Free riders: cycle helmets and health and safety

Sunday 20 October, 9.30am until 10.15am, Frobisher 1-3 Contemporary Controversies

Many of us remember cycling as children with great nostalgia for the freedom represented by having a bicycle. The freedom to visit friends without needing a lift from mum and dad, or having to be close to a bus route. Freedom to whizz down a hill with your feet off the peddles, for no other reason than to feel the wind in your hair. Cycling still remains one of the few unregulated activities in British life: you don’t need a licence, or to pass a test; provided you have a brake and some lights, you’re good to go. But it’s increasingly seen not simply as an enjoyable pursuit we can take or leave, but rather as something to be promoted from above as a way to address a variety of social problems. If more of us cycled we’d be healthier and slimmer; with more bicycles there would be fewer cars on the roads, reducing both congestion and pollution.

And if we accept that we’d all benefit if more people cycled, the next question is how to encourage it. Advocates argue cycling must be made safer, with new cycle paths and perhaps even compulsory helmet wearing; but would we then risk over-complicating this most straightforward of activities? Does a safety-first approach to cycling risk sanitising the activity, and robbing it of the freedom that is part of its appeal? After all, perhaps the young twentysomething riders newly venturing onto the streets of London on brightly-coloured ‘fixies’ are looking for a little fun as well as to get from A to B?

How much can and should the authorities do to promote cycling? Should helmets be compulsory or not? And do cycle paths do more harm than good by shunting cyclists to one side and causing friction with car drivers? Fundamentally, is it worth sacrificing some of the fun of cycling to improve safety and encourage more of us onto bikes? Or should the authorities butt out and let cyclists get on with it?

Josie Appleton
director, civil liberties group, Manifesto Club; author, Officious: Rise of the Busybody State

Tom Chivers
assistant comment editor, Daily Telegraph

Matt Harper
partner, Look Mum No Hands!

Ed Noel
teacher; former schools and alumni coordinator, Debating Matters Competition

Lesley Riddoch
journalist & broadcaster ; founder and director, Nordic Horizons; author, Blossom: what Scotland needs to flourish

Mark Birbeck
internet software and big data consultant

Produced by
Mark Birbeck internet software and big data consultant
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