Alok Sharma is the Conservative MP for Reading West and yesterday secured a long debate in Parliament about cycle safety. He cycles, knows the subject of cycle helmet compulsion is hotly contested but spent a great deal of his long speech on asking the Department for Transport to reconsider its stance on forcing cyclists to wear helmets. The DfT has long said it won’t introduce compulsion until voluntary wearing of helmets is much higher, to do otherwise would risk putting people off cycling. Mr Sharma showed he’s aware of such an argument but said it was not "a serious contribution to the debate."
Other MPs disagreed on this point, pointing him to the statistics from overseas that show cycle helmet compulsion leads to an overall decrease in the amounts of people who cycle.
One of Sharma’s constituents is Angie Lee, chief exec and founder of the pro-compulsion Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust. The MP said BHIT wanted to link up with the Bikeability cycle training scheme to provide free helmets, road safety advice and reflectives. Children on Bikeability training course are not currently required to wear helmets.
A letter sent in October to the prime minister from Lee was read out during the parliamentary debate. She said those not in agreement with her line on cycle helmet compulsion were "negative extremists" and that the DfT was "biased" against her charity. She claimed "children and young people are being ‘sold off’ in the interest of sustainable transport."
Lee doesn’t campaign for slower motor vehicle speeds, she believes cycle helmet compulsion is the number one thing that will prevent deaths of cyclists: "Both adult and child cycling casualties are increasing. This is down to poor guidance, personal obstruction and a failure to be open and objective to all views in the interest of a holistic approach to this issue."
Sharma holds a more nuanced viewpoint. During the debate he agreed that "introducing a cycle helmet law will not suddenly solve the problem of road safety, and many hon. Members in previous debates have made that point. That is why I started this debate by talking about other measures that need to be introduced to make our roads safer. They include segregated and dedicated cycle paths and routes."
He also said that cycle infrastructure provision "means a lot more than slapping down a few white lines intermittently along the pavement."
However, his arguments for better cycling infrastructure were obscured by his calls for cycle helmet compulsion. He said "we need to be dispassionate in discussion, and to debate on the basis of evidence rather than emotion," but dismissed any evidence that didn’t agree with his view that cyclists should be forced to wear helmets.
Sharma said Bradley Wiggins was a god to him and that the recent incident of a van hitting the Tour de France winner brought into sharp focus the subject of cycle safety. Agreeing that Wiggins later retracted his statement that cyclists should be forced to wear helmets, Sharma pressed on for his call for compulsion. Fellow Tory MP Peter Bone – a staunch helmet compulsionist – warned Sharma that he would now be subject to a hate campaign on the internet: "The Twittersphere will be filled with hate mail for him. It is extraordinary how members of the public and cycling groups can object to anyone who suggests that we recommend wearing a helmet; that is so wrong."
Labour MP Ben Bradshaw – a former chair of the All Party Party Parliamentary Cycling Group – explained why cycle organisations such as Sustrans, CTC and British Cycling are against cycle helmet compulsion.
"I urge those who press for compulsory cycle helmets, and the organisations that have lobbied them, to study the evidence. We should also talk to the organisations that represent cyclists. I speak as a lifelong cyclist, a former chairman of the all-party group on cycling, a former Health Minister and someone who cares deeply about the safety of cyclists and young cyclists in particular.
"The reason why [Parliament] has repeatedly rejected the idea of compulsory cycle helmets is that, overall, it would create a public health disaster. Wherever cycle helmets have been made compulsory — whether in Canada, New Zealand or Australia — that has had such a detrimental impact on cycling rates that the overall impact on children’s health and the health of society as a whole has been deeply negative.
"In Western Australia, which has had a lot of experience of this issue because it has had a law on it for more than 20 years, cycling decreased by more than 30 percent, and it decreased faster among young people. That has been the experience in every country that has made cycle helmets compulsory. By all means encourage, by all means exhort and by all means have campaigns, but please do not, based on the best intentions, pursue a policy that is deeply counter-productive and that will cause more premature death, more obesity and more ill health among young people."
Lilian Greenwood, the Labour MP for Nottingham South, agreed with Bradshaw:
"I have no doubt that helmets can effectively protect cyclists, particularly in low-impact collisions, and I would encourage their use, particularly by children, but I do not believe that compulsion is the answer. Where compulsory helmet laws have been introduced, they have been associated with a decline in bicycle use, including by children. In New Zealand, cycling levels halved between 1994 and 2006. Compulsory helmet laws in both Israel and New Mexico were deemed to be unsuccessful, with cycling levels dropping to the point at which the viability of bicycle-sharing facilities was put at risk.
