15.09.09 by Buffalo Bill
On Thursday, the College of Emergency Medicine will be hosting a live debate on the motion This House Believes Should be Mandatory for All Cycling Children [sic]. Speaking against the motion will be John Adams.
John Adams is an Emeritus Professor of Geography at University College of London. He is best known as a long-standing opponent of seat-belt law. You may have caught him speaking on an edition of Radio 4’s ‘Where did it all go right?’, which focused on the debate leading up to the seat-belt legislation. His theory, which is borne out by the evidence1, is that as people in cars have felt more safe as result of seat-belts, so they have driven more recklessly, and, with no appreciable decline in road casualties, so he asks the question2:
Who are the saved and who are those sacrificed for their benefit? The saved are people in cars; the lives sacrificed are those of pedestrians and cyclists. The best protected (and usually the economically best off) are provided further protection at the expense of the most vulnerable.
His position is more moderate expression of the cliche that drivers would be more careful if they had a six inch spike sticking out of the steering wheel. Other examples of risk compensation in practice is the widely reported study3that showed that when there is a cycle lane, motorists drive within their own marked lane with less recognition of the need to provide a safe and comfortable passing distance to those using the cycle lane ie that the presence of a cycle lane has the opposite of its intended effect – to provide greater room on the road for cyclists.
Yet more evidence of risk compensation is provided by a study4 which showed that wearing a bicycle helmet led to traffic getting significantly closer when overtaking.
I don’t want to prejudge what John Adams will say in response to what will be, no doubt, very emotional rhetoric from from the pro-helmet camp, but I guess it will be along this line:
For many decades road safety measures have focused on making vehicles safer to crash in and road environments more forgiving of heedless driving. Where concern has been directed at vulnerable road users it has emphasized deference to traffic.
Pedestrians are channeled by guard rails or forced to use underpasses and footbridges. Cyclists are offered inadequate cycle paths, encouraged to believe other roads are dangerous, and urged (and in some jurisdictions compelled) to wear helmets. Policy has been to with draw vulnerable road users from the threat, rather than to withdraw the threat from the vulnerable.
The group most seriously affected by this policy is children. The fears of parents and the admonitions of safety campaigners such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents have led to their almost complete withdrawal from the threat. Traditional children’s independence has been lost, and with it a host of experiences vital to their physical and social development.2
I hope that the doctors listen carefully, and rationally, to his case. In the unlikely event that a kids helmet law is brought in, the effect will be to criminalise children for doing something that they ought to be encouraged to do, and discourage others altogether. I rode a bike all through my childhood, and rode to school regularly. When I started riding again as an adult, I had the necessary motor control skills to control my bike.
Lots of people who have taken up cycling in the last few years in London have obviously never cycled before5. Whilst it is great that people are taking up cycling for the first time, surely, if we want to encourage people to cycle, we should start with the kids? The benefits to society of a population that regularly cycles, in terms of improved health, lower energy costs and ‘greened’ environment must surely out-weigh any possible hazard.
1 Seat Belt Laws — Repeal them?, published in Significance, June 2007.
2 Letter to Significance, December 2008
3 Motorists drive closer to cyclists on cycle lanes, CTC press release, 10 September 2009
4 Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender, published in Accident Analysis & Prevention, March 2007
5 Buffalo Bill’s totally unscientific and anecdotal personal observations.
Related posts on this website:
Department of Transport study exonerates 'lycra louts'
Police appeal for witnesses to fatal collision, 11th London cyclist killed
College of Emergency Medicine debate ends with call for compulsory helmets for child cyclists
'Psychiatrist' says bicycles kill more people than 'terrorism'
Collisions stats need careful interpretation, not banner headlines
7th London cyclist killed by lorry, 29th June
Safety in numbers, says Cyclists Touring Club
Not wearing a helmet could be 'contributory negligence'
Met Police Traffic Unit says 9 London cyclists killed by lorries in 2008