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26 May 2004 : Column 451WH—continued

Child Cyclists

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured the debate. I requested it because my private Member's Bill, the Protective Headgear for Young Cyclists Bill, received its Second Reading on 20   April, but, unfortunately, there was a technical problem—we did not have a quorum—so the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), did not get the opportunity to respond to my speech and those of other hon. Members. It would be inappropriate for this Minister to reply to a debate that has passed, especially as he was not the Minister in the Chamber at the time, but I intend to go over the Bill's salient points and give him the opportunity to reply to those. Children are always a vulnerable group, so I hope that the Government response will be fairly extensive.

The sad truth is that a disproportionate number of accidents involve children on cycles. Figures from the Transport Research Laboratory and the Department for Transport show starkly how vulnerable children on cycles are. The Transport Research Laboratory has found that child cyclists comprise only 6.6 per cent. of road cyclists, yet the Department for Transport's analysis of average road-cyclist deaths in a two-year period leads it to conclude that there are 133 deaths, 28 of whom, or 21 per cent., were children. Using that calculation, children are four times more likely to die in a cycle accident on the road than adults. Once a fortnight, a child dies in a cycling accident on our roads. Children are seriously injured and often disabled in our constituencies every day of the year. Each year we kill the equivalent of a primary class of children and severely injure the equivalent of a small secondary school.

I do not claim that introducing cycle helmets will necessarily reduce the number of accidents, but I am convinced that the measure will reduce the severity of the injuries involved. Many accidents involve serious head injuries. Scientific research, both at home and abroad, has proved the case for cycle helmets in protecting the head and brain against the worst effects of injury.

The report "Bicycle helmets: review of effectiveness" was produced by the Department for Transport in November 2002. It is good and I recommend it to hon. Members. It states:

I said that although child cyclists comprise only 6.6 per cent. of the population, 21 per cent. of those who are killed are children. The report says that cycle helmets save lives, and that is the conclusion of the supporters of my Bill, who come from a wide range of professional organisations.

If my Bill were successful—it is still tabled for discussion, although I suspect that it will not become law—it would provide a legal framework that was practical and proportionate. It would make it an offence for children under the age of 16 to ride a cycle on the road, in a public park or in a recreation area unless they are wearing protective headgear. This is not new
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ground. A similar Bill was put on the statute book in 1990. The Horses (Protective Headgear for Young Riders) Act 1990, which was introduced by Harry Greenway, the then hon. Member for Ealing, North, made it an offence for children to ride a horse on the public highway unless they were wearing protective headgear.

My Bill would not make every child cyclist or their parents into potential criminals, as some of my more excitable opponents claim. Provision for an offence is an important enforcement mechanism when there is persistent flouting of the law, but in reality I envisage that a friendly word of caution or verbal instruction to wear a helmet would be enough to ensure that people complied with the law. Recent statistics show that in 2002 there were only 92 prosecutions of people riding on the pavement and 134 of people riding without lights. Some might say that there should be more prosecutions, but in many cases the law can be enforced without taking people to court.

The Government have argued about compliancy rates, and I accept that the Department for Transport has been trying to do something about them by actively targeting young people. Last year it devoted £137,000 to an advertising campaign on the importance of wearing a helmet as part of the safe cycling message. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether there are plans for another campaign this year or next year.

The Department is concerned about compliance and it wants the rate of helmet wearing to increase to a critical mass before it is made compulsory. I understand the Department's motivation for holding that view, but does the Minister think that the goal will ever be reached? Surely, it should be the other way round. Rather than waiting for the practice of wearing helmets to change and then introducing an enforcement measure, could not the Government act now and introduce enforcement measures, so ensuring that the practice changes? If they do not, the Minister will continue to fall into the trap set by the opponents of helmets, such as the Touring Cycle Club, which will do everything it can to avoid helmets being made mandatory. The CTC discourages people from wearing them because it realises that if the practice reaches a critical mass, the Government might legislate.