"Any substantial drop in cycle usage can in itself have a serious impact on safety. The safety-in-numbers effect means that when cycling levels increase, so does driver awareness and demand for infrastructure investment; conversely, when levels fall, individual cyclists may be at greater risk. An example of the safety-in-numbers effect can be found in the Netherlands, where cycling levels are high and relatively few people wear helmets."
Answering Sharma, the roads safety minister Stephen Hammond said the DfT had no plans to introduce cycle helmet compulsion but would be seeking to strengthen its commitment to making Britain a safer place to cycle:
"We take the promotion of cycling, the ability to cycle safely and our responsibilities seriously. Cycling is not just a convenient, healthy and green way to travel, as hon. Members have said, but relatively inexpensive, and therefore accessible to many. There has never been a better time for people to get on their bikes, and that is exactly what we are seeing.
"In some parts of London, cyclists already seem to outnumber other vehicles."
However, he said the DfT would not be pushing for cycle helmet compulsion, saying "helmets are a matter of exhortation rather than compulsion."
The minister ended the debate by steering it briefly back to infrastructure before veering off on to the subject of cycle helmets:
"Cycling offers huge benefits to both the individual and society. The challenge is to continue to ensure that our roads are as safe as we can make them. Investment is therefore going into infrastructure and the training of young people, and we exhort people to wear cycle helmets."
Alok Sharma (Reading West) (Con): I am pleased to open this debate on cycling safety and the wearing of cycle helmets. I know that the topic is incredibly important to many Members and many of our constituents. Rather appropriately, we are in the middle of road safety week, organised by the charity Brake, which is held every November to raise awareness of death and injury on our roads and the steps that can be taken to improve road safety, including for cyclists.
Cycling obviously has positive benefits for individual health and the environment. The organisation CTC has cited studies showing that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by a factor of 20 to 1.
One key thing that holds people back from cycling is concerns about road safety. In the past few weeks, there have been a number of road accidents involving high-profile individuals, which has brought the issue of road safety for cyclists to the top of the national agenda once again. Early this month, Bradley Wiggins was knocked off his mountain bike by a van coming out of a petrol station near his home in Lancashire. He was taken to hospital with bruises to his right hand and ribs. The next day, Shane Sutton, head coach for the GB cycling team, was knocked off his bike by a car while cycling along the Stockport road near a junction. He suffered a concussion and small bleeding on the brain, but thankfully, his condition soon stabilised.
…[We must] have a road infrastructure that works for everyone.
It is absolutely clear that more must be done to improve conditions for cyclists on our roads. Cycling organisations such as British Cycling have been calling on the Government to put cycling at the heart of transport policy to ensure that cycle safety is built into the design of all new roads, junctions and transport projects. I absolutely endorse that view. In the 21st century, we must plan for and ultimately have a transport infrastructure that is safe and fit for purpose for all users: drivers, pedestrians, commuters and cyclists.
There is clear evidence that using a cycling helmet, whether as an adult or a child, reduces the risk of injury. I will talk about cycle helmets, but in this debate there is almost a gulf between those hon. Members who believe that cycle helmets should be made compulsory and others who do not. Organisations out there have similar or differing views, as well. My hon. Friend is right—it has been concluded in independent reports and reports produced by the Department—that wearing a cycle helmet makes a difference in terms of improving safety.
All hon. Members who are supporters of cycling want cycling to be put at the very heart of transport policy. I hope that the Minister will tell us—apart from all the funding streams and all the work that is going on—how cycling will be, or is already, a central part of his Department’s policy.
Proper provision for cyclists on the road is not just something that cyclists want. Hon. Members will know that the AA recently undertook a survey of its members, and 62% of the 20,261 AA members who responded to it said that there are not enough cycle lanes. An increased number of cyclists on busy roads is leaving many motorists feeling insecure about how to interact with cyclists. The majority view is that clearly defined cycle lanes would be good news for both motorists and cyclists. That means a lot more than slapping down a few white lines intermittently along the pavement, as happens, unfortunately, in my home town of Reading.
The second part of the debate relates to the wearing of cycle helmets, which can be a controversial subject, but I have no wish for a particularly emotional debate. We need to be dispassionate in discussion, and to debate on the basis of evidence rather than emotion. I asked for the debate today because I was prompted by a recent meeting with the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, a national, award-winning charity based in Reading. The trust is committed to saving young people’s lives by promoting safer cycling and, in particular, the use of cycle helmets. The organisation was founded in 1988 by a paediatric nurse who, through her work, saw the devastation that head injury can cause, not only to the child but to the whole family.
