Conservative Party leader David Cameron has come under fire in the media for failing to wear a helmet while out cycling. The politician was snapped yesterday with his helmet dangling from his handlebars as he rode from his West London home to Westminster, and the pictures are all over today’s papers.
Reaction ranges from the “so what?” – Harry Mount in the Telegraph – to the furious, with the normally Tory-supporting Daily Mail accused the Tory leader of setting a bad example and putting “vanity before safety”, the implication presumably being that he didn’t want to ruin his hairstyle.
But we’re not so sure the situation is as cut and blow-dried (sorry) as that. With the increasing Americanisation of British politics, party leaders are more aware than ever before that image is key. And Cameron has previous when it comes to being accused of not setting a good example by riding without a helmet.
It seems inconceivable that 24 hours into a general election campaign that puts him more under the spotlight than ever before, Cameron’s image advisors would have let him ride off without a helmet on his head unless he was making a point.
So what might that point be? Well, first off, the Conservatives claim to be a party that offers choices – the choice to use private healthcare over the NHS, the choice to send your kids to private school over educating them through the state system. The choice to wear a cycle helmet, or decide to do without one, perhaps.
Then, there is the health and safety angle, a favourite bugbear of the Daily Mail’s core readership. Cameron isn’t someone who is going to be told what to do by people with clipboards reeling off statistics. In which case, the Daily Mail by portraying Cameron as setting a bad example, may have missed the point somewhat.
Finally, as a keen cyclist as well as a politician who wants to push his green credentials – and whose party perhaps has a harder task to do so credibly compared to its political opponents – he may simply be trying to get across the point that cycling isn’t as dangerous as some people might lead you to believe, although he did make sure he was wearing a high-viz sash to help other road users see him.
Or it could just be, as Sky News suggests, that with a lot of other stuff on his mind, Cameron simply forgot to put the helmet on his head as he rode off.
The Daily Mail said that safety organisations had attacked Cameron for daring to ride through London without a helmet, with Luke Griggs, a spokesman for the brain injury association, Headway, saying: “Brain injury can happen at any moment - all it takes is just one fall and you will regret it for the rest of your life. We are deeply disappointed.”
He added: 'Mr Cameron should be proud to be seen to be wearing his helmet. He should be setting a good example to cyclists, particularly young cyclists in the UK.”
A spokeswoman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents told the Daily Mail: “We encourage cyclists to wear helmets, obviously it is not the law, at the end of the day it is a personal choice. But we do encourage people to wear helmets.” She continued: “Helmets will not stop an accident from happening, but it will hopefully reduce the severity of injuries suffered.”
Cycling campaigners, however, said that it was down to the individual cyclist to decide whether or not to wear a helmet, with a spokesman for the London Cycling Campaign telling the newspaper: “We take the view that people should make their own informed decisions about the wearing of helmets. The evidence of the protective ability of helmets in the event of a collision with a vehicle remains unclear.”
That sentiment was echoed by Roger Geffen from the national cyclists’ organization CTC, who insisted: “The idea that it is somehow "dangerous" and "irresponsible" to cycle without a helmet is a total myth. It merely puts people off cycling and contributes to the increase in the level of obesity and other inactivity-related illnesses, which kill tens of thousands of people every year.”
He continued: “On the other hand, it is far from clear whether cycle helmets do anything to reduce the relatively tiny number of cyclist fatalities - in fact some of the evidence suggests helmets could make things worse.
“If we are to encourage people to take up cycling - with all its benefits for our health, our streets, our environment and our wallets - then we need to promote it as a safe and enjoyable way to get around for day-to-day travel, wearing normal clothes,” he concluded.
Cameron isn’t the first high-profile politician to have come under fire for going lidless. His erstwhile Eton and Bullingdon Club colleague, London Mayor Boris Johnson, now seems to be at least occasionally sporting a helmet over his blond mop after years of going without.
And last year, President Obama, who also gets it in the neck from the anti-smoking lobby due to his predilection for the odd puff on a cigarette, was crticised for failing to set a good example when he was photographed riding without a helmet while on holiday with his family.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.