Belfast Telegraph

Why this new Bill will just drive cyclists off the road

Helmet legislation will not improve safety but better training and lower car speeds would, says Steven Patterson

For many people, an Assembly Bill making cycle helmets compulsory must seem a great idea. We're all encouraged to wear them for safety, so why not make them mandatory?

Now we have just such a piece of legislation - a Private Members' Bill, proposed by SDLP MLA Pat Ramsey which, if enacted, would make it compulsory for all cyclists to wear helmets.

But, while we respect and share Mr Ramsey's desire to make cycling as safe as possible, his Cyclists (Protective Headgear) Bill is misguided.

That's why Northern Ireland's two leading organisations which promote cycling - the CTC and Sustrans - have joined forces to oppose the legislation.

There are three key reasons why we oppose this Bill:

n It would put many people off cycling, particularly those from socially deprived communities;

n It would be a disproportionate response given that cycling is, in fact, a relatively safe activity;

n The money spent on implementing the legislation would be better spent on more effective ways of achieving safer cycling, such as on-road cycle training for every child.

Everyone is aware of the positive health and environmental benefits of cycling.

The charity I represent, Sustrans, has worked hard to promote a cycling culture in Northern Ireland and, in particular, to encourage as many children as possible to cycle safely for the good of their health.

Sustrans has worked with thousands of children in Northern Ireland to encourage them to use their bikes and to cycle safely.

The level of cycle use in Northern Ireland over the past decade has increased by 76%, with an even bigger rise in Belfast.

But both Sustrans and the CTC are really concerned that much of that good work could be undone if this legislation goes through.

The key problem is that many people prefer not to wear helmets and some simply can't afford them. In New Zealand, for example, it's estimated that nearly 4% of the total population stopped cycling in the immediate aftermath of cycle helmet legislation.

Dramatic falls in cycle use among children and teenagers were also seen in parts of Australia when helmet laws were implemented.

Moreover, children from socially deprived backgrounds are the most likely to be caught out by the proposed Bill.

In our own work with schools in Northern Ireland, we've observed markedly lower rates of helmet-wearing among children in less affluent areas. Studies in England and Canada found the same pattern.

While we fully sympathise with all those who have experienced first-hand the traumatic effects of a serious injury caused by a cycle accident, it is vital to look at the facts about cycle safety when weighing up whether a Bill like this is justified.

The fact is, the chances of you or your child being killed or seriously injured in a cycle accident are, thankfully, small. To place this in context: studies have found that a number of common activities, ranging from football to gardening, carry a higher risk of injury than cycling.

We're currently facing huge cutbacks in public sector funding. The Environment Minister, Edwin Poots, is on record as stating that Mr Ramsey's proposed Bill would be costly to implement.

We'd much prefer that the Executive focused on other solutions, such as expansion of high-quality cycle training and lower speed limits in residential areas.

These would make a real difference to cycle safety and would actually encourage more, rather than fewer, people to cycle.

It's perfectly possible to improve cycle safety and get more people cycling - but Mr Ramsey's Bill is not the way to go about it.

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