The trust has worked successfully with the Department for Transport in the past and it recently submitted another proposal, for a project that aims to complement the Bikeability programme. It would engage with areas in need, which may not be part of training programmes due to social challenges, and work with young people to develop their understanding of road safety and self-safety. As part of its proposal, the trust wants to work in local communities to develop partnerships and to draw on local private sector organisations to provide safety packs to children who, because of the cost, might be without helmets, lights and reflector bands, or without access to training. I hope that the Minister will agree to meet representatives of the trust and me, so that we can explain to him in detail the objectives of the latest proposal, and that we will secure his personal support for the project.
As I said at the start of the debate, however, there is clearly a chasm between those who believe that wearing helmets should be mandatory and those who do not.
Members might remember a few weeks ago when Bradley Wiggins tweeted on the subject. In my view, he is an absolute god, but even Bradley Wiggins came in for quite a lot of stick, and he of course then made further statements about his views on the compulsory wearing of helmets. Yet we cannot get away from the fact that wearing helmets saves lives and cuts down on injuries.
A recent Transport Research Laboratory report, which was published in 2009 and commissioned by the Department for Transport, reached several conclusions about the efficacy of wearing cycle helmets. It concluded that helmets, assuming that they are a good fit and properly worn, are effective in reducing the risk of head injuries. They are expected to be effective in a range of accidents, particularly the most common accidents that do not involve a collision with another vehicle but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough said, are falls or tumbles over handlebars.
The report concluded that a specialist biomechanical assessment of more than 100 police forensic cyclist fatality reports predicted that between 10% and 16% of fatalities could have been prevented if the cyclists had worn an appropriate helmet. Those who do not believe that we should have compulsory wearing of cycle helmets say that, at the end of the day, helmets will not save lives. It has been shown conclusively in an independent report produced by the Department that in some cases they do.
Yet a 2008 Transport Research Laboratory report, commissioned by the Department for Transport, estimated that only 18% of children and 35% of adults wear helmets on the road.
One clear way of cutting down on the human, social and financial cost of cycling accidents, particularly those involving children, is through wearing cycle helmets. I am pleased that all hon. Members who have contributed to this debate so far agree. The time has come for the Government to consider very seriously the case for introducing the mandatory wearing of cycle helmets for children.
The hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown) said that a private Member’s Bill in 2004 did not make progress, but it was supported by a wide range of organisations including the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the safety charity Brake, the Child Accident Prevention Trust, the Child Brain Injury Trust, and the brain injury association Headway. Last year, the British Medical Association welcomed a Bill in the Northern Ireland Assembly to make wearing helmets compulsory, but unfortunately it did not make progress. The World Health Organisation has also stated that laws mandating helmet use can be effective in reducing road traffic accident injuries.
Many countries in Europe have laws on wearing cycle helmets, and we would not be the first to introduce such a law. In Europe, it is mandatory in Finland, where all cyclists are required to wear cycle helmets; in Spain, it is mandatory outside built-up areas; in the Czech Republic, it is mandatory for children under 16, in Iceland, for children under 15, in Sweden, for children under 15, and in 2010, it became mandatory in Austria for children under 10. Outside Europe, helmets are mandatory in Australia, New Zealand, 20 states of the USA and some Canadian provinces. We would not break new ground by at least considering the introduction of such a law.
Introducing a cycle helmet law will not suddenly solve the problem of road safety, and many hon. Members in previous debates have made that point. That is why I started this debate by talking about other measures that need to be introduced to make our roads safer. They include segregated and dedicated cycle paths and routes.
Returning to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough made, we can make our roads safer, but that may not reduce cycling injuries in children, because many of their injuries occur off road. The argument that we would drive people off the roads and discourage them from cycling does not hold water.
Wearing cycle helmets saves lives and reduces injuries, and even the most hardened opponents of cycle helmets acknowledge that. A key argument by anti-helmet campaigners is that making them compulsory will put people off cycling, will therefore not help in reducing arbon emissions and will discourage a healthier lifestyle. Some organisations have produced statistics showing that the mandatory wearing of helmets might save tens of lives, but that a reduction in the number people cycling would result in people perishing earlier than expected because of obesity. I am not sure that that is a serious contribution to the debate.
International evidence suggests that mandatory helmet wearing, particularly for children, does not result in a long-term drop in cycling. Some studies have concluded—one in Australia is often cited, but it was about 20 years ago—that introducing compulsory helmet wearing may result in a temporary decline, but that the medium to long-term effect is likely to be negligible. Other studies have concluded from experience in the States and elsewhere, particularly where laws were introduced only for child cyclists, that there has been no reduction in cycling following the introduction of such laws. International experience suggests that the wearing of helmets can be introduced successfully without resulting in a long-term decline in cycling.
