Minister for Cycling Norman Baker goes on Radio 4 to defend choice not to wear cycle helmet

Politician grilled by Today show's John Humphrys following criticism from road safety charity

by Simon_MacMichael   April 13, 2011  

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Transport minister Norman Baker, whose portfolio includes cycling, has been defending his decision not to use a cycle helmet while out on his bike on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, in the face of criticism from road safety campaigners following his explanation last week of the reasons behind his preference to ride without one.

The Liberal Democrat politician was grilled on the issue by the show’s presenter, John Humphrys, who also confessed that he too chose not to wear a helmet during a discussion that also involved Julie Townsend from the road safety charity, Brake.

“We think it is very disappointing that the minister is choosing to ignore the very extensive evidence we have that helmets are effective in reducing the risk of serious head injury and he’s not taking the very, very simple step of wearing a helmet,” said Ms Townsend.

“As you say, this isn’t only a public figure we’re talking about, this is the minister with responsibility for cycling. So while we think it’s very positive that he’s setting an example by choosing to cycle and not getting in his car, we would like him to be setting an example in terms of safe cycling, and by choosing not to wear a helmet, he’s undermining the Department for Transport’s own very important road safety messages.”

At this point, Mr Humprys revealed that he, too, chose to go without a helmet. “I’m going to have to make a sort of declaration here because I don’t use one either and I cycle all the time, so I’d better say that before somebody else does.

“And my argument, and I think his as well, is that if you fall off your bike and your head gets crushed by a lorry, well that wouldn’t be very good and you’re probably better off having a helmet than not,” he continued.

“But the question is whether you’d be knocked off in the first place if you were not wearing one because the idea is and there’s some research that shows this that drivers tend to give you a bit of a wide berth if you’re not wearing one so you’re less likely to be involved in an accident, how about that?”

Ms Townsend conceded that helmets did not prevent a cyclist from being involved in an accident to begin with, saying “that’s why we need a range of measures as well as encouraging cyclists to wear a helmet we also need more safe cycling facilities, we need engineering measures such as more safe cycling paths.”

“Fair enough,” countered Mr Humphrys, “but you’re slightly moving from the point here, aren’t you, do you acknowledge that you might be less likely to be involved in an accident if you are not wearing a helmet?

“We have one study from Bath University which suggested that drivers are perhaps more likely to give you more room if you’re not wearing a helmet, however, we have scores of studies from around the world that show if you wear a helmet you are less likely to suffer serious head injury or death and of course that is the ultimate aim of wearing a helmet,” she replied.

That Bath University study, of course, is the one published in 2006 by Dr Ian Walker, who also famously donned a blonde wig in the interests of research finding that it also led to drivers giving him more room.

Mr Humprys then turned his attention to Mr Baker, who explained that while government policy was to encourage children to wear cycle helmets, “we also think adults are capable of making up their own mind as to whether they should wear a helmet or not.

“There is an issue as to whether or not as you correctly say cars give a wider berth to cyclists with or without helmets, but there’s also the point about whether or not making people wear helmets would discourage people from cycling,” he continued.

“There are enormous benefits from cycling in terms of health, in terms of tackling obesity, in terms of dealing with air pollution and environmental problems, and I don’t want to put obstacles in the way of people cycling. I want to encourage freedom of cycling, rather than stress the restrictions on it.”

When Mr Humphrys pointed out that “seatbelts in cars didn’t put people off driving,” Mr Baker maintained that it was a “slightly different issue,” because “quite clearly if you go through the windscreen of a car, it’s a very, very serious matter.”

He continued: “The impact and whether or not you’re damaged when you fall off your bike is not quite the same as that although I accept that there is a safety issue associated with that. But there is also an issue of how many people we want cycling and if we put in the way obstacles which discourage people from cycling, then that’s a net loss in terms of health.”

That's the same argument that national cyclists' organisation and the charity Sustrans have used to counter a private members' bill put before the Northern Ireland Assembly earlier this year to make cycle helmets compulsory - in summary, broader benefits to society arising from the positive aspects of cycling, and particularly its effect on health, outweigh the reduction in the number of cyclists that would be brought about by making helmets compulsory.

Mr Humphrys then put to him the plain question of, “doesn’t it come down to this – you’re the minister, you should set an example?”

“Well I’m the minister for cycling, and I set an example cycling, I’m not actually the safety minister,” he replied, his words greeted with laughter, with the presenter pointing out, “that’s a bit of a distiction – you’re the minister for safe cycling, you’re not the minister for dangerous cycling!”

Mr Baker insisted: “I want to encourage people to cycle, to stress the benefits and the joys of cycling,” and declined to reveal whether his children wore cycle helmets, stating, “I don’t talk about my family on the radio, but I’m very happy be up front to talk about what I do myself.”
 

