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Row brews in Cambridge as Police and Crime Commissioner and MP go head to head over cycle helmet laws

PCC Sir Graham Bright says doctor son has made him aware of head injuries, but MP Julian Huppert says risks of people not riding at all are too high

The MP for Cambridge and the county’s Police and Crime Commissioner have become embroiled in a war of words after the PCC called for a change in the law to make cycle helmets mandatory.

Sir Graham Bright, whose son is a doctor, says that the injuries he has heard about second-hand have convinced him that riding without a helmet should be criminalised.

But Julian Huppert MP, who chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cycling, who says he does not wear a helmet, has responded saying the risk of putting people off cycling by legislating for helmets is too high.

Sir Graham, elected last November, told the Cambridge News: “I do think that wearing a cycle helmet should be compulsory. The damage that can be done if a cyclist hits their head on a kerb can be terrible.

“My son has worked as an accident and emergency doctor and has seen the consequences of head injuries. When you think about it in those terms it seems obvious that a helmet should be worn.

“I certainly wear one when I am riding my bike. It should be safety first all the time.”

Dr Huppert, a Liberal Democrat, responded saying: “It should be up to individual people whether or not to wear a cycling helmet and should not be dictated by law.

“Countries that have introduced compulsory helmet laws have found that it significantly reduced the number of people cycling, and made it less safe for them to do so.

“By reducing the amount of exercise that people have, compulsory helmets increase the number of early deaths, that could be avoided.

“Cycling is healthy, affordable and fun and it eases traffic congestion and reduces pollution.

“We want to encourage more people to cycle and walk and that is why I have been working hard in government and through the Get Britain Cycling inquiry to make it easier and safer for them to do so.

“Sir Graham’s approach would worsen people’s health and increase congestion on our roads – hardly a good idea.”

It’s not the first time Sir Graham has involved himself in cycling policy. In September he slammed a proposal to make motorists liable in the first instance for any crash that involves cyclists.

Sir Graham said the plans – aimed at ensuring one in ten journeys are made by bicycle by 2025 and which were adopted as policy by Liberal Democrat members  at their party conference in Glasgow – are “nonsense”.

We reported his comments at the time, saying: “The proposal is nonsense. Whenever there’s an accident someone’s at fault but it’s not always the motorist – far from it.

“You’ve only got to drive through Cambridge to realise that you’ve got to be doubly alert if you’re driving.

“And if there was an accident it could happen by someone coming straight out in front of you. So that is in my opinion a very silly thing to float.”

Just last week we reported how paediatricians in Canada are putting pressure on the government to legislate for mandatory cycle helmets, saying that forcing adults to wear them could protect children who copy their behaviour.

Currently only currently only four of thirteen Canadian provinces and territories have full helmet legislation, but the Canadian Paediatric Society is calling for them to be made mandatory for all ages.

Earlier this year, we reported a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) saying that the introduction of compulsory helmet laws in parts of Canada only appears to have had a “minimal” effect on reducing hospital admissions for cyclists suffering from head injuries.

The authors, led by Jessica Dennis, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto, say that the rate of admissions to hospitals among cyclists was already falling before compulsory helmet laws were introduced in certain provinces, and that “the rate of decline was not appreciably altered on introduction of legislation.”

They added: “While helmets reduce the risk of head injuries and we encourage their use, in the Canadian context of existing safety campaigns, improvements to the cycling infrastructure, and the passive uptake of helmets, the incremental contribution of provincial helmet legislation to reduce hospital admissions for head injuries seems to have been minimal.”

In all, hospital admissions data for 66,716 cycling related injuries in Canada between 1994 and 2008 were studied. Between 1994 and 2003, the rate of head injuries among young people fell by 54.0 per cent in provinces that have helmet legislation, compared to 33.1 per cent in those without such laws.

Among adults, in provinces where helmets are required by law, the rate fell by 26.0 per cent, but stayed constant in provinces that have no compulsory helmet legislation.

However, the authors say, “After taking baseline trends into consideration… we were unable to detect an independent effect of legislation on the rate of hospital admissions for cycling related head injuries.”

