In many ways wearing a helmet stimulates even more sense for a child than an adult. Photo: Danny Lawson/ PA
In many styles, wearing a helmet makes even more sense for children than it does adults. They have a greater likelihood of falling off bikes and, when they do, are more likely to hurt their heads, in part because young bodies are disproportionately weighted towards the skull. My son wears a helmet whenever he is cycling. That said, there is no evidence that Jerseys law will achieve anything at all.
The islands government commissioned the UKs respected and independent Transport Research Laboratory to evaluate the plan. Its report found that the year before the ban, 84% of Jersey children wore helmets anyway, and not a single under-1 4 had been seriously hurt on a motorcycle.
At the time, I spoke to Andrew Green, the Jersey politician behind the law. He dismissed the idea that it would watch a reduction in cycling, but offered only an anecdotal view as to why: I believe children participating in cycling will increase after the law, based on the number of telephone call Ive had from mothers saying, I want little Johnny to wear a helmet. He wont wear it because his friends wont wear one. Therefore I wont let him have a motorcycle. Its an debate. But its not evidence.
The tragic backstory to Greens interest is that his now-adult son is unable to live independently after he suffered a serious head trauma on a bike when he was nine. Green himself chairs Headway, a charity that does fantastic work with people who have suffered brain traumata but has branched out, controversially, as a vocal proponent of helmet compulsion.
Its easy to assure why Green does what he does, but equally its important that someone counters his views. Of its annual budget of 630 m in the year the law was passed, Jerseys government expended precisely 150,000 on pedestrian and safety improvements.
This is a compact island with a benign climate and lots of green space. Yet 23% of its five-year-olds are overweight or obese, rising to 35% of the rights of children aged 10 or 11, higher figures than the UK average. When it comes to improving the health of children, the government might be better served doing everything it can to get them on bikes , not generating laws that exaggerate the dangers of doing so.
In 2006 the British Medical Journal carried an examination of the evidence by Dorothy Robinson, an Australian statistician, into what actually happened in New Zealand and Australia after helmet compulsion laws were passed. The survey uncovered complications over figures that seem to show a reduction in head injuries suffered by cyclists, a fact much touted by advocates. For example, it found evidence that adult cyclists who opt to wear helmets tend to be more safety-conscious anyway, while helmeted children are more likely than non-helmeted children to ride in parks rather than streets.
Finally, the study noted, helmet-use statutes had often are in force at the same period as other road safety measures, such as random driver alcohol breath-testing in parts of Australia, which was likely to have even more impact on security. The conclusion? The idea that motorcycle helmet laws directly improve overall security for cyclists doesnt appear to be backed by any evidence.
In 2013 the tireless Ian Walker carried out a more extensive version of his helmet survey. It also measured how closely drivers passed a motorcycle when overtaking, but this time employing a volunteer colleague rather than himself there were seven different outfits. Four attained the rider look like a cyclist of varying experience and dedication, ranging from full Lycra to more everyday clothes, including one involving a hi-vis coat. Three other attires were based around bright yellow waistcoats bearing written messages. One read, Novice cyclist: please pass slowly; another said, Polite: please slow down polite is sometimes used by UK cyclists and pony riders in the hope drivers might mistake it for police and finally one read, Police: camera cyclist.
This brought data for just under 5,700 overtakes, more or less evenly split between the seven outfits. None of the attires made an appreciable difference to driver behaviour, apart from the one saying police. For the six others, the average passing distance was between about 114 cm and 118 cm. For police it went above 122 cm. Similarly, the proportion of drivers who went very near the bike was perceptibly lower for the police vest. In contrast, the tabard saying polite ensure the nearest median overtaking distance and almost twice as many potentially dangerous passes as police.
The lessons seem clear and worrying. For one thing , no matter which outfit was worn, a small percentage of drivers still overtook dangerously near, at a distance of 50cm or less. More than this, it seemed drivers were perfectly able to distinguish between different types of rider, and to read and assimilate any message displayed. But rather than adjusting their driving to the perceived experience of the cyclist, it was only when faced with a threat to their own welfare a police rider filming their actions that many permitted a cyclist more space on the road. Most alarming still, some seemed to treat the mild endeavor at subterfuge of polite as a reason to nearly penalize the cyclist.
When Walker carried out his original 2006 helmet experiment, he says, he did not conclude that the results entailed drivers didnt care. I felt that was a very callous interpretation, and it was more likely that they just took the helmet as an indication of experience, he says. But the later examine changed his view: It truly might have been something like, Well, hes got a helmet, it doesnt matter.
This is an edited extract from Bike Nation How Cycling Can Save the World, by Peter Walker, published by Yellow Jersey on 6 April. To order a copy for 11.04( RRP 12.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p& p over 10, online orders merely. Telephone orders min p& p of 1.99.