In 2002, when 18 per cent. of cyclists were wearing helmets, the Government said that they would monitor the wearing rate and review the option for compulsory wearing from time to time. In October 2003, they used the same words, although the rate had by then increased to 25 per cent. The Minister must tell us what rate the Government would find acceptable before deciding to legislate to make it compulsory.

The Government agree that helmets are effective. They also agree on the vulnerability of child cyclists and the importance of delivering a safer cycling environment. In fact, in a response to me, the Prime Minister said:

It is a pity therefore that we cannot agree on the most effective means of delivery.

On Second Reading of my Bill, I went into detail on its opponents, but I shall not do so today. However, I am concerned about the National Cycling Strategy, a
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quango set up by the Government and given credence because it operates out of Marsham street. It sent letters to hon. Members from the Department for Transport headquarters which gave a distorted view of my Bill, which worries me. Does the Minister believe that quangos should be involved in the politics of a private Member's Bill, especially if they do not tell the truth? Is it appropriate that this particular quango should be housed in the offices of the Department for Transport?

The argument for my Bill is that attempts to encourage children to cycle should go hand in hand with measures to create a safer cycling environment. I agree with the press release put out by the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport, which said:

That is common sense and beneficial, but does not reflect the current situation.

If the Government are concerned that making cycle helmets for children mandatory would be unpopular, they should take note of the poll of 9,000 adults carried out by the My Voice polling organisation in April. Some 80 per cent. of the those polled wanted helmets to be mandatory for children, and 70 per cent. of children agreed. Experience in other countries has led not only to recognition of the effectiveness of helmets, but to action—they have made it law.

In many countries, putting on a helmet is as common as using a safety belt in a car. Accidents and injuries have declined dramatically in countries in which helmets are mandatory, including Australia, New Zealand, Spain, the Czech Republic, and parts of the United States and Canada. Since the Second Reading of my Bill, two European Union countries—Sweden and Finland—have introduced laws making it compulsory for children aged 15 and younger to wear helmets.

Another important area is child cycle training. Perhaps hon. Members can remember the old cycling proficiency test at school—it was the first examination I ever passed and I took pride in that. It also had the advantage of bringing policemen into schools, so children's first contact with the police was favourable. Throughout the '90s, the police decided that they were too busy and that cycle training was not their responsibility. Sometimes that responsibility was passed to the county council, which decided that it was not mandatory. Therefore, the number of children being trained properly declined. We would not have dreamt of letting a child out on the streets without having taken a test. It should not necessarily be compulsory, but this and previous Governments have not given the issue the priority it deserves.

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills is keen to encourage young people to cycle to school. Having seen the way some youngsters cycle, I think that they have never been made aware of the potential dangers. What provisions will there be to increase cycle training for children? I want more youngsters to go to school on bicycles. A report will be published tomorrow—although it is in the media today—on obesity and, in particular, child obesity. I want more youngsters to ride bicycles, because it is good for them, and to be taught what to do. I also want them to wear helmets so that we do not have the tragedies that we see at present.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) on securing the debate and on all that he has said about the safety of child cyclists. I also convey to him apologies from the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson), who is out of the country on Government business; otherwise, he would have responded to the debate.

The Government take the safety of children on the roads very seriously. Our road safety strategy, "Tomorrow's roads: safer for everyone", published in 2000, emphasised our aim to improve our performance on child road safety. The general target is for us to reduce deaths and serious injuries on the roads by 40 per cent. by 2010 compared with the average for the period from 1994 to 1998, but the target for children is 50 per cent. The reduction in child casualties has been outstanding. Compared to the baseline, child pedal cycle deaths and serious injuries have fallen by 47 per cent. That reduction significantly outstrips the decline in child cycling levels over the same period—something that concerns my hon. Friend—and represents a significant trend towards the target. However, we are not complacent and are taking action on a range of fronts.

The data show that, although the number of casualties is falling for child cyclists of all ages, we still have a problem with the number of young adolescent boys in particular getting hurt while cycling. We know from regular monitoring that boys are the most reluctant to wear helmets. Set against the general, rising trend, the wearing rate for boys went down from 16 per cent. in 1994 to 12 per cent. in 2002. A large proportion of those who choose not to wear helmets are young adolescents.