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A V Lowe | 10 years ago

Jon Snow noted at Cycling Scotland conference that a surgeon he knows, specialising in facial injuries, noted that a lot of injuries to the face, for cyclists, are delivered because the cyclist was wearing a helmet and by movement of the helmet on the head, or the typical cycle crash impact of a face-plant, the less substantial bones in the facial front/side areas get smashed up together with the large fleshy areas around them.

Worth also noting that from research in the mid-late 1940's it was established that for a flat 20mph impact, the skull area protecting the brain of a fit adult was only taxed to 30% of its impact capacity, but a 20mph impact for a cycle helmet (designed for 12mph flat impact in a drop test of a head form (without the weight of the body acting through it?)) is at 260% of its impact capacity.

Take a look around next time you are riding and you'll also see dozens of helmet wearing cyclists with the safety function of the helmet completely compromised as it perches atop a balaclava plus a cycling cap or woolly hat, or with straps so loose that an impact would send the helmet backwards to garrotte the rider or wrench the key bones C1-C5 in the upper spine. A break at C1 = almost certain death C2/C3 and you'll be paralysed if you are lucky, unless you are very very lucky and that vital link between spinal nerves and the cortex is undamaged. I reckon 30-40% of those I see wearing cycle helmets are at greater risk of life changing injury if they fall off than if they were not wearing the helmet at all. Perhaps a photo reprise of the worst examples?

Of course bashing your head, face plants, and broken collar bones, wrists, arms are typical injuries of novice cyclists who have yet to learn how to fall off a bike. Falling off a bike is something which WILL happen to every cyclist in much the same way that a parachutist will always have to land/hit the ground after every jump. US Police cyclists practice falling off as a variant form of controlled dismounting - UK paramedics learn 6 ways to get off their bike quickly as part of the training, and motorcyclists recognise the benefit of knowing how to drop the bike before they have to do it in a 'crash' situation.

martib | 10 years ago

Another Public Official out of touch with the real world, everyday on my drive to work I see drivers breaking the law, as the days have got shorter I have seen 'everyday' cyclists riding on the pavement and not using any lights. These are all things that should be enforced by the current laws. However there are never any Police around to educate these lawbreakers and make the roads a safer place for all.
I f I am tootling to the shops on my bike do I wear a helmet, No. If I am out training or MTBing then yes I do wear a helmet.

alexcran | 10 years ago

I've worked as a doctor for 5 years and whilst all cycle related injuries are a tradegy I can honestly say I've probably seen 1-2 cyclists who were injured and would have possibly benefited from wearing a helmet. I probably see 10-20 people a day who would massively reduce their chances of serious health complications by taking part in regular exercise.
I've seen a lot more car drivers with serious head injuries that might have been preventable with a helmet, so a more sensible and useful public health measure would be to make helmets compulsory for all motorists!
I generally wear a helmet and would encourage people to but think making it compulsory is crazy.

Northernbike | 10 years ago

In 2010, according to a quick bit of research, 655 people died falling the stairs, 6 times the number killed in cycling accidents so if we're making people wear helmets that would seem to be the priority activity for Graham Bright to target. He shouldn't just limit mandatory safety gear to helmets though. 29 People drowned in the bath in that year so compulsory scuba gear is hard to argue against there. 203 people choked to death on their food so clearly the law needs to step in and end the terrible toll caused by eating solids by making us all liquidise our food. Perhaps Graham Bright and his doctor son might want to reflect, if saving lives is the real concern, on some of these causes of death, or perhaps on the deaths from hospital neglect, neglience, and infection inflicted on the community by Graham Bright's son's medical colleagues othewise people might get the impression that his interest in legislating against cyclists is not derived from an interest in public safety at all.

Furry Mommy | 10 years ago

Here we go yet again....!!  40

Don't get me wrong, I wear a lid, it helps to attach the video camera and fore & aft lights as well but the main reason I do wear a lid is because a friend of mine did die due to head injury (base of skull fracture, which induced a catastrophic haemorrhage!).

So I do strongly advocate that "youngsters" wear a lid for a number of rather valid reasons:
1) youngsters skulls haven't fused yet and are therefore more vulnerable to serious head injuries.
2) due to their often inexperience of road traffic makes them potentially more vulnerable to minor collisions that could cause a fall.
3) often their poor assessment/judgement of risk, which can make them potentially more vulnerable to all sorts of falls or collisions.
4) their general care free/devil may care attitude that can again make them far more vulnerable than older cyclists.