Logically, a rule affecting only children should not discourage adult cyclists. The right hon. Member for Exeter has in previous debates made the point that the more people cycle on roads, the safer it will be. Children of five, six, seven, eight, nine or 10 are not part of a group that consistently cycles on roads, so introducing a cycle helmet law for them will not deter adults from cycling.
One thing that puts children off wearing cycle helmets, of course, is peer pressure, especially as they enter secondary school. It is not always considered cool to wear a helmet, but if we can change attitudes by introducing a law, so that it becomes the norm—almost second nature—to wear cycle helmets from a young age, that will stick with children in adolescence and adulthood. I have two young daughters; we go out cycling fairly often, and they were brought up wearing cycle helmets. I must admit that I do not always wear one, but when I cycle with my daughters, the peer pressure works the other way, and they absolutely insist that I wear a cycle helmet, too.
I am asking the Department to commission a definitive, independent report on the benefits and costs of introducing a law requiring children to wear a cycle helmet. In particular, I want it to look at whether such a law would deter cycling in the longer term and whether parents would support it. I am a parent; I cycle, and my children cycle. I am not part of any lobby or group. There are millions of people like me and my children, and they are the ones we should be listening to and whose views we should be getting, before we decide whether it is right to introduce such a law.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): This is a very important issue, not least given the worrying news that this year, for the first time in many years, there has been an increase not only in deaths and serious injuries on the road, but in cycle deaths and injuries. The hon. Gentleman made a brilliant speech about a whole range of measures that could be introduced to help take those figures back in the right direction, and I was absolutely with him until he came to cycle helmets. I was even with him, to start with, when he talked about encouragement and exhortation, but I am afraid that as soon as he used the term “compulsion”, he lost me, and I will outline briefly the reasons for that.
I urge those hon. Members who press for compulsory cycle helmets, and the organisations that have lobbied them, to study the evidence. The hon. Gentleman said he wanted a policy that was based on evidence, and we should study not only the evidence, but the myriad debates we have had in the House since I came here in 1997. We should also talk to the organisations that represent cyclists. I speak as a lifelong cyclist, a former chairman of the all-party group on cycling, a former Health Minister and someone who cares deeply about the safety of cyclists and young cyclists in particular.
The reason why the House has repeatedly rejected the idea of compulsory cycle helmets is that, overall, it would create a public health disaster, and I will explain why. Wherever cycle helmets have been made compulsory —whether in Canada, New Zealand or Australia—that has had such a detrimental impact on cycling rates that the overall impact on children’s health and the health of society as a whole has been deeply negative. The hon. Gentleman used an important statistic, which is essential to the whole subject of cycle safety, when he said that the benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by 20 to one.
In Western Australia, which has had a lot of experience of this issue because it has had a law on it for more than 20 years, cycling decreased by more than 30%, and it decreased faster among young people. That has been the experience in every country that has made cycle helmets compulsory. By all means encourage, by all means exhort and by all means have campaigns, but please do not, based on the best intentions, pursue a policy that is deeply counter-productive and that will cause more premature death, more obesity and more ill health among young people.
The last time the British Medical Journal was asked for its opinion on this issue, its board of education and science concluded:
“Cyclists are advised to wear helmets but legislation to make them compulsory is likely to reduce the number of people choosing to cycle and would not be in the interests of health”.
The BMJ added that research suggested that
“non-cyclists tended to be most in favour of helmets. In fact, a much greater number of lives would be saved if pedestrians and car occupants were encouraged to wear helmets.”
An analysis of the experience in Western Australia, which was the first place in the world to impose uniform mandatory cycle helmet legislation, showed that the legislation increased hospital admissions per cyclist on the road, reduced the popularity of cycling, damaged public health and increased all road casualties.
I therefore urge the hon. Gentleman to go back to the evidence and the debates that we have had in this House, and to pursue with all his energy and time the many measures that will help to protect children and improve child health and cycling safety. He himself cited the excellent campaign by The Times and its eight-point wish list. I gently suggest that The Times took great care in assessing the most important things that needed to happen to save the lives of cyclists and young cyclists. Compulsory cycle helmets were not among them, and there is a reason for that.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): By the time he leaves this room, the Twittersphere will be filled with hate mail for him. It is extraordinary how members of the public and cycling groups can object to anyone who suggests that we recommend wearing a helmet; that is so wrong.
There is a simple statistic that always amazes me: 15% to 21% of young people wear a helmet and 35% to 40% of adults wear one. So parents are happy to go out and put a helmet on their heads to protect themselves, but will not do it for their children. I do not think anyone would regard me as a pinko lefty liberal. That is not the view of me in the House. Yet it is clear to me that the right thing to do is to bring in the mandatory wearing of cycle helmets for young people. I introduced a ten-minute rule Bill to that effect. The reason for that is simple. Children’s skulls are not developed, so the protection of a helmet is even more important for them than for an adult. Children cannot assess the dangers as an adult can. If adults freely decide to wear helmets it is absurd not to tell children that they must wear them.
