Scotland’s newly-appointed active transport minister – the first person to be appointed to such a position in any national government in the UK – has faced widespread criticism after he was photographed riding a bicycle without wearing a helmet.
Patrick Harvie was appointed the Scottish Government’s minister for zero carbon buildings, active travel and tenants’ rights after the Green Party, for which he is MSP for Glasgow, entered a shared agenda agreement with the Scottish National Party last month.
Pictures of the MSP emerged after he attended Glasgow Pride on Saturday, with some road safety campaigners, including from the charity Headway which backs compulsory cycle helmets, insisting he should have worn one, reports Express.co.uk.
While the Highway Code recommends that cyclists should wear helmets, there is no legal compulsion to do so, and Harvie has said that sporting one is “not my style,” adding that it made him feel as though he were participating in an extreme sport.
But Peter McCabe, chief executive of Headway, said: “Using negative language that discourages the use of helmets puts lives at risk.
“As a charity that helps people to rebuild their lives after sustaining brain injuries, including those acquired through cycling accidents, we would welcome the opportunity to discuss with Mr Harvie the overwhelming body of peer-reviewed scientific evidence that proves the effectiveness of helmets in reducing the risk of brain injuries and fatalities.
“Rather than tweeting anti helmet messages suggesting their use neither looks nor feels normal, we should be working together to normalise cycle helmet use, as has happened in numerous countries including Australia and the USA.”
While some states in the US do in indeed require cyclists, and in particular children, to wear helmets while riding their bikes, there is no nationwide law compelling people to do so.
It is also well documented that the introduction of mandatory helmet laws in Australia led to fewer people – and younger ones in particular – cycling at all. Opponents of compulsion maintain that the benefits to public health by encouraging people to ride bikes outweigh any perceived benefit of making them wear a helmet while doing so.
Some have also claimed that wearing a cycle helmet may in fact increase the risk of sustaining a head injury, as asserted in a paper presented in 2019 at the National Road Safety Conference.
But Neil Greig, policy and research director at the road safety charity IAM Roadsmart, also hit out at the Scottish Green Party co-leader’s choice not to wear a helmet while riding his bike, insisting: “Even a low speed fall from a bike can lead to permanent brain damage so it’s simply not worth the risk in our view, and particularly for growing young children it’s vital to protect the head.
“Many activists claim helmets put people off cycling and we are all for choice but choosing to avoid lifelong disability seems the right one to make,” he added.
In the UK, wearing a cycle helmet is of course a matter of choice, and under EU and UK safety standards, at best they are rated to protect against a head injury while falling from a bike at a very low speed – and certainly not to protect against those sustained in a collision with a motor vehicle.
There are regular calls for them to be made compulsory in the UK – something successive governments have said they have no plans to do – and the issue often deflects from other interventions that could make the roads safer for people on bikes.
Indeed, back in 2014, British Cycling policy advisor Chris Boardman, now Greater Manchester cycling and walking commissioner, told road.cc: “I think the helmet issue is a massive red herring.
“It’s not even in the top 10 of things you need to do to keep cycling safe or more widely, save the most lives,” he said.
A 2015 study from Canada found that rather than force cyclists to wear helmets, putting protected infrastructure in place would make a far greater contribution to their safety.
Which brings us full circle to the policy Mr Harvie is tasked with implementing after his party agreed shared policy goals with the SNP – namely, putting into effect the biggest investment per head per year in active travel ever seen in any part of the UK.
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.