Prioritise safer roads for cyclists, MPs tell Parliament
A former health minister and Westcountry MP has warned against forcing cyclists to wear helmets as it would cause more deaths since people are put off riding a bike.
Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, said while he supported encouraging cyclists to take the safety measure, there was "overwhelming evidence" that mandatory helmets would make public health worse.
The ex-cabinet minister, speaking in the House of Commons during a debate on cycling, was backed by Dr Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes.
Mandatory helmets were introduced in Australia in the 1990s, and critics say that cycling rates fell.
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Opponents say while cycle helmets might save some lives, that is outweighed by the loss of life from people not cycling and therefore more unhealthy. One MP suggested a net increase of 250 deaths a year.
Mr Bradshaw, a confirmed cyclist, said afterwards: "I fully support encouraging the use of cycle helmets, but all the international evidence shows making them mandatory would be disastrous for public health.
"In the very few places where they have been made compulsory, cycling rates have plummeted, with a very negative impact on public health and children's health in particular. The way to reduce cyclist deaths and injuries is to make the roads safer for cyclists."
In 2011, 45 cyclists were killed or seriously hurt in Devon and Cornwall, including two fatalities. The latest figures for 2012 are expected to be published this month.
The Commons was debating the findings of the Get Britain Cycling committee report on a motion backing targets for 10% of all journeys to be made by bike by 2025 and 25% of journeys by 2050.
Cycling is witnessing a boom in Britain, with 6.8 million people cycling once a month – an increase of one million over the past four years. MPs called for a dramatic increase in funding for cycling, equivalent to around £10 per person, per year, to pay for investment including more dedicated cycle lanes. Other safety measures demanded included scaling back speed limits.
In the debate, Jim Fitzpatrick (Labour, Poplar and Limehouse) said he was in favour of making helmets mandatory, arguing that if children used helmets in schools they would graduate to wearing them as adults. He said: "Every Tour de France rider now wears a helmet. That is professional leadership. They are in the game of minimising and mitigating risk, and they give a lead to all cyclists."
And Alok Sharma (Conservative, Reading West) argued that independent studies have shown "clearly that wearing cycle helmets saves lives and cuts down on injuries".
Oliver Colvile, Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, said a member of the Plymouth Yogis cycling club had told him the Government should make it compulsory for people to wear helmets.
"She was appalled hirers of 'Boris bikes' [street-side bike hire scheme in London] are not offered helmets," he said.
But Tory MP Dr Wollaston, a keen cyclist and member of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group, said a "far happier, lasting and healthier legacy" for Britain might be created if a fraction of the money earmarked for high-speed rail project HS2, predicted to cost £42.6 billion, was spent on cycling.
Of compulsory helmets, she said: "Of course, it is sensible for anyone who has a helmet to wear it, but what would happen to the wonderful 'Boris bikes' scheme in London if we made the wearing of them compulsory? No-one would use it. Yes, if people have a helmet, they should wear it, but they should not be put off if they do not."
MPs from across the political spectrum said police forces were failing to enforce speed limits.
Mr Bradshaw said: "There is actually a 20mph limit through much of Exeter, but the problem is that the Conservative county council and, I have to say, Devon and Cornwall Police, do not enforce it."
Transport minister Norman Baker revealed the Association of Chief Police Officers has agreed to rewrite the guidance on the enforcement of 20mph limits.