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Jersey's under-14 helmet law "will harm public health and the island's reputation for family cycling"

Chris Peck's picture
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CTC is disappointed to learn that Jersey's legislature has agreed to make it compulsory for under-14-year-olds to wear helmets, despite fears that the overall public health will suffer if people are deterred from cycling.
Gorey harbour in Jersey - the scene for the Jersey Festival of Cycling
Gorey harbour in Jersey - the scene for the Jersey Festival of Cycling

The island of Jersey has become the first part of the British Isles to make helmets compulsory, with a £50 fine for the parents of all under-14s who are caught bareheaded on a bike.

The decision to impose a law was agreed in principle in 2010, but legislation only tabled for scrutiny early this year.

CTC is disappointed that legislators on the island have decided to prioritise this measure, instead of focusing on more crucial issues to improve cycling safety: for example, the design of infrastructure and enforcement of existing laws regulating driver behaviour, such as speed limits.

Why shouldn't helmets be mandatory?

Evidence making the case for the law was presented by in a hastily compiled 50-page report by consultants TRL. It argues that:

  • Helmets, and helmet laws, are effective at reducing cyclists' head injuries;
  • Evidence that helmet laws reduce cycle use are doubtful, and that a fall in cycle use due to a helmet law on Jersey is unlikely to occur.

There is a body of evidence which questions the strength of the first point, while the second point is very contentious indeed. Unfortunately, TRL's report was published only one day before the States of Jersey voted for its helmet law, giving groups like CTC no chance to comment on it before it was voted on.  This was despite CTC having co-ordinated a joint letter also signed by British Cycling and Sustrans, seeking an opportunity for Chris Boardman, health experts and others to present evidence to the States of Jersey, before the decision was made.

The arguments for and against cycle helmets are interminable, conflicting and often heated. CTC's position is that helmets are up to the individual, but we fear that effort placed on mandating helmets and advertising them could make cycling appear more dangerous, and less attractive to everyday cycling. This is crucial since the justification for investing significantly in cycling comes mainly from substituting ordinary trips - to school, to work or for shopping - rather than for leisure. The public health crisis of physical inactivity is best dealt with by changing daily patterns of existing movement from sedentary modes to active ones, rather than expecting that we can convince those currently sedentary to take up a sporting activity.

Demands for cyclists to 'protect themselves' by wearing a helmet survive initial scrutiny as rational, but ignore the wider philosophical and public health arguments, which require deeper analysis.

For instance, why should people who use bikes take more responsibility to self-protect, at their own cost and inconvenience? By cycling, users already carry a risk of injury far greater than that of people in a car, but contribute vastly more to society through overall reduced health costs, fewer emissions of noise, local air pollutants and greenhouse gases, and reduced congestion.

Given these huge benefits, CTC believes that policies should reduce the barriers to cycling as much as possible. Forcing users to wear helmets is exactly the sort of unnecessary barrier that may persuade someone to drive, rather than cycle, for a short local journey. Using a mathematical model devised by Australian statistician Prof Piet de Jong, it can be shown that it would only take a tiny reduction in cycle use to result in more lives been lost each year than helmets themselves could possibly save, even if they could magically provide 100% protection against all possible head injuries.

CTC therefore believes that far more effort should go into tackling the deterrents to cycle use (e.g. by improving the planning and design of roads, junctions and cycle facilities, as well as driving standards), with the aim of ensuring that more and safer cycling go hand in hand.  Instead, Jersey's legislators have decided to add a deterrent to cycle use, particularly for families. 

Tourism to suffer?

In the case of Jersey, there is a further distinct reason why such a law is ill advised.  It will severely undermine Jersey's reputation as a tourist destination that welcomes cycling.

Although currently much of Jersey's economy is dependent on its low-tax status as a self-governing island, that position isn't guaranteed in the longer term, and is dependent on the sufferance of its neighbours.

Without its contentious taxation regime, and an enormous financial services sector to support its economy, Jersey would inevitably have to fall back on its traditional resources of agriculture and tourism. The island could - with vastly improved infrastructure - be very well-suited to family cycling holidays. However, again, it is possible that restrictive legislation may drive custom elsewhere, particularly for European travellers such as Germans, Dutch or French, many of whose children do not wear helmets.

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juliantrinder's picture

I strongly disagree with the CTC on the issue of helmets and helmet legislation.

Clearly, if an individual of any age receives a blow to the head as a result of a road traffic accident, then wearing a suitable helmet will mitigate the head injury.

If that is not the case, then cycle helmets are not fit for purpose and need to be upgraded - by legislation, if necessary.

If you went to a supermarket, and they tried to sell you eggs in a paper bag, you would protest and ask for a more protective packaging material. Should we not similarly be protesting about flimsy and ineffective cycle helmets?

If the CTC believes that cycle helmets do not afford sufficient protection in an RTA, then they should be campaigning for tougher helmets.

FYI - I do not wear a cycle helmet whilst engaging in leisure cycling - I wear a motor cycle helmet !

burtthebike's picture

Julian,

have you considered looking at the evidence? cyclehelmets.org

Just a few points;

nowhere with a massive rise in helmet wearing, whether due to a law or propaganda campaign, can show any reduction in risk to cyclists, and some research shows an increase in risk

cycling is much safer in countries where everyone rides a bike but no-one wears a helmet than it is in countries where few ride but they all wear helmets.

Far from campaigning for more effective helmets, CTC is absolutely right in campaigning for improved safety, by changing behaviour, which has proven to be effective, unlike helmets.

You do realise that by wearing a heavy motorcycle helmet you are increasing your risk of neck injury?

burtthebike's picture

CTC's stance on helmets is absolutely correct, and it should be personal choice, but it should also be informed choice, not based on rhetoric, anecdote and bad science.

Speaking of which, to call this TRL report "hasty" appears to be being overly generous. Even more intriguing is that the main author of this report, Richard Cuerden, was part of the much more comprehensive TRL report of 2009, which could find no evidence of helmet effectiveness. It seems that TRL might not be quite so as independent as people think. The report was paid for by Jersey politicians, and the outcome was decided before finger hit keyboard.

juliantrinder's picture

My decision to switch to a motor cycle helmet for cycling, was made after witnessing a head-on collision between a car and a cyclist. The cyclist's head hit the car windscreen with great force, forcing the windscreen inwards, and covering the shattered windscreen with blood.

If the cyclist had been wearing a helmet he would probably have survived.

The car driver survived because he had the protection of the car windscreen. Without that protection, the car driver would probably have been killed too.

The lesson is obvious - in the event of a collision, helmets afford cyclists a degree of protection, which can make the difference between life and death.

Kazian's picture

I'm in agreeance with the CTC, helmets should not be compulsory. Plus they should be made to a much better standard anyway.(I've also seen a helmet let its wearer down.)
There is always going to be a risk with cycling, due to the area you are in, weather conditions and other times we just make mistakes,etc. I know I just don't do so well with a cooked brain and would rather have a camera to prove why an accident happened.

Long term, I think there is too much over reaction and not enough responsibility to make people think/plan what they are doing. It's amazing how many folks can't fix a puncture or are too lazy to be properly prepared.

Right now it is SHAMEFUL the law is not the biggest deterrent for bad motorists. It seems some motorists see a helmet as a target and there is no scarey penalty to make them think otherwise. We could almost call it 'Assisted Suicide', the law is so unreasonable!

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