Today I actually feel ashamed of my home town. I discovered yesterday that my elected representatives, the members of Bolton Council, have voted almost unanimously to “urge the [national] Government to bring in legislation to make it compulsory for bike riders to wear helmets when cycling on roads”. Furthermore, the motion was actually put to the Council by the councillor who is chairman of the Bolton Cycle Forum, of which I am a member. The resolution was reported in this article, and was very quickly parodied, in his inimitable style, by Bez, the writer of the Beyond the Kerb blog, in this post on Twitter.
As it happened, there was a meeting of the Bolton Cycle Forum scheduled for last night, so I took the opportunity to raise the matter with our chairman. Unfortunately, but predictably, the discussion just descended into the same old cycle helmet debate amongst a bunch of people who have never actually studied the subject. It is always so frustrating to have such helmet compulsion discussions because invariably the participants seem unable to differentiate the distinct issues that are of concern
The tendency is for people to start arguing about whether the wearing of helmets is or isn’t beneficial to the safety of the wearer. I won’t even go into this here as it has been covered ad-nauseum elsewhere; for example, interested readers can go to this site if they have an afternoon to spare. The only important thing to note is that it is irrelevant to the issue being pressed by Bolton Council.
The immediate issue here is not about cycle helmets or the wearing thereof; it is about compulsion. The only reasonable argument for making something compulsory – for taking away people’s freedom to decide for themselves – is that there some significant net benefit to society as a whole. However, every reputable (i.e. scientific, evidence-based) source concludes that the disadvantages to society massively outweigh any possible benefits. Information on this may also be found at the same address as above as well as many other sources. However, even the issue of compulsion itself is not the real issue where this resolution of Bolton Council is concerned.
The real issue for me is what it says about the form of democracy we have at the local level. It is clear from the discussion we had in the forum that nobody on the Council took the trouble to consult the wealth of scientific evidence on the matter. Councillors cannot be expected to be experts on the many topics that are discussed in Council – or to be experts in much at all for that matter – but they should have a duty to consult people who are knowledgeable in the topic before they start making decisions on behalf of around 150,000 people.
Just like most groups that engage in cycle helmet discussions, unfortunately the Council is also a bunch of laymen who have never studied the subject. As a constituent and council tax payer, I find it disgraceful that this council has decided to approach the Government in my name about a subject that none of its members know anything about, without consulting anyone who actually knows about the subject and without even consulting its own cycle forum. This is the real issue here.
As a cyclist who does not wear a helmet, I used-to wear one, but when I discovered that the oft-cited benefits of helmets are at best largely illusory and probably highly questionable, if indeed they have any benefits whatsoever. In consequence, I stopped, despite constant pressure from my family. I’ve always found helmets uncomfortable, and I have no wish to wear one again, although I might if they were both comfortable and effective and I would be especially interested if they were able to repel and deflect motor-vehicles, which seems unlikely.
I know I’m not an expert on many subjects, on the subject of helmets I have read quite a fair amount, sufficient to realise this is a very complex subject and I defer to the experts and base my opinions upon their research findings. As for compulsion, this too has been included in the research and shown to be a very bad idea.
The intelligent approach to any decision is to educate oneself about it before drawing conclusions and making a decision. Sadly, many human beings short circuit the process and ignore even basic research (apart from pre-formed prejudices gleaned from the Daily Bigot, [alternative sources of fish-wrap are available]), instead jumping directly to forming an opinion, grounded entirely upon ignorance, often combined with any pre-existing notions and prejudices, which many non-cyclists have when it comes to opinions about cycling and cyclists. It also seems highly likely that some individuals view the prospect of imposing vexatious legislation upon their favourite bête-noire with considerable glee.
I believe that this unwarranted delusion of expertise, is an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect. It is something that anyone can all suffer-from, and which we must all be careful to guard-against.
We should all then breathe a sigh of relief, that Bolton Council’s appeal to government will likely fall on deaf ears. Just as occasional appeals from back bench MPs do likewise, and attempts in the Northern Ireland Assembly also failed.
Westminster has its shortcomings, but it is at least staffed by professional politicians and their professional staff. They are the sort of people who devote their time to researching and understanding complex issues. Not all of them of course, and they don’t all come to what I would consider to be the right conclusions, but the overall performance is better.
Local councils on the other hand are largely staffed by late middle-aged or elderly people, complete amateurs who do this when they have the time, which is usually after they have retired. They may be shopkeepers, accountants, lawyers etc but very few have direct professional expertise in government or policy.
It’s a great pity then that other aspects of cycling are not determined from the centre. I am sure that some local authorities are more enlightened and progressive about cycling than central government is, but the vast majority are not. We need common standards and a fixed budget set from the centre, rather like education or roads (for cars, that is) which are then enforced locally, and funding is scrutinised to ensure that cycling money is not spent on roundabouts or car parking spaces.
Mostly Harmless @nosliWtrautS 15h15 hours ago North West, England
If 10% of the energy spent on saying “make cycling hats compulsory” was spent saying “make cycle infra compulsory”, we’d be Holland by now +1