Enforcing rules for cyclists will put people off

One of the loopier things I've read recently was an article in the press just before Christmas by the normally excellent Matt Seaton - hang on, do I really want to say that? The normally so-so Matt Seaton, then. He argued that, in order to calm the boiling resentment of drivers and pedestrians against cyclists who break the rules, cyclists should take a compulsory test, like drivers. This would be good PR, a way of short-circuiting complaints about cyclists' selfishness and irresponsibility; and while the test would have to be easy to pass, taking it would force cyclists to think about road etiquette.

The main point of this piece was, presumably, to wind readers up and provoke them into sending a few letters - not that there's anything wrong with that - because, quite plainly, nobody believes that taking tests necessarily makes people more considerate (I call in evidence the entire driving population of the United Kingdom). What's more, the easier the test, the less likely it would be to have any effect; and a test that's a mere formality wouldn't do much for cycling's public image. And we haven't even started on the practical problems - administering the test, enforcing it paying for it. Wouldn't the money be better spent on promoting cycling training and improving road design?

The fundamental objection is that even the easiest test is another reason for the non-cyclist to stay that way. Just to clarify: every person who abandons a car for a bike is taking up less room on the road, making less noise, conserving the world's now-dwindling fossil-fuel resources, minimising carbon emissions, and getting healthier. So the point of cycling policy in this country must be to encourage as many people as possible to take it up.

That is also why I've always been against compulsory helmet-wearing: forcing cyclists to wear helmets puts people off cycling. To be honest, my views on helmets have for some years verged on the hypocritical. In discussions with my children's grandparents and others, I've always meekly agreed that helmet-wearing is a good idea, and I usually make my children wear them. At the same time, I've avoided wearing a helmet myself. This is essentially a matter of personal taste - I want to feel my hair blow free in the wind while I still have it - but I tend to duck behind the fact that the straps give me a nasty rash under the chin (I know, I know, I go on too much about my ailments, what with the dodgy knee. All I can say is I don't get much sympathy at home).

Lately, though, I've been reading up on the subject, and my anti-helmet prejudices have started to harden. A key text is Malcolm J Wardlaw's paper "Three Lessons for a Better Cycling Future", published in the BMJ on 23 December 2000 - trawl around www.cyclehelmets.org, the website of the British Helmet Research Foundation, and you will find a link, along with reams of useful information. Wardlaw's message is that, while some case studies have shown that bike helmets prevent fatalities, those results can mostly be explained in terms of selection biases in the population under discussion. Measure helmet use against cycling fatalities across whole countries and over long periods, and it begins to look as though helmets are positively harmful.

The reasoning isn't complicated. The lightweight helmets used for cycling don't provide any protection in high-speed impacts, of the sort you have with cars (they do work at low speeds, though, which is why they are probably still a good idea for children). Instead, they make your head a bigger target, and quite likely encourage more risk-taking behaviour. The only sure way of staying alive on a bike is not to have a crash in the first place: be careful and alert, and hone your cycling skills. Again, I say buy and study John Franklin's Cyclecraft (TSO, £12.99). And helmet, schmelmet.

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