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.