Speech on Cycle Helmets

I beg to move that the Bill be given a 2nd reading.

This is third time I have come out of the Private Members Ballot in the top 20 since being elected in 1987. I always put my name in, with a secret hope that I won't be successful for I know that for a period of 5 to 6 months the Bill will totally change priorities and dominate my working life. I will become, what is known as a "Private Bill bore" someone who talks about nothing else. That has been my previous experience with the two other Bills and whilst I failed to get them on the statute book that has not seemed to be an obstacle to achieve the objective.

My first Bill was to stop calves being exported from the UK to the cruel veal crates on the continent. Although the Bill failed, within 6 months BSE ensured that this cruel trade ceased and up to the present time it has not restarted.

The 2nd Bill was to take Railtrack out of the private sector and again that failed but within 4 months the Government had put Railtrack into liquidation and Network Rail - a not for profit organisation- had been formed.

So even if this Bill fails I am confident that in near future the law will be changed.

When I came out at No 7 in the ballot for Private Members Bill I knew I would be very popular. However I did not expect to receive- within an hour - a Christmas hamper if I promoted someone's bill. In fact I decided to take a leisurely look at the bills on offer, which I did when I got back to my constituency. It was there that I read a letter from the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, asking if I would take their bill and signed by Angela Lee, OBE. I was immediately interested in the Bill as it reminded me of a serious road accident I was involved in as a child.

That took my interest and I was attracted:

Firstly as the Government seem to have a bit of a blind spot about protecting child cyclist, there is a lack of safety training and a lack of helmet legislation. Yet we have created a Minister for Children and a Commissioner for Children.

Secondly the Bill is simple, well defined, modest, targeted and effective. Something that would work.

Thirdly it is easy to relate to on a personal level as the vast majority of people cycle. I am sure every Member will have cycled at some stage in their lives, so people will know what the bill is about.

It is at this point I would like to put on record my thanks to Honourable and Rt. Honourable Members on all sides of the House who have supported my bill. I have received letters of support from 200 members. I am grateful to many Ministerial colleagues, including the Home Secretary, Secretary of State at Department of Education & Skills, Minister without Portfolio and the Secretary of State for Transport, The Prime Minister, The Rt. Hon Member for Manchester Withington, for his work on the select committee and the Hon Member for Bristol East for the work she has done behind the scenes.

I would like to give special thanks to my Hon Friend the Minister who will be replying to today's debate. Because of the way he has been helpful and courteous through all our discussion. I would like point out that the Minister replying was successful in 1995 with a Private Members Bill, the Activity Centre Young Persons Safety Bill. The purpose of which was to save children' s lives- the same purpose as my bill today.

I should also like to thank the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, a small registered charity, that ensures children's cycle safety is not forgotten, particularly its patron racing drive, David Coulthard, who flew straight from the Malaysian Grand Prix to help me launch my bill in the House of Commons, and its Chief Executive, Angela Lee, who is the driving force behind the Trust and who is still a nursing sister at a Reading Hospital, where her experience of seeing the consequences of children's cycling accidents made her realise that something had to be done to change the law.

Angela Lee has worked tirelessly to build a broad coalition of support amongst parents, medical and scientific community, government, civil servants and Members of Parliament.

The cause that she and the Trust fight is very straightforward, that is to protect kids on their bikes by making them wear a helmet.

They must take the credit for the introduction of this Bill today.

The death of a child is a tragedy but a death with could have been avoided is a scandal.

It is a cue action and .... We now have a Minister for Children who has published a Green Paper "Every Child Matters". The Government identified a number of outcomes which are important

to children including:

  1. Being healthy
  2. Staying
  3. Getting the most out of life

If the Government fails to support this bill it will send out the wrong signals. For I will argue today that cycle helmets are crucial to ensuring healthy, safe and enjoyable lives for hundreds of thousands of young cyclists in our country.

Can I now turn to the vulnerability of child cyclists.

The sad truth is that a disproportionate number of accidents involve children. Indeed, figures from the Transport Research Laboratory and the Department for Transport show very starkly indeed just how vulnerable child cyclists are.

The Transport Research Laboratory has found that child cyclists make up just 6.6% of road cyclists. Yet the Department for Transport's annualised average of road cyclist deaths between 2000 and 2002 is 133, 28 of whom - or 21% - were children.

By that reckoning, children are nearly four times more likely to die in road accidents than adults.

Once a fortnight, a child dies in a cycling accident on our roads. Children are seriously injured in our constituencies every day of the year.

I do not claim that introducing cycle helmets will necessarily reduce the number of accidents - but I am absolutely convinced that the measure will reduce the severity of the injuries involved.