14 user comments

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Bravo. If only we had more politicians like this.

posted by Coleman [329 posts]
13th April 2011 - 10:40

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Balanced interview and comments with one notable exception. No mention at all of measures aimed at making car drivers more considerate of cycling and vulnerable road users generally and better enfircement of road laws to provide greater protection for cyclists and improve its perception of safety with the general public. I'd much rayher be on the roads getting from A to B with the same ease as cars not made to feel a second class citizen expected to use often second best routes subsumed to the needs and priorities of cars, with the consequent abuse and more intimidating driving by drivers when you choose to use the best option on road rather than the plan b segregation.

posted by Shouldbeinbed [27 posts]
13th April 2011 - 11:12

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The minister hit the nail on the head - the state of cycling in the UK needs to evolve to the point when we don't need helmets as drivers accept that we have a right to be on the road.

I got hit by a car a few weeks ago. I suffered a lot of bruising and muscle pain. Was I wearing a helmet? Yes. Did it stop the accident from happening? No. Did I hit my head? No (I think!) Did the helmet serve any purpose at all in the incident? No.

Ok, roll on all the people who say that they've had accidents and their helmets have saved their lives. Good! I'm glad you are alive and I'm sorry for anyone (and their family) who have been killed on their bikes - a colleague of mine was killed a few years ago in London.

It's fine to wear a helmet. I almost always wear one. But I like to have the choice to not, should I want. After all, with the cuts and bruises to my knees and elbows after my accident, I'm not going to start wearing knee and elbow pads.

This debate does not need to roll on forever. There is a way around it but it costs money to build a better infrasructure and educate ALL types of road users. So let's work on promoting improvements to cycle routes, to lobby our local and national governement to create a cycle friendly world where helmets are a thing of the past.

posted by Myriadgreen [89 posts]
13th April 2011 - 11:13

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"That's the same argument that national cyclists' organisation and the charity Sustrans have used to counter a private members' bill put before the Northern Ireland Assembly earlier this year..."

I think you'll find that cas "CTC" the national cyclists' organisation .....

Cool

posted by shay [4 posts]
13th April 2011 - 12:06

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Quote:
Balanced interview and comments with one notable exception. No mention at all of measures aimed at making car drivers more considerate of cycling and vulnerable road users generally and better enfircement of road laws to provide greater protection for cyclists and improve its perception of safety with the general public.

If he'd have done that, he'd probably have been accused of avoiding the issue, as Roger Geffen of the CTC was by Peter Allen (very aggressively and unfairly) on 5Live when talking about Andrea Leadsom's Dangerous Cycling Bill.

Conscientious Objector in the War on Vulnerable Road Users

t1mmyb's picture

posted by t1mmyb [86 posts]
13th April 2011 - 14:43

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A compulsory helmet law is the easiest option to safer cycling. Once its in place those powers that advocate can say that cycling is now safe and ignore the real issues.

Attitudes of car drivers to cyclists and pedestrians.
Improve cycling infrastructure round the country.
Developing an understanding of how to ride better. I am sure one of the best things for me was the skills I learnt on my motorbike training. The ability and awareness this creates sits well on both a cycle and a bike. These skills don't need to be taught you can teach yourself. You don't need specific training unless you choose.

These are the ways to improve cycle safety and participation. Not an the easy route of say cycle helmets are the panacea for all of cycling ills, while we are fixating on helmets we miss opportunities in every other worthwhile area.

posted by Ciaran Patrick [117 posts]
13th April 2011 - 15:44

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Julie Townsend wrote:
We think it is very disappointing that the minister is choosing to ignore the very extensive evidence we have that helmets are effective in reducing the risk of serious head injury and he’s not taking the very, very simple step of wearing a helmet

This is what wound me up most when listening to it. The evidence that wearing car seat belts or motorcycle helmets reduce serious injury is extensive and conclusive, but this is not the case for bicycle helmets.

two wheels good; four wheels bad

posted by cat1commuter [1321 posts]
13th April 2011 - 18:18

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Cat1commuter wrote:
"This is what wound me up most when listening to it. The evidence that wearing car seat belts or motorcycle helmets reduce serious injury is extensive and conclusive, but this is not the case for bicycle helmets."

The evidence that helmets reduce head injuries is
indeed extensive. It's true that a massive blow to the head will not be much affected by the rather flimsy nature of the cyclist's helmet, though. This is not an argument for not wearing them, it is an argument for requiring more robust helmets, I think. More like that of the motorcyclist.

Cyclists cannot absolve themselves for responsibility for taking safety measures, as we all have to pay for the hospital treatment that may be necessary if someone falls from their bike and sustains an accident that would be much less serious had they been wearing their helmets.

I think the libertarian argument has no place when it comes to expecting everyone else to pay for your freedom.

I agree that we should expect better of some motorists and I would welcome the kind of attitude that is found in most of France. Nobody in their right mind would take their children on to today's roads: the roads are far too dangerous. Until special routes for cyclists are constructed parents will just not take the risks for their children.