I want to read from a letter to the Prime Minister, from the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, which is a splendid organisation. I deal with many charities in my role as a Member of Parliament, and there are those that do something at grass roots, and care about something, and those that just talk about things and are worried about their next grant. The trust is a small charity that cares and does something about it. Angie Lee is a feisty lady who has been fighting on this question for a long time. She is a trauma nurse and sees the results of dreadful injuries. I think she needs to be supported. She has written a powerful letter to the Prime Minister, which is dated 16 October, and which unfortunately has not been replied to or even acknowledged by him, but she puts the case much better than I can. She says:
“When we last communicated back in March this year, you conveyed to me that the Government and the DfT encouraged the use of cycle helmets, especially for children. This offered me some assurance along with the confidence we had in the then Roads Safety minister, Mike Penning. I have not had the opportunity to meet his replacement, Stephen Hammond, as yet.
"However, what you conveyed to me is in reality not the case. There is a fundamental conflict between sectors of the DfT, the road safety sector and the sustainable transport unit, with helmets being the ‘sell off’. Over the last two years we have seen a systematic move to undermine helmet use and its benefits and to exclude stakeholders, like ourselves, from being included on forums where cycling and helmets are discussed. It was only through the commitment of Mike that helmets remained high on the agenda.
"Your coalition minister, Norman Baker, has publicly voiced his negative views on helmets and their use. Mr Baker’s personal choice and opinion have been widely used by cycling trainers and organisations to legitimise opposition to helmets. The attached document used by the UK’s largest provider of Bikeability training, Cycle Training UK, demonstrates this. This organisation also uses your picture to support its stance. We understand that Mr Baker has set up and leads a forum of selected cycle stakeholders. This is not open to all, but only a selected few who appear to us to be of a similar opinion. Mr Baker appears to be using his ministerial position to support his personal preference not to wear a helmet.
"This is not the only conflict to be of concern to us. Last month the DfT launched a new Think! Campaign. The poster design is dreadful. It depicts a ‘green man’ cyclist without helmet, bike lights or reflector band. The ‘green man’ car driver has no seat belt on. These fundamental safety actions were all identified by a group of ten year olds whom I showed the poster to. I also understand that the DfT had discussed using Olympic cyclist, Bradley Wiggins, to launch this campaign but the CTC objected and Mr Wiggins was excluded because of his positive views on cycle helmets. If this is the case, then there is a serious strength of bias that is undermining the independence and impartiality within the department.
"These conflicts, bias and segregation are damaging the work of organisations like ourselves, who have little or no access to DfT funding. We had drawn up a business case following a meeting we had with Mike Penning but since his departure, this, not surprisingly, has not progressed as we were expecting. We have invested vast amounts of energy, conviction and hard earned funds in the attempt to protect child and youth cyclists and support the road safety agenda. We have the skills and knowledge to take child cycle safety forward. However, we are not able to overcome constructed obstacles, bias and use of poor science.
"Both adult and child cycling casualties are increasing. This is down to poor guidance, personal obstruction and a failure to be open and objective to all views in the interest of a holistic approach to this issue.
"I have had the support of the DfT for 20 years, working with changing Governments and numerous ministers over this period. It is, however, the first time that I truly believe that children and young people are being ‘sold off’ in the interest of sustainable transport. Who are the winners? Who is gaining the most and what checks and balances are in place to evaluate this?
You know how hard our charity works. We have been held up as the true ‘big society’. Child cycle safety needs people who are in tune with child and youth needs, who are not financially driven and who are determined to lead on this issue despite external negative extremists.”
Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman mentioned Bradley Wiggins being knocked off his bike on 7 November in Wrightington in my constituency. For obvious reasons the case received significant national media coverage and highlighted the dangers for cyclists on the roads. Prior to the incident Bradley Wiggins had often spoken about the need to improve road safety for cyclists. Our roads grow ever busier, and there is an absolute need for all road users, whether cyclists or motorists, to take individual responsibility for being as safe as possible on the roads. That responsibility means not behaving in a way that endangers other road users, but for cyclists it also means taking the appropriate precautions to keep their bikes and themselves safe, including always wearing a helmet. For motorists it would include not speeding, and being cautious when passing cyclists.
