Peter Bottomley MP

A to B 41 Blog, April 2004, Uri Geller bicycle, Cycle Helmets

FIRST PUBLISHED April 2004
Uri Geller folder, Cycle Helmets & Statistics, Peter Bottomley MP.

One is most gratified to hear that the Blair Government is not afraid to legislate where the fabric of our society is threatened by dark forces. One refers, of course, to David Blunkett’s Anti-Social Behaviour Act, giving Street Wardens (whatever they might be) and private security guards the power to impose £30 fines on cyclists caught riding on the pavement. This sort of nonsense sounds suspiciously like policy created from the musings of focus groups and the like: The way to reduce pavement cycling is to provide safer roads, but the quick and easy vote winner is to levy on-the-spot fines on Raleigh shoppers wobbling back from Safeway.

The cowards! Mind you, Blair et all seem to be taking some notice of this column. One has barely to suggest renationalizing Railtrack and it is done! Bring rail maintenance back ‘in-house’? One’s wish is granted. Now a novel idea has been floated to renationalize railway stations, as suggested in A to B’s past, ad nauseam.

Kicking out the train operating companies, by forcing them to bid for franchises against the Strategic Rail Authority, would now be comparatively easy. One assumes this idea will be quietly floated a month or two after A to B 41 goes to press.

Of course, Prime Minister Blair is not the only discredited leader thrashing desperately about in search of coherent policy. The Mole is tempted to accept Colonel Gaddafi’s invitation to attend the Libyan International Transport & Logistics Exhibition, a trade fair aimed at opening up the north African hinterland by air, sea and rail. Perhaps our own Dear Leader could try a similar ploy, and bring vital overseas aid and expertise to tackle our own transport problems?

A to B magazine, Uri Geller Folding BikeOne is increasingly reminded of just how odd the world has become. Few people would have predicted Gaddafi’s denouncement of terrorism, let alone an invitation to all and sundry to fund railway lines across the Sahara. Even fewer, one assumes, would dare predict that the erstwhile spoon-bender Uri Geller might launch a folding bicycle.The ‘Uri-Bike’, marketed under the rather unfortunate slogan ‘Bend it-Bag it’ is in fact, more or less identical to the existing ‘Bike-in-a-Bag’. The only real difference is that the 20-inch, 6-speed Bike-in-a-Bag sells for £240, while the 20-inch, 6-speed Uri Bike sells for £300. To be fair, Uri is throwing in a Reevu helmet with every purchase, plus the sort of endorsement that only an erstwhile spoon-bender can provide. This bike, one assumes, will only bend if the rider concentrates very hard.

According to Uri, the ‘top quality machine’ has such an uncompromising specification that he now rides one himself: ‘Although there are many exercise bicycles available, they do not offer the mind stimulation of open-road cycling.’ It’s hard to argue with that. The Uri-Bike might not be the best folding bike in the world, but celebrity endorsement will bring it to the attention of the sort of people who might not otherwise think of stimulating their minds and, indeed, buttocks with Uri on the open road. In that respect, the Uri-Bike is a Good Thing.

A to B magazine, George Stokes, Romford RecorderOn the other hand, cycle helmets appear to be of dubious value. For an example of just how detached from reality the pro-helmet campaign has become, we must thank reader Jean Elliot of Upminster, who provides a cutting from the Romford Recorder. It seems young George Stokes of Romford has narrowly escaped serious injury after being struck by a lorry while crossing the A127 Southend Arterial Road on his bike – a most regrettable incident, and one naturally wishes the young man a rapid recovery.

But since the incident, George’s mother has joined the cycle helmet campaign, even though – as the sharper sort of reader may already have observed – young George received a broken ankle in the ‘horrific collision’. The Romford Recorder quotes Mrs Stokes as saying, ‘I see youngsters now riding their bikes without a helmet in the street, and I just want to stop them and tell them to wear one…’ Yet even a complete medical duffer will appreciate that a helmet is unlikely to reduce the likelihood of a broken ankle. The answer is for the Department for Transport to provide a safe crossing of this very dangerous road.

