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.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.