Today The Times not only showed the serious dangers that cyclists face, but referred to the fact that this year, which is unparalleled in terms of the success and popularity of cycling, the number of cyclists killed on British roads is sadly on course to reach a five-year high. According to analysis by Transport for London, which was quoted in the article, 56% of cyclists’ deaths are caused by motorists’ “unlawful and anti-social” manner, yet only 6% of collisions are caused by cyclists behaving in the same way. Some people argue that we need to consider how properly to integrate cycling into the modern transport network. I would not, however, encourage anybody to follow the example of West Lancashire borough council, which has invested section 106 money building a cycle path to junction 4 on the M58. We certainly do not need to encourage cyclists towards the motorway network.
It is important to discuss whether making cycling helmets compulsory can improve cyclists’ safety. It does improve it, but the reality is that there are times when a helmet does not offer enough protection from dangerous driving. In such cases, we need to consider how motorists who cause fatal collisions are dealt with through the judicial process. At present, a view is that the inconsistencies in the charging and sentencing of motorists involved in collisions with cyclists is very worrying.
Everybody knows of Bradley Wiggins, but people will not know of Christine Favager, who was another cyclist involved in a collision in my constituency. Tragically, this time it was a fatal accident. Sixty-nine year old Christine was cycling along a rural road, Asmall lane, in Scarisbrick. The accident happened at about 7.40 pm on a July evening in 2011—not on a dark, wintery night. The 19-year-old driver was travelling between 59 and 63 mph as he raced into a bend. He was travelling too fast and too close to another car as he entered that bend, and witnesses saw the car swerve right across two lanes. In over-correcting, the driver was forced across the road to avoid hitting the car in front, which meant that Christine was hit head on. She had been cycling in the opposite direction. Initially, the driver was reported as being arrested under suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving. He subsequently pleaded guilty to causing death by careless driving. A 20-month custodial sentence in a young offenders’ institute and a three-year driving ban were handed down to him. Christine’s family lost a very dear member.
That case highlights one of the complaints from cycling groups, which is that often the lesser charge of death by careless driving is pursued, as opposed to the charge of death by dangerous driving.
There truly is great outrage out there at the sentences being handed down to motorists who kill in such circumstances.
If we are to improve the safety of cyclists on our roads, there has to be an extensive range of measures that will offer protection and act as a deterrent to erratic and dangerous behaviour on our roads. All road users, whether they are cyclists, pedestrians or motorists, depend on us getting the law right.
Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I look at BMX cycling on the television, and they are all wearing helmets, as, for the most part, are the children at the local skate parks. However, there does seem to be a common issue that it is not quite cool enough to wear one. It is certainly not good for a young person’s hairstyle at the age of 12 or 13, and it does not help if their friend is not wearing one. I have spoken to so many parents who say, “If only there was a law about this, I would feel happier about my child cycling.” When I raise such issues—I am thinking of this from the children’s standpoint—I have only ever looked at the possibility of a law for 14-year-olds and under. There is an issue of freedom of choice, but it is a vulnerable age group, and are we doing everything that we can?
It is suggested that my comments will result in the next generation of children being obese, but I find that difficult to believe. I would like to join the call made by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West, not for the setting up of the law, but for a review of the evidence. I have heard the Australian evidence quoted to me so many times, but we need to know whether we would be deterring children in large numbers from cycling. There must be a lot of evidence out there; we should look at it and at the end of the day, ensure that we put our children first.
Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): The work of campaigning organisations, coupled with high-profile accidents, has raised awareness and led to demands for better protection for cyclists. It is heartening to see Members on both sides of the House here today, and I hope that anyone watching the debate will be left in no doubt that MPs are taking cycling safety seriously. Politicians have a duty to promote cycling and to help create environments in which cycling can flourish. The health benefits of cycling are well known, and we now have a better understanding of how high levels of cycling can lead to cleaner and stronger communities. However, safety concerns are a serious barrier, especially for those people considering making the switch to cycling. It is imperative that those barriers be lifted.
Although cycling is generally a safe activity, there are still issues to be tackled. There are many areas where cyclists’ safety can be improved, but it is equally important that we do not undo the progress that has been made. Cycling casualties rose by 12% last year, with serious injuries rising by 16%, as we have heard. The Times reports today that fatalities are now set to outstrip last year’s toll, making this year the worst for cycling deaths since 2007.
Cyclists would also benefit from dedicated funding for improvements to existing infrastructure. That is why Labour has called for a portion of the roads budget to be ring-fenced—so that communities can build up networks of cycleways. Too many junctions are dangerous for cyclists and need to be redesigned. That approach has been highly successful in northern Europe, and we should seek to replicate that success. Those improvements can be delivered, but planners need to know that funding will be available.