In the broader sense, we are doing much to improve child cyclists' safety. There are measures designed to make drivers far more aware of vulnerable road users, such as child cyclists. The highway code includes a section on road users, including cyclists, which requires drivers to take extra care. The practical driving test has been lengthened, so that drivers experience more road types and have a greater opportunity to encounter vulnerable road users. The theory test question bank contains many questions about vulnerable road users, including cyclists. Hazard perception skills are important to safe driving, and we want new drivers to develop those skills quickly. The screen-based element of the theory test includes video clips to help to test hazard perception with moving images.

We have also produced publicity for drivers. Our drink drive advert shows a motorist taking care to avoid a young cyclist. The underlying message is to give cyclists space. We have published the "Drive Safe, Cycle Safe" leaflet, in alliance with the AA and the Cyclists Touring Club. It is designed to make motorists and cyclists aware of one another.

Of course, it is important that cyclists take responsibility for their safety, and cycle training is an important part of that, although awareness among drivers is equally part of the overall safety package. About one third of children aged between nine and
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10 are trained each year at school. Research shows that trained children are significantly safer than untrained children, as my hon. Friend suggested, when knowledge and skills are tested two years after training. We strongly advise parents to encourage their children to have cycle training and not to let them out on the roads until they are competent to handle their cycles safely.

We have raised the standards of child cycle training. We assisted the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents financially with its "Guidelines for the management and operation of Practical Cyclist Training Schemes". My Department and the Department of Health gave a £76,000 grant to the CTC to develop a cycle training scheme for adults and teenagers, which was launched in May 2003. Driver awareness is certainly important but, as my hon. Friend suggested, the training of cyclists is very important, too.

Mr. Martlew : I am conscious that the Minister said that one third of youngsters are trained. That means that two thirds are not. How will we get to those two thirds? In addition, the CTC campaigns against wearing cycle helmets. How can the Government be involved with that organisation when it works against one of their objectives?

Mr. McNulty : I shall return to the CTC in a moment. On my hon. Friend's first question, he is right: a significant number of children are still not trained, and the job to ensure that more and more are trained remains ongoing. These are not one-off initiatives aimed at simply sorting the task out and moving on. The job on driver awareness and cyclist training is ongoing.

On publicity for child cyclists, we have published "Arrive Alive", a highway code for young road users that encourages children to act sensibly when using roads, and it includes a section on cycling. It is given to every child taking cycle training and more than 500,000 copies are issued annually. We are working with private sector organisations on a cycle smart campaign, which promotes safer cycling among children. It consists of a comic and a "Be safe and be seen" sticker. We promote the wearing of cycle helmets. Some say that helmets do not work. To try to get an independent, objective view on which could all agree, we commissioned research to assess the effectiveness of helmets. It concluded that they have been found to be effective in reducing injury for cyclists of all ages, especially children. As ever, some question that research, but as children are more likely to have low-speed accidents just falling off their bikes, I do not believe that much research is required to conclude that they will be better off wearing a helmet.

The Government helped to launch the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust's "Guidelines for Setting up Community Based Bicycle Helmet Programmes" in May 2002. That was the result of three years' work, with £100,000 of joint funding from the Department of Health and the Department for Transport. We also funded the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust to produce similar guidelines for schools, which it issued in July 2003.

We believe that helmets can work, so last year we launched publicity aimed specifically at boys in the vulnerable age group—the young adolescents. Before
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the launch, we tested different material with them to establish how they would receive it. The publicity that we ran was the material to which they were most receptive. It is called "Cycle Sense", and the campaign also covers issues such as technique, cycle maintenance and visibility. It consists of a poster, postcards and a website. We are also developing a TV filler film that we hope to launch later this year.