Safe and sane cyclist's picture

posted by Safe and sane c... [12 posts]
13th April 2011 - 21:28

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Safe and sane cyclist wrote:
The evidence that helmets reduce head injuries is indeed extensive.

but not without holes. So you don't care that helmet compulsion reduces the number of people cycling? Making people wear a motorcycle helmet for pedalling around at 12 mph is frankly ridiculous.

Safe and sane cyclist wrote:
Cyclists cannot absolve themselves for responsibility for taking safety measures

No-one who argues against compulsion wants to do that so why bring it up? You're obviously humming loudly with your fingers in your ears. Why steer the argument towards the cyclist's responsibility when in most cases it's some selfish, impatient prat driving 1.5 tonnes or more of metal at other people that causes the problem?

Lots of injuries and deaths sadly occur regardless of whether the cyclist / pedestrian / passenger is wearing a helmet or hi-viz and despite their best efforts at self-preservation. Forcing cyclists, who made up 0.47% of the 2,222 road deaths in 2009, to wear a polystyrene bowl on the top of their heads is NOT the answer. What do we do about the other 2,118 deaths (including 500 pedestrians) killed in the same period?

Safe and sane cyclist wrote:
I think the libertarian argument has no place when it comes to expecting everyone else to pay for your freedom.

In that case we should ban cigarettes with immediate effect. The evidence is clear. I don't enjoy paying for people to kill themselves with fags but I recognise that it is their choice while the law allows them to do so.

Safe and sane cyclist wrote:
Nobody in their right mind would take their children on to today's roads: the roads are far too dangerous.

The roads are perfectly adequate, it's the DRIVERS, stupid! Absolutely nothing will improve - for cyclists and everyone else - until that critical issue is addressed.

Simon E's picture

posted by Simon E [1886 posts]
13th April 2011 - 22:53

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Well, in my opinion it doesn't matter what causes you to hit your head when falling off your bike: skulls mend but brains don't. And I'd rather be wearing something that helps limit the damage.

You make the choice... Thinking

posted by Dunlin [11 posts]
14th April 2011 - 0:00

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Safe and sane cyclist wrote:
Nobody in their right mind would take their children on to today's roads: the roads are far too dangerous. Until special routes for cyclists are constructed parents will just not take the risks for their children.

What a wonderful world it will be, in the year 2237, when every whim of every paranoid middle-class parent is satisfied. Of course, all the kids will be obese by then, and every blade of grass concreted over to provide a segregated route for each mode of transport, but at least nobody will have had to slow down or take care to achieve safe roads.

posted by handlebarcam [527 posts]
14th April 2011 - 8:21

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Handlebarcam

"What a wonderful world it will be, in the year 2237, when every whim of every paranoid middle-class parent is satisfied. Of course, all the kids will be obese by then, and every blade of grass concreted over to provide a segregated route for each mode of transport, but at least nobody will have had to slow down or take care to achieve safe roads."

I perceive a lot of rage in this piece of text. I am not sure why paranoid middle class parents have been brought into this discussion. Do working class parents have no concerns for the safety of their children? I think not and such a comment is a slur on working class people.

I think anyone who is not a confident cyclist and also a parent would be absolutely terrified to go on the roads in the area where I live as they are either twisting narrow country lanes through which cars travel often very fast, or they are of the congested ring road variety. There are some cycle tracks in place, but not enough to make much of an impact.

If you have roads or motorists who are of a different type, then you are very lucky. My central point is that it would make economic sense to invest heavily in making routes specially for cyclists. When this happens these routes are well used. This is commonsense, not paranoia.

Safe and sane cyclist's picture

posted by Safe and sane c... [12 posts]
14th April 2011 - 23:25

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Safe and sane cyclist wrote:
Do working class parents have no concerns for the safety of their children? I think not and such a comment is a slur on working class people.

Not at all. Working-class parents can be just as paranoid as middle-class parents. The difference is their whims are not so frequently pandered to by governments and businesses. They don't have the voting or spending power to expect to have the world changed to suit their overinflated fears. Therefore, if overinflated fears ever do achieve a complete alternate network of cycle lanes, or compulsory helmet laws, it'll probably be middle-class overinflated fears that do it.

You do seem to like jumping to conclusions: Roads can be dangerous therefore cycling should be done elsewhere. I mentioned the middle-class therefore I am a snob. Helmets can be beneficial under certain circumstances therefore they must be foisted on everyone in all circumstances. Even going as far as saying that if current helmet designs don't always work then they should be made bigger, like motorbike helmets (and presumably stapled to the head at birth.)

posted by handlebarcam [527 posts]
15th April 2011 - 11:41

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I'll keep my helmet for when I'm on my BMX race bike or at the skateparks thanks. That's when I know I really need one.

OldRidgeback

posted by OldRidgeback [2114 posts]
16th April 2011 - 23:31

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