We also back the call by The Times for cycling commissioners in every city, to encourage local initiatives. They would benefit from a cycle audit, which would help to map out danger spots, as well as a new planning toolkit that drew on the lessons of the successful cycling city and towns programme, which was axed by the current Government. A new test—a cycling safety assessment—should be met before new road and major transport schemes are granted planning approval. Our existing roads were not designed with the needs of cyclists in mind, but we can at least correct that historical imbalance in the future. The “Manual for Streets” guidelines, which placed pedestrians and cyclists at the top of the user hierarchy, represented a good start. We should look to build on that principle.
Everyone agrees that reducing speed will improve road safety and save lives. Real progress has been made on lowering speed limits in residential areas, with a city-wide 20-mph limit being introduced in Portsmouth and many additional schemes in other towns and cities. We are looking at ways to support more local authorities to make the switch to 20 mph, but the removal of funding for speed cameras and the possible raising of the motorway speed limit mean that we have had mixed signals on road safety from this Government.
We also need to see action on one of the major safety hazards for cyclists—heavy goods vehicles. They account for a disproportionate number of deaths and serious injuries on the roads—a risk that was brought home to us last year when Mary Bowers, the young Times reporter, almost lost her life after being crushed by a lorry. A collaboration by Queen Mary, university of London and Barts and The London NHS Trust looked at the effect of heavy goods vehicles on cyclists’ safety. The conclusions that they reached are startling. Of patients brought to the Royal London hospital, cyclists hit by a car suffered a mortality rate of 6%. For those hit by HGVs, the rate was 21%. Of the most seriously injured cyclists, 82% had been hit by some form of motorised vehicle, but the overwhelming majority—73%—had been hit by a heavy goods vehicle. According to Transport for London, goods vehicles now account for half of all cyclist fatalities in the capital.
According to the Department for Transport’s own figures, rail freight use would have gone up by 732% by 2025 if the decision had not been made to allow longer HGVs. Rail freight is now projected to go up by 262% instead. I hope that, in the interests of tackling congestion and improving road safety, the Government will look again at the issue, with a view to reversing that change.
All the measures that I have described would have safety benefits in their own right, but the overall impact is of vital importance as well. The wider effect would be to normalise cycling. I have seen for myself how cycling is a way of life for a striking number of people in Copenhagen and Malmö, where the long-standing determination of national and local politicians to deliver investment has reaped dividends. We need the same quality of leadership on cycling in the UK. We should not accept the Government’s retreat from promoting national standards.
That leads me to the issue of helmets and the case that some people have made for them to be compulsory. I have no doubt that helmets can effectively protect cyclists, particularly in low-impact collisions, and I would encourage their use, particularly by children, but I do not believe that compulsion is the answer. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) explained, where compulsory helmet laws have been introduced, they have been associated with a decline in bicycle use, including by children. After helmets became mandatory in Australia in 1991, cycle use in Perth dropped by up to 40%. In New Zealand, cycling levels halved between 1994 and 2006. Compulsory helmet laws in both Israel and New Mexico were deemed to be unsuccessful, with cycling levels dropping to the point at which the viability of bicycle-sharing facilities was put at risk.
Any substantial drop in cycle usage can in itself have a serious impact on safety. The safety-in-numbers effect means that when cycling levels increase, so does driver awareness and demand for infrastructure investment; conversely, when levels fall, individual cyclists may be at greater risk. An example of the safety-in-numbers effect can be found in the Netherlands, where cycling levels are high and relatively few people wear helmets. British cyclists are three times more likely to be killed on the roads than their Dutch counterparts.
There is simply no quick fix for these issues. If we want more people to take up cycling, we need sustained investment and a more supportive attitude to cycling in general. British Cycling has said:
“Helmets can help save lives in many incidents and we recommend they are worn…What would contribute much, much more to making cycling safer is better road infrastructure.”
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): We take the promotion of cycling, the ability to cycle safely and our responsibilities seriously. Cycling is not just a convenient, healthy and green way to travel, as hon. Members have said, but relatively inexpensive, and therefore accessible to many. There has never been a better time for people to get on their bikes, and that is exactly what we are seeing.
The trend started after Beijing 2008, which reignited the passion for cycling for many people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Reading West pointed out, after the heroics of the Olympics, Paralympics and Tour de France, not only have we seen thousands more people cycling, but we expect hundreds of thousands more people to take to two wheels. In some parts of London, cyclists already seem to outnumber other vehicles.
I commend The Times’s excellent cycling campaign; we have taken much of it on board. The hon. Member for Nottingham South was right to commend also British Cycling, Sustrans, the Bicycle Association of Great Britain, London Cycling Campaign and C2C, all of which lobby heavily, carefully and thoughtfully for cycling. It is distressing that, although the number of cycling fatalities has been falling — fatalities decreased between 2010 and 2011— the number of serious injuries has increased. As road safety Minister, I am determined to ensure that our roads are as safe they can be for everyone who uses them, whatever the mode of transport.