Though this is all dependant on how the helmet is worn, how old it is, how it has been cared for etc...etc because the material that helmets are made from does deteriorate over time, so this would add another layer of expense to many cyclists and I cannot imagine parents having the funds to replace their kids lids every 5 minutes the way some kids treat them!

OK, all of the above are general statements and do not cover all youngsters but it does make a valid argument in my opinion to "strongly encourage" the wearing of cycling helmets for younger cyclists though to legislate for it and make it a criminal offence ....sorry but NO, the police do not seem able to enforce all the current laws correctly without adding this sort of open ended expense!

I cycle on the work commute and for pleasure and average 12-15,000 miles a year, so therefore I am statistically at far greater risk of being involved in either a collision with some other vehicle or road it makes perfect sense to me.

sean1 | 10 years ago

Some more facts from ROSPA

"Most cycling accidents happen in urban areas where most cycling takes place. Almost two thirds of cyclists killed or seriously injured were involved in collisions at, or near, a road junction, with T junctions being the most commonly involved. Roundabouts are particularly dangerous junctions for cyclists."

This paragraph immediately should tell Mr Bright how he can significantly reduce cycling injuries.

Implement high quality transport infrastructure and road design which facilitates cycling, and stop banging on about helmets....

sean1 | 10 years ago

Statistics tell us that head injuries due to cycling are the cause of only a very small fraction of head injuries seen by the NHS each year.

Mr Bright is clearly concerned about reducing the incidence of head injuries, which is good thing, so how about tackling the main causes, i.e. ;

The majority of head injuries are due to falling over

Next main cause is motor vehicle accident

Alcohol is a factor in 65% of adult head injuries

Main causes of head injuries for children are cots, windows, stairs, trees, playground equipment.

Most injuries to children occur in the home.

Whilst it is difficult to get true statistics, it is likely that only a very few head injuries would be prevented by cycle helmets.

Some other excellent analysis here with Australian data ;

Which shows the most common cause of head injury is a fall in the home, followed by motor vehicle accident and then assault and being hit by something. Cycling is off the radar.

And it advises ;

"Exercise is one of the most important ways to reduce falls because it increases strength and agility, lessening the likelihood of a fall. "

I am always astounded that responsible people such as Mr Bright just hop on the "mandatory helmets" bandwagon with no attempt to look at the facts.

Why do we never hear the medical profession or political figures calling for helmets in motor vehicles, or in playgrounds, or when you go down the pub?

The benefits of developing a more cycling and pedestrian friendly environment will reduce accidents and injuries by a far higher amount than a helmet law.

The obsession with HiViz, helmets and lights in this country is misguided.

Neil753 | 10 years ago

One way to challenge Sir Graham Bright, and others who advocate making helmets compulsory, is to point out that more motorists die of head injuries than cyclists, so perhaps they should might want to consider making helmets compulsory for drivers too  16

Initialised | 10 years ago

Tackle the real problem of driving standards, and not the symptoms.

You can't mandate helmet use and not mandate radar assisted braking systems, pedestrian airbags and black boxes in cars.

Have a police road safety twitter account where if the same VRMs gets tweeted 3 times they get a visit from their local PC, 6 a friend letter and 12 gets point or a road safety course. Same with YouTube, post a video knowing a road traffic officer will watch it and follow up if bad enough driving or repeat offences from the same driver. Encourage black box insurance and dashboard cams to ease need for officers out on the road to bear witness.

giff77 | 10 years ago

By all means go ahead with this Mr Bright. But on the flip side I want to see a default minimum no questions asked of two years for injuring a vunerable road user and 5 years for someone who takes a life. Don't even bother with the trial. Straight to jail. Also for passes within three feet an ensorsable offence and strict liability put in place. If I am to be forced to wear a bit of styrofoam to prevent a criminal record then that's the pay off.

You cannot legislate for this kind of stuff and say you have sorted road safety.

gazza_d | 10 years ago

Does he also propose the following which would improve public safety?

ban cars which do not have airbags
make motoring/walking helmets compulsory
Make stab/flak jackets compulsory

Instead of listening to anecdotes perhaps he should read the evidence and facts before spouting off.

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