Analysis: Cyclist safety controversy dominates media headlines

The heated debate over whether cyclists should be forced to wear helmets or not hit the headlines again last month.
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Was it the warm start to spring that brought all the attention to cycling in the national newspaper, TV, internet and radio news media? Whatever prompted the flurry of stories and controversy there’s no doubt that it was hard to avoid the topic of cyclist safety in April. Front pages, comments threads and Twitter were chock full of vigorous debate. Anyone daring to approach the topic without due caution was liable to face fierce criticism.

The month’s cycle controversy kicked off with Norman Baker’s helmet ‘faux pas’. The Transport Minster and Liberal Democrat MP was taken to task by safety groups after being spotted cycling without a helmet. Instead of caving into pressure, however, Baker stuck to his guns and gave interviews to the press, including the BBC, The Guardian and Financial Times, pointing out he is the Cycling Minister, ‘not the Minister for Safety’. Baker said it was his ‘libertine’ right to ride with the wind in what hair he had left.

Speaking to John Humphrys on the Today programme Julie Townsend, of road safety charity Brake, said: “This isn’t only a public figure we’re talking about, this is the Minister with responsibility for cycling. We think it’s positive he’s choosing to cycle, but we’d like him to set an example by cycling safely.”

Responding to the criticism Baker said: “I want to encourage people to cycle and stress the benefits and freedom it brings.”

The controversy over helmets continued after Baker referred to research that suggested helmet-wearing cyclists are not given as wide a berth as those without. More research criticising the positives of cycling with a helmet came from the Norway Institute of Transport Economics. The report, made by Dr Elvik, said that helmet wearing increases the risk of neck injuries to the wearer, though critics responded that on balance, helmets do more good than harm.

PR stunt backfires
The topic refused to fade away when automobile organisation AA launched its own cycle safety day. On Friday April 15th the AA Charitable Trust gave away thousands of AA branded yellow cycle helmets and high visibility vests at two locations in the capital.

While at face value a motoring organisation attempting to help cyclist safety may have appeared a hugely positive move, some vocal cycle advocates were troubled by the emphasis that cycle safety remaining solely with cyclists.

An AA poll of almost 16,000 members found that 97 per cent of AA members thought cyclists should wear helmets. Edmund King, director of the AA Charitable Trust and AA president, said: "We welcome the increase in cycling but we want to ensure that more cyclists don’t lead to more casualties. The use of cycle helmets and vests by all cyclists could significantly reduce the number and severity of injuries that occur each year."

Critics included road safety organisation RoadPeace which, at time of print, is selling one of the free AA helmet and high vis vests on eBay. The firm said: “The AA did not appear to be offering a choice of size when they handed these [helmets] out, or to be offering any advice on fitting, despite the fact that both size and fitting are critical to the (limited) protection that a helmet can offer.” It added: “RoadPeace supports the many victims of road crashes and campaigns to tackle bad driving and introduce 20mph speed limits – both far more likely to reduce cycling casualties than giving away cycle helmets!”

If there’s one message that can be taken from the month’s controversy, it’s that the emotive subject of cyclist safety and helmet wearing remains precisely that, and any organisation, MP or commentator should approach the topic with caution. More importantly, behind the bluster, the issue of how safe cyclists feel on the roads of the UK remains vital. With safety fears regularly listed as obstacles to potential cyclists saddling up, the topic remains important for the industry, the cycling world and also for the world at large. And yes, that includes motorists.

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