The Government have invested substantially in road infrastructure and other safety angles, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) pointed out. The local sustainable transport fund is targeting £600 million of investment over four years to look at local networks. Almost all the projects funded so far include infrastructure improvements for cycling. I could give examples, but will not due to the time. Improvements include landscaping, resurfacing, repainting, new lighting and adding new parts to junctions to improve the safety of cycle routes.
The Department is working on other ways to reduce risk. We have made it considerably simpler for councils to install Trixi mirrors to improve the visibility of cyclists at junctions and to put in place 20 mph limits and zones. I strongly encourage councils to consider the greater use of such 20 mph zones in residential areas, because they clearly have an impact on the safety of cyclists and pedestrians. We have also made it easier for councils to introduce contraflow cycling by changing signage laws, so fewer signs need to be used. I am working closely with cycle safety stakeholder groups on other issues and infrastructure measures that the local sustainable transport fund can bring forward. We have made £30 million available to local councils up and down the country to tackle the most difficult and dangerous junctions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading West mentioned HGVs. The hon. Member for Nottingham South is right that training is crucial for HGV drivers, operators, transport managers and employers. That is why I am pleased that the Freight Transport Association, with Government support and backing, introduced a cycling code last year. I was delighted to be at the launch of the Mineral Products Association’s new drivers’ awareness campaign. It targeted young cyclists at Hyde park, where a number of them stopped to see how difficult it is for even the most well trained drivers to spot cyclists, even in the most well equipped lorries with a blind-side mirror and other safety implements. The Government are behind that awareness campaign, and I support the investment from the MPA and the FTA.
All EU member states have implemented the European legislation, which applies to almost all HGVs used in domestic and foreign trade. We continue to drive that agenda in Europe, to ensure that mirrors are required for new vehicles. We have provided £30 million to make potentially hazardous junctions across England safer for cyclists. Of that, £15 million is going to London, because we recognise that in London in particular there has been a huge increase in cycling and in the number of people wishing to access the roads more safely.
We are working with partners, through the Department for Transport cycling stakeholder forum, on a wide range of issues, including safety. I will meet the group in the near future. It is inclusive: it includes cyclists, motorists and representatives from local authorities and the Freight Transport Association, because not having all those people on such a body would mean missing out on opportunities. We strongly encourage local authorities to follow the example of some of the schemes that we have set up and those set up previously to consider actions to improve safety for cyclists
In the short time available, I shall touch on helmets, because the issue has come up a number of times today. In 2009, the Government commissioned and published a report entitled, “The potential for cycle helmets to prevent injury”. It concluded that helmets could be expected to reduce fatalities and injuries in the event of an accident, particularly if a vehicle was not involved. No evidence was found of helmets adding any additional injury risk. Let me make it clear that the Department for Transport supports the promotion of cycle helmets, through measures such as Highway Code rule 59. I was also pleased to initiate the recent THINK! campaign in September. The Government are putting more money into Bikeability cycle training and have committed more money to it over the next three years. The Department also makes its support clear on its webpage and through other schemes.
We equally accept that helmets are a matter of exhortation rather than compulsion. My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough made a powerful speech. He is right that the former Minister was excellent and showed strength on this matter—I am not sure that I will live up to my hon. Friend’s hopes. I entirely agree with him; anything outside legislation to promote and exhort the wearing of cycle helmets, I will do in my role as road safety Minister. I am happy, first, to nudge the Prime Minister to ensure that he answers my hon. Friend, and, secondly, to accept his invitation to a meeting. I am sure that he will write to my officials about that.
One of my first acts as road safety Minister was to announce the first THINK! Cyclist campaign. Many will know that we have used the THINK! label for a number of road safety campaigns, but we have not had a campaign dedicated to cycling for 10 years. It concentrates on the behaviour of cyclists and motorists, by getting those who cycle, who are often motorists as well, to think about how they behave on the road as motorists and how they want people to behave towards them as cyclists. I would like to go into more detail on that campaign, but I accept the comment that the little green man should have been wearing his helmet. A number of cities have taken up the campaign and I continue to spend time promoting it. I am convinced that THINK! Cyclist can have a beneficial effect on road safety.
I am acutely aware that we are coming to the end of our debate. Cycling offers huge benefits to both the individual and society. The challenge, which remains a challenge for the Government, is to continue to ensure that our roads are as safe as we can make them. Investment is therefore going into infrastructure and the training of young people, and we exhort people to wear cycle helmets. I hope that when we have a debate on this subject in a years’ time, as I am sure we will, the trends will not only seem to be downwards, but be proven to be downwards.