I agree with my hon. Friend; I, too, was very disappointed with the reaction of the CTC to that initiative. It mounted a campaign to undermine it and complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, which has since found in our favour. To an extent, I appreciate the CTC's concern to increase cycle levels, but that is an issue for the Government too, and we tailor publicity accordingly. If the reaction had been that young adolescents would be put off cycling, we would not have used the campaign. The CTC is a major cycling stakeholder and I hope that it will work with us more positively on safety in future, as it does on other cycling issues. Given the CTC's role as stakeholder, we could not simply refuse to work with it. However, I share my hon. Friend's concerns and acknowledge his complaints about its activities in the past.

I do not have the information to hand, but I will explore what my hon. Friend says about the National Cycling Strategy and its role in the run-up to 23 April and the promotion of his Bill. I will get back to him on that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on giving the issue of cycle helmet wearing such prominence through his Protective Headgear for Young Cyclists Bill, which, as he knows, was dealt with on 23 April and remains, not in pole position, but in the frame for further discussion on 18 June.

Our position on compulsion has been that we will—to quote yet again the words quoted by my hon. Friend—review the option from time to time. However, due to the current rates of helmet wearing among children, which are relatively low, we have a concern that compulsion would affect cycling levels and cause enforcement difficulties. That has been the Government's position. The Bill has caused us to reflect; we need to think about how compulsory helmet wearing might affect the wider initiatives to increase cycling and improve health.

The supporters of helmet wearing say that provided that helmets are introduced with care, compulsion need not affect cycling levels. As my hon. Friend will know, some of the international experiences are that, with a long lead-in of promoting awareness, education and other elements, compulsion has subsequently been introduced. Opponents point to evidence from overseas where compulsion has clearly affected cycle levels. As ever in this life, the reality is mixed and the overseas experience can be read either way. We worry, however, that with helmet wearing by youngsters so low at the moment, compulsion would put many of them off cycling. If that happened it would affect cycling levels. Increasing cycling has the positive benefit of improving health. It is key to our anti-obesity strategy, especially for children, and to the further development of sustainable transport.

Our success in this area does not begin to compare with how well we are doing in moving towards the road safety targets, but I agree with my hon. Friend's
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intention: we must increase helmet wearing. We are continuing our campaigns to promote cycle helmets, ensuring that we do not do so in such a way that it presents cycling as dangerous or risky. The emphasis is on cyclists being sensible and other road-users taking care around them.

It is not simply about training, driver awareness and helmets, with or without compulsion. The whole package is designed to heighten cyclists' awareness and drivers' awareness of cyclists and the notion that cycling is good and should be encouraged, especially among young people. We want to promote cycling and the wearing of helmets. We will continue to reflect on the issue of compulsion and the level at which it should kick in. I hope that others, both inside and outside the Government, will do all they can to support us in promoting cycle helmets and improving the safety of child cyclists. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate.

Mr. Martlew : The Minister said that when we reach a critical mass the Government will consider implementing compulsion. What does he think the critical mass will be? Is there not a difference between children and adults with regard to compulsion?

Mr. McNulty : As I said, it is not as simple as just reaching a cut-off point for children or adults. It is about all those aspects: driver awareness, cyclist training more generally, and the promotion of cycling, especially among young children. There will be more focus on young adolescents through education. Depending on the effectiveness of all those policy initiatives, we will see whether compulsion should kick in. We will reflect on all those issues, because of the wider campaign and the points raised by my hon. Friend, and will review the position from time to time.

If not all those elements are successful, we may need to steer in other directions. Increased cycle helmet wearing may go alongside all those policy initiatives. We may need to reflect at every stage. One conclusion may be that things are going so slowly that we should move to compulsion. It may be at a far lower figure than we expected. If all those elements are successful, compulsion should be at the tail end, rather like the experience in New South Wales.

I wish my hon. Friend well in his campaign to increase helmet wearing by young cyclists. I know that it will not stop on 18 June. I fear that, for better or worse, the debate on compulsion will continue. I suspect that that is right and proper. We agree absolutely with his fundamental position: wearing helmets makes cycling safer. We should all, CTC included, endeavour to increase cycling wearing by young cyclists in the context of promoting cycling generally. It is an outcome that we all want to see.

Sitting suspended until Two o'clock.

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