…even a non-medical type will appreciate that a helmet is unlikely to reduce the likelihood of a broken ankle…

The debate as to whether, or to what extent, cycle helmets protect the user from small knocks, mild concussion, or death is becoming increasingly vociferous, so it might be wiser to concentrate on more general themes.

One is indebted to safety researcher Malcolm Wardlaw for two reports: Assessing the Actual Risks faced by Cyclists, and Safety in Numbers: More Walkers and Bicycles, Safer Walking and Bicycling. Beyond the rather cumbersome titles, these tomes make interesting reading, bringing together evidence from around the world that risk levels for pedestrians and cyclists can be predicted from a simple formula.

Without delving too deeply into the mathematics, a subject upon which the Mole is sadly ill-informed, it seems that a motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking or bicycling where walking or bicycling are common activities. This relationship – first proposed by a certain Mr Sneed in 1949 – can be expressed as a formula, the risk of collisions with cars being approximately equal to the 0.4 power of the numbers enjoying a particular pursuit.

Returning to the sort of terms we lay-folk might understand, if a country (or indeed Romford) were to double the number of cyclists, Sneed’s Law suggests the number of collisions between bicycles and cars would rise by 20.4, which – one is reliably informed – produces a figure of 1.32. Thus an increase in bicycle usage of 100% results in an increase in crashes of only 32%, reducing the risk per cyclist by a third.

…compulsion always reduces the number of cyclists… child cyclists by 42% and adults by 29%…

Conversely, if the number of cyclists is reduced, the likelihood of an individual cyclist being struck by a motor vehicle increases. Quite why this should be is beyond the intelligence of a humble insectivore, although it seems reasonable to assume that in more enlightened places, motorists have become hard wired to expect a bicycle to wobble across their path and take avoiding action. Whatever the rights and wrongs of bicycle helmets – and one has no argument with those individuals who choose to wear one – compulsion always reduces the number of cyclists. Typical figures are those recorded in Melbourne, Australia, where compulsion reduced the number of child cyclists by 42% and adults by 29%.

A to B magazine: Cycle Usage vs Fatalities

Cycle usage versus fatalities in 14 European countries. As cycle usage declines, crashes per cycle/kilometre rise. Britain is currently on the black arrow. Cycle helmet compulsion would tend to move us towards the grey arrow, increasing risk

Peter Bottomley MPPeter Bottomley MP Cycling

Naturally, this reduction in the number of cyclists tends to reduce the number of cycling road casualties, but thanks to Mr Sneed’s Law, the reduction is rather less than one might expect, and the remaining cyclists face a greater risk, initiating a vicious spiral of increased risk and declining usage.Worse still, there is no evidence that displacing large numbers from bicycles reduces fatalities overall. Many former cyclists would walk instead, a mode that (rather surprisingly), puts individuals at greater risk of death per kilometre than riding a bicycle.

To apply this to British experience, we need only glance at the rather depressing graph of cycle casualties versus cycle mileage gathered from 14 European countries. The first observation one might make is that the risk of being turned into raspberry jam by a 40-tonner is remarkably small, even in places like the UK, which are some way to the left (ie, dangerous) side of the graph. But if a compulsory helmet law were to push cycle usage even further to the left, the risk would rise rapidly, negating most of the (often perceived) benefits of helmet use.

In the light of this wider road safety picture, the current fixation in Parliament and elsewhere with cycle helmet provision makes little sense. For a whole raft of reasons, from increasing obesity to road danger, any measures that reduce bicycle use are clearly bad news, both in terms of transport and public health. On the other hand, measures to control the speed and volume of motorised traffic tend to encourage cycle use, and are thus – like the Uri-Bike – a Good Thing.

Moving swiftly from Romford to East Sussex (as indeed one can on paper), we find that Peter Bottomley MP, elected representative for delightful West Worthing, has fallen victim to just such a policy. After speeding through no fewer than four speed cameras, the unfortunate fellow has been banned from driving his 115mph Daewoo Laganza for six months.

Never one to miss a PR opportunity, Bath-based Powabyke has presented the MP with an electric bike for the duration of the ban, much to the delight of the local paper, the Worthing Herald. One hopes the fresh air and modest exercise will encourage Peter to move to two wheels on a more permanent basis!