Earlier this week, The States of Jersey – the island’s parliament – voted to make it compulsory for every cyclist under the age of 18 to wear a helmet. The motion had been tabled by Deputy Andrew Green MBE, founder of the Jersey branch of the brain injury charity Headway, and currently national chairman of Headway UK. Deputy Green has campaigned for greater awareness since his son, Christopher, suffered brain injuries as a child of nine, in a cycling accident 21 years ago.
Deputy Green’s proposal was underpinned by a body of evidence, taken from various countries around the world that have brought in helmet laws, and the opinions of health professionals who deal with this type of trauma on a daily basis. But it would be fair to say that The House was moved by their personal feelings as much as any evidence.
Several members of The House brought forward the point that ultimately it was the parent’s responsibility to ensure that their offspring were protected rather than society. Others felt that life was full of possible dangers, and it was a question of how these risks were addressed.
The principle opponent to the introduction of the new law was Deputy Daniel Wimberley. Deputy Wimberley is one of a small number of Jersey politicians who cycle regularly. Before becoming a politician, he owned a cycle hire business and was Chairman of the Jersey Cycling Group. Deputy Wimberley’s main points in the debate were that there wasn’t enough conclusive evidence to back up Deputy Green’s argument and that if a law came in, it would effectively discourage people from cycling, with the loss of the health and environmental benefits that went with it.
After an emotive two day debate, in which several members of the House gave their personal experiences of the anguish and suffering that resulted from this type of injury, the motion was passed in favour of a compulsory helmet law for under 18-year-olds by 33 votes to 16. A motion proposing that the law be extended to adults as well was very narrowly defeated by one vote.
Opinion among local cycle dealers was unified. Most dealers felt that they would see a small increase in the sales of children’s and youth’s helmets, especially in the run-up to the law being implemented, which is still 18 months away. In fact, going on past sales dealers agreed that most children already had helmets, usually because their parents felt it was wise, or because their school or one of the groups that they belonged to insisted on it.
What did concern them was how it was proposed to implement the law, could Jersey’s Police Force spare the time to pursue such minor offences and then who would be held responsible: the rider or their parents. It was often the case that kids left home with a helmet on their head only for it to be hung on their handle bars the moment that they were out of sight.
When pressed on the outcome if the law had been applied to every cyclist, cycle dealers all agreed that it would be an unnecessary burden which would deter casual cyclists from using their bikes, who would bother with a quick dash to the shops if you’d suddenly become an outlaw if you forgot to put your helmet on?
Whether bringing in a law was the right thing to do was met with divided opinions. One dealer thought that general advice on helmet wearing and road safety could have been a better route, another felt that the decision to apply the law to youngsters rather than adults was correct, whilst another thought that the law would be accepted within six months.
I’ve always been keen to get as many people cycling as possible, and I have felt that a law that forces everyone to wear a helmet would be detrimental. After all, cycling is sustainable, cheap, healthy and good for the environment, and people should be encouraged to enjoy these benefits.
However, in this instance I don’t think that the numbers of kids who cycle at present will be unduly affected, simply because so many of them do already wear helmets. Hopefully by the time they are old enough to choose for themselves they can make an informed judgement without the need for legislation to force them one way or the other.
Finally, maybe I’m old-fashioned, but shouldn’t it fall to the parents to safeguard their children, rather than the Government?