Many of these accidents involve serious head injuries - and scientific research, both at home and abroad, has proven the case for cycle helmets in protecting the head and brain against the worst effects of injury.

Dr Andrew Curran, a Consultant Paediatric Neurologist at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool, has been involved for the last 3 years in research into the effects of head injury in children as part of the Kids Head Injury Study. He believes that wearing a cycle helmet reduces the risk of brain injury by 80%.

And in what is perhaps the most comprehensive independent analysis of existing research, the Department for Transport commissioned 'Bicycle Helmets - A review of their effectiveness', which was published in November 2002 as the Road Safety Research Report No. 30.

I am grateful to the Minister and his Department for the lead they have shown in marshalling and reviewing the evidence in this crucial area, and I can highly commend the report to honourable members as a thorough and substantial piece of research.

The Research Report stated that

"there is now a considerable amount of scientific evidence that bicycle helmets have been found to be effective at reducing head, brain and upper facial injury in bicyclists. Such health gains are apparent for all ages, though particularly for child populations."

The Transport Research Laboratory has found that Child Cyclists make up just 6.6% of the total number. Yet Department of Transport figures state that out of an annual average of 133 death between year 2000 and 2002 , 28 were children. 21% which by their reckoning means children are nearly 4 times more likely to die than adults in a cycling accident. The research report sets out in considerable detail a compelling case for cycle helmets. This report says quite simply cycle helmets save lives.

This is clearly the conclusion that the supporters of the Bill have reached. They come from a wide range of highly respected professional organisations. The Bill is supported by :

Last, but not least, I greatly welcome the support of the Royal College of Nurses. As their letter on the bill states, "we strongly support the bill and our members have first hand experience of the tragic injuries and loss of young life which could have been prevented by wearing a cycle helmet. Whilst wishing to encourage young people to cycle as much as possible we also want to ensure this is done safely"

One person with such first hand experience of these tragic injuries - not a nurse, but a Consultant in Accident & Emergency at the Derbyshire Royal Infirmary for the past 26 years, Mr Alistair Fraser-Moodie - also wrote to me to give me his personal and professional perspective on the matter.

He writes that

"It is quite obvious to me as a practising clinician seeing patients who come through the front door of our hospital that once you are on a pedal cycle the chances of survival in a crash are far greater if you wear a helmet. These poor pedal cycle casualties only realise this when the shock has died down and some well-meaning ambulance man gives them their cycle helmet back again. Instead of suffering a fractured skull or worse they have a bruised skull, a bit of concussion and a smashed up helmet. So the helmets have taken the strain.

"It is about time that we started looking after the children in our country. Many use their pedal cycles to get to school. Others use their pedal cycles for paper rounds or pleasure alone. It is about time we protected these childen by introducing the compulsory wearing of cycle helmets. Failure to do this will inevitably result in carnage.

"I should declare an interest here. I ride a bicycle and after what I've seen in our emergency department I would not venture on our roads without wearing a helmet. I know that if my arm, leg, chest, or abdomen is injured, I have a chance. However, as an emergency consultant, on a bicycle my head is the most vulnerable part of my anatomy."

Mr Fraser-Moodie seems to me to capture very eloquently the sense of anger and bemusement people feel when, in the face of overwhelming evidence, no action is taken to introduce basic protective measures for children.

3. WHAT THE BILL WILL DO

I should now like to turn to discuss the action which we could take, in the form of this Bill, to introduce such basic protective measures for child cyclists.

I said earlier that the Bill's aims are relatively modest - but that does not mean they will not be effective. I said that the Bill was straightforward - but that does not mean that it oversimplifies the problem.

In preparing this Bill, I have been conscious of the need to frame legislation which will be practical and proportionate.

The Bill would make it an offence to cause or permit a child under the age of 16 to ride a cycle on the road or in a public park or recreation ground unless the child is wearing protective headgear.

The parent, guardian or employer of the child would be held responsible, as would any owner of the cycle, if the owner is over 15, or any person other than the cycle's owner who has custody or possession of the cycle immediately before the child rides it, if that person is over 15 years old.

The offence is liable to a level 1 fine - currently a maximum of £200 - and there is scope within the Bill to allow the Secretary of State to exempt certain groups and to prescribe the protective headgear to be worn.

The provisions cover the whole of the UK. For the purposes of the Bill, 'cycle' can mean a bicycle, tricycle or cycle with four or more wheels.

