, in a lot of severe accidents, wearing a helmet did not make the difference.

giff77 wrote:
As far as I am aware, the majority of cycling fatalities involve either speeding vehicles or lorries, neither of which a bit of plastic is going to prevent death! Politicians and doctors should maybe pushing for lower speed limits!!

Which makes the case for creating cycling facilities in cities. My own experience in Ireland is that the ever bending roads with a lot of hedges reduce sight and create a very late awareness of any cyclist. I know there are rural roads where 100 km/h is allowed which would have an absolute maximuu of 80 here in the Netherlands, where at the same time there would be created separate cycling facilities, as these roads are hardly wide enough for two cars passing safely. Using these roads as a cyclist can be rather suicidal, without having any safer alternative as using a car yourself. It is these kind of killer roads where helmets do not make any difference at all.

For a lot of interesting dutch cycling video search for "markenlei" on youtube.

message sent with recycled electrons

posted by kegge13 [1 posts]
4th March 2011 - 19:57

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