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Bicycles (Children’s Safety Helmets)

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require persons of 17 years and under to wear a safety helmet when riding a bicycle; and for connected purposes.

From reading The Highway Code, one would think that it is already compulsory to wear a safety helmet when cycling. It states that

“you should wear a cycling helmet which conforms to current regulations”.

Yet, that is not the law. It is, however, mandatory for children to wear safety helmets when playing cricket or riding a horse. Why should they not do so when riding a bike, the dangers of which are far greater?

My proposed Bill has received support from both sides of the House, and I thank my fellow sponsors. When it was originally drafted, I proposed that the upper age limit for the mandatory wearing of a cycle helmet should be 17 years. However, having listened to representations from the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, the CTC—the cyclists’ touring club—and other interested groups, I shall propose an amendment in Committee to reduce the maximum age for the compulsory wearing of a cycle helmet to 14.

The issue was first brought to my attention as part of my “Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden” campaign. In addition, my excellent and informative local weekly newspaper, the Herald & Post, has been actively campaigning for a change in the law. Lawrence John, the senior reporter at the paper who has led the campaign, started a petition to make it compulsory for children to wear cycling helmets when riding their bikes.

After researching the issue extensively, I felt that I needed to do all that I could as a Member of Parliament to seek legislation further to protect child cyclists. The Bill is designed to save lives and reduce injuries, including very serious head injuries, and to save the NHS millions of pounds of costs in treating and rehabilitating injured child cyclists.

In 2006, child cyclist deaths rose by 55 per cent. In 2005, there were 20 deaths. Last year, there were 31 deaths, or nearly three a month. In response to a parliamentary question that I asked of the Department of Health, the Minister stated that, in a three-year period from 2003, 17,786 children aged 14 and under were admitted to NHS hospitals in England because of injuries incurred while cycling. This is not a minor matter. That figure does not include the many thousands who attend accident and emergency, are patched up and then sent home, nor does it include those who are admitted to hospitals in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. In the past three years, more than 1,600 children were killed or very seriously injured when riding their bikes. The Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust estimates that 85 per cent. of head injuries to child cyclists would be reduced or eliminated entirely if a helmet was worn. A cycle helmet absorbs 12 mph of energy and reduces the energy impact by that amount in all crashes.

One argument that I have come across against compulsion is that if a juggernaut crashes into a child at 70 mph, a cycle helmet will not prevent injury. Of course it will not, but that is not what I am saying. I am saying not that children wearing a cycle helmet will emerge from a crash scratch-free but that the impact of the crash will be reduced by 12 mph of energy, thus lessening injury and saving lives. That could be the difference between a child having a serious head injury that will require 24-hour care for the rest of his life and a child suffering a minor concussion. For a child with a serious head injury needing long-term rehabilitation, the cost has been estimated at £250,000 for the first year alone. Children who have suffered severe head injuries require a lifetime of long-term help at the cost of millions of pounds. That, of course, ignores the pain and suffering of the victim and their family. Their quality of life, and that of their family, suffers greatly as a result of such an injury.

My Bill would not make it mandatory for those over the age of 14 to wear safety helmets when cycling. Older children and adults can make up their own minds about the risks involved. However, a child’s skull depth is less that half that of an adult and only reaches full depth in his late teens. Therefore, a child’s head has less natural protection than that of an adult. Children are also less experienced cyclists than adults and are more likely to have an accident when riding on the public highway.

Throughout my campaign, I have had meetings with the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, the CTC, RoadPeace and the Minister of State for Transport. I was very encouraged by the meeting I had with the Minister in June and welcome the Government’s independent investigation. I am, however, concerned about its time scale, which could be up to two years. I believe that we need legislation now to help to prevent further serious injury and death to children when riding their bikes.

Last November, I presented to Parliament the petition organised by the Herald and Post. I should like to praise the Herald and Post for all its work in raising awareness in this field.

I have been presented with some arguments against my Bill and I would like to take this opportunity to explain why I think those arguments are not enough to prevent legislation from going through.

One argument against the Bill—often made with great force—is that it is yet more legislation intended to turn our country into a nanny state. Well, speaking as a right-wing son of Thatcher and a member of Cornerstone, I am not known for supporting an enlargement of the nanny state in any way, shape or form. This measure is not intended to dictate to adults how they should live their lives. It is designed for children who, at the age of 14 and under, are not able to take the decision for themselves. When they reach 15, they will have the choice of whether to wear a cycle helmet. I reiterate that I have no intention of bringing in this Bill for adults or anyone over the age of 14.

Another argument against the Bill is that it will put children off cycling. I can safely say that my six-year-old son, Thomas, has no problems with wearing a cycle helmet when riding his bike—and what a good job he is doing at it! [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I see no reason why the Bill would persuade other children to give up cycling or not to take it up in the first place.

Many countries across the globe have introduced legislation to make it compulsory for children to wear cycle helmets. In Canada, a study of the level of cycling following such legislation showed that there had been no reduction. Likewise, cycling rates are among the highest in the world in Australia, where similar legislation was introduced 16 years ago. I believe that if people oppose this Bill, they are actually saying that children should not wear cycle helmets. It is either right or not right for children to wear safety helmets when riding—and if it is right, we should make it compulsory.

The Bill is about plain common sense. It is about protecting our children. It is about saving millions of pounds for the NHS. It is about reducing injury to children and saving their lives. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Peter Bone, Mr. Graham Allen, John Bercow, Mr. Geoffrey Cox, Andrew George, Mr. Philip Hollobone, Mr. Mark Lancaster, Mr. Eric Martlew, Andrew Miller and Sir George Young.

Bicycles (Children’s Safety Helmets)

Mr. Peter Bone accordingly presented a Bill to require persons of 17 years and under to wear a safety helmet when riding a bicycle; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 186].