In many ways, these provisions are similar to those set down in the Horses (Protective Headgear for Young Riders) Act 1990, which was introduced by the then honourable member for Ealing North (Harry Greenaway). Section 1 of that Act makes it an offence for a parent, guardian, employer, or a horse owner or a person who has custody of a horse immediately before the child rides it, to cause or permit a child under the age of 14 to ride a horse on a road unless the child is wearing protective headgear.

What this Bill will not do, as some of its more excitable opponents claim, is make every child cyclist and every parent of a child cyclist into a potential criminal.

The provision for an offence is, I believe, an important mechanism to enforce persistent flouting of the law. In reality, I envisage that a friendly word of caution or verbal instruction to provide a helmet for any child cycling without one will be sufficient in itself to make people comply with the legislation.

Furthermore, the very fact of the legislation will encourage most people to ensure that young cyclists wear protective helmets. It is one thing to tell teenagers that they should wear a cycle helmet because they 'should' - and it is quite another to say that they 'must' because it is the law. The Rt. Hon Member for Peckham.

I know that compliance rates are one of the Minister's major concerns. Indeed, his Department has been increasingly active in targeting young people with the message that safe cycling makes sense. In the last year they have devoted £137,000 to an advertising campaign showing the importance of wearing a helmet.

I welcome the efforts the Department has made. But, quite clearly, the fact that I have introduced this Bill will suggest that I do not believe these efforts are enough in themselves.

The Minister is concerned about compliance, and wants to get wearing rates to a critical mass before contemplating making them compulsory. I understand his motivation in that - but would ask him to consider whether it is a goal that can ever be reached.

I say to the Minister that it should surely be the other way round. Rather than waiting for wearing practice to change and to then introduce enforcement, the Government should act now to put enforcement measures in place in order to ensure that wearing practices do change.

If he does not, I am afraid the Minister will continue to fall into the trap set by opponents of helmets, such as the Cycling Touring Club, who will do whatever they can to avoid helmets being made mandatory.

4. GOVERNMENT'S POSITION

I welcome the Department's attempts to raise the numbers in this age group wearing helmets. My concern is that it will not be enough of itself.

While helmet wearing rates have steadily increased among the population as a whole - from 16% in 1994 to 25% in 2002 - the

trend has been in reverse among teenage boys, with only 12% wearing protective headgear.

As the group most at risk from cycling accidents, this is not good enough. It is not enough to shake your head and shrug your shoulders and say that 'boys will be boys' or 'kids will be kids.'

It is precisely because children are children - who take risks on their bikes, who make errors of judgement, who use their bikes for particular journeys - that action is needed to protect them.

The Minister's policy of persuasion - well-intentioned though it is - will not deliver the result which all of us in this House surely want to see: a safer cycling environment for all young people.

I believe that his efforts need to be backed by enforcement measures - measures which will be accepted by the vast majority of the population once the issue has been decided.

Otherwise, we will continue in a curious policy vacuum, in which the Government fully accepts the case for cycle helmets and argues that children are vulnerable without them - and then does precious little to back their words up with actions.

The Government's March 2000 Road Safety Strategy said that the wearing rate of cycle helmets, for the population as a whole was "about 18%." It went on to say:

"At this level making helmets compulsory would cause enforcement difficulties and without greater public acceptance could have an effect on the levels of cycling. We will monitor wearing rates and review the option of compulsory wearing from time to time."

3 years later, in October 2003, in his reply to the honourable member for Portsmouth South (Mike Hancock), the Minister updated the wearing rates to 25%, but his words sounded eerily familiar:

"At this level, making helmets compulsory could cause enforcement difficulties, and without greater public acceptance, could have an effect on levels of cycling. We will continue to monitor wearing rates and review the option of compulsory wearing from time to time."

Speaking frankly, this does not inspire a great deal of confidence that this area of policy has been reviewed at all. In fact, it suggests to me that, unthinkingly and a little complacently, the Government is doing its best to brush the issue under the carpet.

But I can say that this issue will not go away - in part because the rise in helmets is not happening quickly enough; in part because young children will continue to die or sustain serious injuries while cycling, quite needlessly; but in part because people, many honourable members included, are genuinely mystifed by the Government's lack of activity in an area which they say on the surface is so important.

We agree on how effective helmets are; we agree on the vulnerability of child cyclists; and we agree on the importance of delivering a safer cycling environment - as the Prime Minister said in his answer to me on 31 March, "this is a high priority for honourable Members and the Government."

It is a pity that we cannot yet agree on the most effective means for delivering these things, and I hope that these issues can be explored in more detail in the discussions today and at later stages of the Bill.

5. OPPONENTS

There are 3 main groups who seem more interested in selling bikes than saving children's lives. They say that helmets will only have a

small benefit to cycle safety, which I would argue is a nonsense.

The National Cycling Strategy: This is a quango which operates out of the Department for Transport on Marsham Street, who have written to Members with a distorted view of my bill. The Chair of

this organisation is Mr Stephen Norris, Conservative Candidate for Mayor of London, who ducked out of signing the letter, as I suspect he thought it may affect him at the polls. The letter in fact was signed by the Deputy Chair, Philip Darnton, who I understand is a Senior Executive of Raleigh Industries and, as the organisations argument is that it would reduce the amount of cycling, I would have thought that perhaps he should have declared an interest, Finally,

Cycle Touring Club:

I am sure most of the members of the CTC are normal, well-adjusted souls, but it does seem to attract its fair share of "lunatics in lycra!" The organisation actively campaigns to stop to the Government promoting the beneficial effects of helmet wearing. They recently took the Government to the Advertising Standards Authority to complain about their £139,000 campaign - of course the CTC lost.

I would suggest that if CTC want to be taken seriously it should change its policies and possibly its leadership.

ARGUMENTS

Before introducing this Bill, I must admit to thinking it rather obvious that if we are to encourage children to cycle, that should go hand-in-hand with measures to create a safe cycling environment.

Like the Minister, I suspect, who said in a press release last June that he hoped that

"by making cycling safer, more people will take to their bikes,"

I thought it was common sense to say that cycling is a healthy and beneficial activity, but that it should conducted in a sensible manner.

Yet that was before I encountered some of the Bill's opponents, who seem to find a dangerous and alarming contradiction between the promotion of cycling, and the introduction of basic provisions to improve the safety of child cyclists.

I do not believe such a contradiction exists, which is why I have introduced this Bill.

I do not believe there is anything within these provisions which will discourage children from cycling, as some of the Bill's opponents claim.

And I do not believe, as some of the Bill's opponents do, that helmets actually increase the risk of injury. I prefer to accept the overwhelming evidence provided by scientific research from around the world.

Nor do I believe, as some of the Bill's opponents do, that the mandatory wearing of cycle helmets will lead to such a downturn in cycling that a new generation of obese Britons will be created.

If that is really the best argument which the opponents of the Bill can come up with, I feel rather sorry for them. However exaggerated and alarmist these claims may be, they are concerns which should be

debated in the course of the Bill's scrutiny. But let us be clear on one thing - they in no way answer the over-riding safety case which this Bill seeks to address.

There are enough yearly deaths and severe injuries to counter the irresponsible and distasteful claims of some opponents of the Bill have made - as one put it:

"it takes 3,000 years of on-road cycling to suffer a serious head injury, let alone one that might be mitigated by a cycle helmet."

Arguments of that kind have no place in reasonable debate. And they are of no consolation to the parents and families of young children who have been injured or killed in cycling accidents.

In truth, we are witnessing the same knee-jerk, unthinking reaction which we saw when any similar changes were introduced - on drink-driving, for example, or the wearing of car seatbelts.

Ultimately, it is a rather defeatist argument - "it'll never work"; "you'll never get people to agree"; "there's no way to enforce it." It is not only defeatist, it is plain wrong.

If the Minister needs to be convinced of the popularity of the message, he should study the results of an independent survey carried out by the My Voice polling organisation in April 2004. Of 9000 adults polled, 80% wanted helmets to be mandatory for children and almost 70% of children wanted the same.

Experience in other countries, which have not only recognised the effectiveness of cycle helmets (as this Government has done) but have then gone on to act upon that knowledge (as this Government is yet to do), shows that the practice of wearing a helmet is now becoming as commonplace and instinctive as putting on a seatbelt.

Accidents and injuries have declined dramtically in each of the countries where mandatory helmets have been introduced - including Australia, New Zealand, Spain, the Czech republic, and parts of the United States and Canada - and there has been no cause to seek the repeal of the legislation.

6. CONCLUSION

I hope that this Bill will receive the scrutiny and consideration it deserves. If this Bill does not become law, then it will not be the end of the line. I intend to set up an All-Party Group to build on the strong support and assistance which honourable members from across the House have shown on this issue.

As I have tried to set out this morning, this issue is one which affects us all, very directly - as parliamentarians, as constituency MPs, and as individuals concerned for the welfare of children.

This Bill, at its heart, is a protective measure, which has the health and well-being of children at its heart. It is also a preventative one. Cycling is an excellent form of exercise, and one which the many supporters of this Bill wish to encourage among children and young people. But as with all forms of activity, particularly those involving children, it is only responsible to ensure that sensible precautions are observed and the right.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB