Cycling is safe for kids, no need to wrap them in cotton-wool

Cycling involves speed. By its very nature it involves a modicum of risk, from scraped palms to nettled knees through to gravel rash, broken collarbones and worse. Eek. Sounds terrible. It’s not. Prangs are common. Falls and smashes are rare; deaths incredibly rare, writes Carlton Reid.

Football is risky, too. Kids break their arms playing footy. Some children have died from hitting heads against goalposts. Do such injuries and deaths make parents curtail kiddie ball sports? ‘Course not. Parental ‘risk perception’ filters always work well for football, but can fail catastrophically when it comes to the risks associated with activities that are often promoted as unsafe, such as cycling.

According to the British Medical Association, the health benefits of cycling outweigh risks by 20:1. It’s healthier for a child to cycle than not to cycle. The real risk is creating a generation of obese and risk-averse children. 10 percent of UK ten year olds are clinically obese, 29 percent are overweight. There are 50,000 deaths per year from illnesses caused by sedentary lifestyles.

'This one runs on fat & saves you money' by Peter Drew of Adelaide

There are clear and present dangers from raising children ‘in captivity’ yet many children are prevented from cycling because it’s believed to be irretrievably “unsafe”.

Some concerned parents will only let a child of theirs pedal if he or she is swaddled in protective gear: helmet, wrist-guards, elbow and knee pads, and gloves. Dental associations in America have even called for child cyclists to wear compulsory mouth-guards to protect against lower jaw injuries.

Family Cycle Train

Cotton-wool parenting is taxing for the parent; wearing for the child. And it’s unnecessary.

It’s probably not just the speed of cycling that’s a parental worry, it’s the fact that cycling takes place outdoors, in the big bad world. Over-protective parents, a perceived compensation culture and a nannying-state create conditions that view adventure as something best avoided. Children who have been taught how to cycle aren’t allowed out on their own, for fear of ‘stranger danger’. This isn’t confined to very young children, some parents won’t allow teenage children out of their sight.

We live in society which – rightly – wants to protect children from harm or injury. But, taken to extremes, such a desire can be cloying, as described brilliantly by US authors Lenore Skenazy and Richard Louv. Skenazy’s blog (and book), Free-Range Kids, is full of examples of ‘helicopter parenting’ and why this is bad. Louv’s book – Last Child in the Woods – is sub-titled ‘Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder’ and reports on how “direct exposure to nature is essential for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.”

There might be a growing backlash against Health and Safety excesses, but not where children are concerned. Everything must be done to keep children safe. Everything.

MTBing with my boy  13907

Such molly-coddling has seen trees cut down to prevent children climbing them. Anything deemed even partially risky is slapped with disclaimers and warning signs. As a result, today’s children are less able to judge risks for themselves. Ironically, this puts children’s lives in greater, eventual danger. Because the majority of children are chauffeur-driven from home to school to after-school activities to friends’ houses, they rarely get the chance to mix with traffic outside of the parental taxi. When they do venture out, they’re less well equipped to evaluate everyday risks.

Thought, judgement and personal responsibility have been replaced by metaphorical bubble-wrap, insulating children from the real world. This is a particular danger for 10-16 year old boys. They’re natural risk takers – believing themselves to be immortal – but as modern living has conspired to rob them of the time, and places, they’d normally experiment with danger, often their only outlets are video games or extreme theme park rides. Such rides are packaged as dangerous but are, in fact, sanitised and safe. To get a real buzz, young boys will take stupid, big risks. In previous generations the buzz would have come from lots of slightly safer mini-risks, dangerous but not life threatening. Risk averse living has removed an important failsafe measure. does not advocate that children should be allowed to play with matches, or play tag on the A1(M). Speeding traffic is an obvious danger but not every road is a death trap and not every motorist is a killer. And when there’s a ‘retreat from the street’, with people so afraid of roads they decide to drive everywhere – ‘for protection’ – then road conditions get more dangerous for all. To make streets safer, we need more people to use them, and not in motorcars. This isn’t a call to sacrifice a few children for the good of all, it’s an acknowledgement that streets do not have to be for cars only, and they certainly don’t have to be race-tracks. Traffic calming measures – and high-quality cycle and pedestrian infrastructure – can civilise our cities and towns, and our rural areas, too.

Designing towns for the car as king is slowly – very slowly – changing to designing for people. A small but growing number of town planners are coming to realise that those towns and cities which build with pedestrians and cyclists in mind are nicer places to live. House prices are increasing faster in these ‘nicer’, civilised areas. Over the fullness of time, these traffic-calmed pockets may join up, forming districts where people come first.


Alternatively, local and national Government could create ready-built people-centred districts. This isn’t fanciful. The Netherlands has been doing it for years.

Houten is the wheel-out example. Five miles south-east of Utrecht, Houten was named Bicycle Town 2008, an accolade from the Fietsersbond, the Dutch Cyclists’ Union. In the 1980s the town had 9000 inhabitants. Today it has a population of 50,000 and it’s still growing, partly because it’s such an attractive place to live. Attractive because cars are relegated to the periphery. Cyclists and pedestrians have priority in Houten. Urban planners designed new housing estates so that cars have to go a long way round to reach a destination. Bikes cut through on short cycle paths. Cycle use in Houten is high. 51 percent of residents do their daily shopping by bicycle. 77 percent of Houten residents say they cycle for leisure, too.

Much of the attractiveness of cycling in Houten and other Dutch cities is due to the high-quality cycle infrastructure.

In the UK, except for London’s new Cycle Superhighways, cycle infrastructure is rarely built to a high-standard.

But people are getting on their bikes anyway. In London, cycling is becoming less of a hardcore pursuit and more of a normal, unremarkable way of getting about. For a start, it’s quick.


Cycle use in the Capital is growing at an astonishing rate. Yet this growth has not come about because the streets of London were turned safe for cyclists overnight. And when people see more people cycling, more decide to join them, a virtuous cycle you could say.

Unless you live at one end of a bike path and your child’s school is at another, at some point, your child will have to cycle on a road: cycle paths don’t go everywhere. To be forewarned is to be forearmed so teach bike-based road sense from an early age.

Children under 12 tend to think if they can see a car, the driver can see them. This might be true, but what children might not appreciate is that motorists don’t always respond to such obvious visual stimuli.

The standard advice from some cycle commuters is to “claim your roadspace” but as children are smaller and slower this is clearly neither possible nor desirable. If you’re cycling with your child you can act as as ‘outrigger’, riding to one side of your child, able to claim more roadspace than is actually needed, but in the process warning drivers that there’s a potentially wobbly child ahead.

When about to execute a turn, most children know to signal. Few will have looked behind their shoulder before throwing out their hand and arm. It’s the arm bit that sticks in their mind from cycling safety lessons, whereas it’s the looking behind bit that’s critical.

Exiting driveways is one of the most dangerous road scenerios for children. Children under the age of ten are particularly likely to speed out of drives and side exits without paying adequate attention. (Even if the ‘driveway’ exited on to a cycle path, there would still be a danger of smashing into passing cyclists.)

If you’re an experienced cyclist you’ll be the best placed to teach your child the basics of cycling road sense. You can chaperone them, until you’re confident they’re competent.

School children can now also be trained on the Bikeability scheme, ‘Cycling Proficiency for the 21st Century’. This is a three-badge award scheme designed to give children skills and confidence. The old cycling proficiency scheme was delivered on playgrounds – chalk as road edges, orange cones as cars – but Bikeability level’s two and three are delivered on real roads with real cars travelling by.

Bikeability is based on the National Standard for Cycle Training which sets out the skills needed for cyclists to be competent and confident using their bikes, on road and off.

Assessment for the level 1 award is designed for children aged up to 9 when they start to cycle on off-road facilities. Level 2 training is usually offered to children aged 10 – 11 years old, allowing them to put their new skills into action on the school trip and riding with parents. Level 3 training is aimed at older children and adults.

Training is provided by instructors accredited to the National Standard whose qualification has been approved by the Cycle Training Standards Board. Instructors are accredited by approved centres.

Family Cycling book pic 7

A 2008 ICM survey commissioned by Play England found that 73 percent of children are allowed to surf the internet without adult supervision but 51 percent of children aged 7-12 years are not allowed to climb a tree without adult supervision. According to One False Move by Mayer Hillman and John Whitelegg, in 1971, 80 percent of 7 and 8-year old children got to school unaccompanied by an adult. By 1990 this proportion had fallen to 9 percent. Today, the figure is likely to be closer to zero. Allowing a young child to walk or cycle to school unchaperoned today is tantamount to child neglect.

Frank Furedi, professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, and author of Paranoid Parenting, said:

“In today’s society we are programmed to always imagine the worst-case scenario. Every new experience with a child seems to come with an elaborate health warning. Things are at absurd proportions and we are now seeing an unprecedented level of parental insecurity and anxiety.”

Adrian Voce, director of Play England said preventing risky behaviour brought bigger risks down the line:

“Starting from their earliest play experiences, children both need and want to push their boundaries in order to explore their limits and develop their abilities. Children would never learn to walk, climb stairs or ride a bicycle unless they were strongly motivated to respond to challenges – but we must accept that these things inevitably involve an element of risk.

“Adventurous play that both challenges and excites children helps instil critical life skills. Constantly wrapping children in cotton wool can leave them ill equipped to deal with stressful or challenging situations they might encounter later in life.”

Play England’s PlayDay campaign in 2008 promoted ten top tips for getting kids active in the outdoors. Tip number one was “Cycling adventures – many woods have ready-made cycle routes and ramps, ideal for taking a map, a picnic lunch and setting off to explore!”

Tim Gill, director of the Children’s Play Council from 1997–2004, wrote a 2005 report for the National Children’s Bureau, ‘Cycling and Children and Young People.’ In it, he said:

“Although there is a widely held view that children grow up faster today, in fact their lives are far more controlled than they were 30 years ago. In this shrinking domain of childhood, our tendency always to view children as fragile means we are not encouraging them to develop their natural resilience – learning to manage risk in an age-appropriate way.

“This is not an unconditional plea for the deregulation of childhood: children want adults to help them stay safe, and of course we must accept that responsibility. But rather than having a nanny state, where risk aversion dominates the landscape, we should be aspiring to a child-friendly society, where communities look out for each other and for children.”

How The Dutch Cycle Chic Young Hatch

One of the principles of the UK’s National Play Strategy was that “children need to take risks to learn how to manage risks…an essential part of growing up.”

And play should be in the everyday environment, in the street, not just in parks or indoor, heavily-padded ‘adventure zones’. A major stumbling block to such street play is speeding, motorised traffic.

Adrian Voce, director of Play England, said:

“The decline in child-friendly public space [and] the increase in cars on our roads [are] factors hindering children’s opportunities to play.

“The street or area where they live is – or should be – an essential part of a child’s home life, it is where children have played for time immemorial, but the modern world is making streets into a no-go zone for children. Government, local authorities and adults collectively need to do more to ensure that children don’t miss out on the essential childhood experiences that form many adults’ happiest memories.’

Play England’s campaign ‘Our Streets Too’ promoted the face that cars take priority in urban areas, but shouldn’t.

“We are trying to get across that there are increasing obstacles stopping children from playing out in their local neighbourhood,” said Voce. “Traffic is the number one barrier. Children cooped up at home for long periods don’t get the exercise, don’t sleep as well and don’t eat as well.”

Keeping kids tethered at home is unhealthy and very often based on irrational fears. Traffic tends to be fear number one, with stranger danger at number two. Child abduction may get news headlines but that’s because it’s incredibly rare.

Leonard Cassuto, English professor at Fordham University of the US and author of “Hard-Boiled Sentimentality: The Secret History of American Crime Stories,” is an expert on the modern fear that keeps kids indoors.

“Today’s hyper-vigilant parenting is haunted by a figure behind the curtain: the serial killer.  He’s the boogeyman that slinks through every parent’s nightmares, the predator on the prowl, looking for unattended children.” 

“But,” asks Cassuto, “how real is the serial killer?”

Not very.

“A person’s chances of becoming the victim of a serial killer are two in a million…You or your child have about the same chance of being struck by lightning as of being murdered by a serial killer. In fact, you have less chance of being murdered, because lightning strikes randomly. Serial killers don’t.

“On the very rare occasions when a serial killer targets middle-class people (young or not), it gets people’s attention because it’s so atypical. 

“For regular people living regular middle-class lives, even the two-in-a-million figure is probably too high.

“It’s worth keeping in mind the difference between overheated imagination and real life when it comes to bringing up children. After all, that’s supposed to be what we’re teaching them.”

Stranger danger is normally the first or second reason given by parents for keeping their kids tethered at all times. High-profile cases such as the abduction of Madeleine McCann give the impression that we’re living with a growing threat of child abduction, that predatory killers are stalking every corner. In fact, the overwhelming majority of child abductions are carried out by estranged parents.

Driving while distracted with cellphone

Alternating with stranger danger as a reason for tethering is speeding traffic. Without a shadow of a doubt, some roads are dangerous for anybody not protected by a one tonne exoskeleton. And even on less travelled roads there are aggressive motorists making a menace of themselves.

Busy highways are rare when you consider the huge, fibrous road network in its entirety. Aggressive driving would appear to be on the rise, fuelled by cars with ‘safety’ features such as anti-lock brakes and air-bags. Of course, these ‘safe’ cars may be safer for occupants, but not for those on the receiving end of an impact. Although aggression from motorists is on the rise, part of the reason is increased congestion and reduced average speeds.

Sadly, when away from congested hot-spots, some drivers try to make up time by speeding. Traffic calming measures and speed cameras attempt to keep a lid on this problem. Some UK cities now have 20mph speed limits for almost all streets and roads, but, sadly, motorists still speed, even when children are palpably close by.

Try to stay clear of the busier roads and head off into the hinterland, finding less travelled roads where it’s perfectly safe to cycle. Work out quieter routes by using the Bike Hub smartphone apps (iPhone & Android) or using our online route planner.

Night bike shot 1

John Williams of the National Center for Bicycling & Walking in the US, has worked in bike safety for over 35 years. His job is get more kids on bikes, but he doesn’t think they should ride at night.

“Rule out riding after dark for your youngster. It requires special skills and equipment that few kids have. If your child gets caught out after dark, he or she should call you for a ride home.”

This rules out cycling back from school in the winter and is – for the want of a better word – overkill. With care and attention, cycling at night can be handled by even young children. Naturally, you’ll want to accompany young un’s, and they’ll want you to be with them. The dark is scary, after all.

For older children, riding in the dark is a real thrill.

However, even for streetwise adults, riding at night poses many more dangers than riding in daylight. No amount of flashing LED blinkies seems to alert dim drivers to your presence. At night, you’re even more invisible than normal.

Two-wheelers have an acronym for this motorists’ myopia: SMIDSY. It stands for ‘Sorry, mate, I didn’t see you.’

Motorists are looking out for lights as bright – or brighter – than theirs. Anything weaker is discounted as not worthy of attention.

Fit your child’s bike with super-bright lights and check the batteries often.

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Home Zones were pioneered in the 1970s in the Netherlands, and originated from the concept of ‘woonerf’ meaning ‘residential yard’. Residential streets become linked together as social spaces, with motorised traffic excluded or at least much reduced and certainly slowed down.

The introduction of traffic calming schemes greatly reduces child pedestrian and cycling injuries and creates safer places for children to live and play. In a paper for the British Medical Journal in 2000, academic Paul Pilkington argued that speed was a major factor in road accidents in the UK and that this poses a major threat to the health of the nation’s children. Lack of speed restrictions rather than increased exposure to traffic has been shown to account for the excess deaths among child pedestrians in the UK compared to other European countries.

Pilkington pointed to Government research which showed that the introduction of 20mph zones reduced the number of child pedestrian and cycling injuries by 67 percent. When Havant Borough Council imposed a 20mph limit on 20 miles of road it saw traffic casualties drop by 40 percent.

The Government’s Manual for Streets says that streets should be designed to accommodate a range of users, create visual interest and amenity and encourage social interaction. The manual is not to the taste of those arguing for Dutch-style cycle infrastructure:

“Pedestrians and cyclists should generally be accommodated on streets rather than routes segregated from motor traffic. Being seen by drivers, residents and other users affords a greater sense of security. However, short pedestrian and cycle-only links are generally acceptable if designed well. Regardless of length, all such routes in built-up areas, away from the carriageway,should be barrier-free and overlooked by buildings.

“If road safety problems for pedestrians or cyclists are identified, conditions should be reviewed to see if they can be addressed,rather than segregating these users from motorised traffic.”

If your locality suffers from a speeding problem, press your local authority to bring in 20mph zones. Get your MP’s backing. Lobby your local paper. Naturally, it would be excellent to also get Dutch-style cycle infrastructure and this should be pushed for, too.

In some countries, such as Germany, it has been made specifically legal for children to cycle on pavements. In the UK (except for Scotland) it is illegal for anyone, including children, to cycle on the pavement, and in 1999 the police were given new powers to issue fixed fines for the offence.

Cycling on footways (a pavement at the side of a carriageway) is prohibited by Section 72 of the Highway Act 1835, amended by Section 85(1) of the Local Government Act 1888. This is punishable by a fixed penalty notice of £30 under Section 51 and Schedule 3 of the Road Traffic Offenders Act 1988.

Cyclists have no right to cycle on a footpath away from the road but only commit an offence where local by-laws or traffic regulation orders create such an offence.

Cycle campaigner Howard Peel said:

“It is important to note that most legislation relating to ‘cycling on footpaths’ actually relates to the riding of cycles on a ‘footway set aside for the use of pedestrians’ which runs alongside a road. For example, the ‘fixed penalties’ brought in a few years ago do not apply to country footpaths where there is no road. Fixed penalty notices also cannot be applied to areas such as parks, shopping precincts etc. unless a byelaw has been passed making cycling such areas an offence… Many people, including police officers, seem to think that ‘a footpath is a footpath’ wherever it is and that the same laws apply. This is not the case.”

The legislation makes no exceptions for small wheeled or children’s cycles, so even a child riding on a footway is breaking the law. However, if they are under the age of criminal responsibility – which, in the UK, is 10 years of age – they cannot face prosecution.

In 1999, new legislation came into force to allow a fixed penalty notice to be served on anyone who is guilty of cycling on a footway. However the Home Office issued guidance on how the new legislation should be applied, indicating that they should only be used where a cyclist is riding in a manner that may endanger others. At the time Home Office Minister Paul Boateng issued a letter stating that:

“The introduction of the fixed penalty is not aimed at responsible cyclists who sometimes feel obliged to use the pavement out of fear of traffic and who show consideration to other pavement users when doing so. Chief police officers, who are responsible for enforcement, acknowledge that many cyclists, particularly children and young people, are afraid to cycle on the road. Sensitivity and careful use of police discretion is required.”

The maximum fine for cycling on the pavement from the courts is £500. However it is more usually enforced by way of the Fixed Penalty Notice procedure (FPN) which carries a £30 fine if pleading guilty.

In an email, a spokesman for the Department for Transport told “The law applies to all but the police can show discretion to younger children cycling on the pavement for whom cycling on the road would not be a safe option.”


‘Look, mum, no hands’. Get it wrong and it can be ‘Look, mum, no front teeth.’ But riding a bike no handed is more of a key skill than you might think. How else to do the famous Tour de France victory salute? Or, on a more mundane level, racers need to take their hands off the handlebars to unwrap their energy food.

Riding no handed teaches children that bikes can be super stable, even at relatively low speeds. It’s also good for their confidence (hmm, until they crash) and it doesn’t have to be a recipe for disaster. Take it upon yourself to teach this advanced skill, even if this means learning yourself first.

Choose a smooth, wide stretch of tarmac in a park, away from motorised traffic and pedestrians. Grass makes for a softer landing but it’s usually too bumpy to learn on. Start by getting your child to ‘high-five’ you with their non-writing hand, while they steer with their other hand. Inch by wobbly inch, encourage your child to hover both hands an inch from the handlebars and ride towards you, eyes drilled into your eyes, not focussing on handlebars or the ground. Speed helps.

Kids who successfully ride for some metres with little hands in the air, are often amazed they can do such a seemingly impossible thing. Their faces light up, they’ve achieved something difficult, perhaps even a little bit naughty. Their all-round cycling skills, and confidence, rise hugely after such a session. Kids as young as seven can be taught to ride no handed and, by 12, it ought to be second nature.

Riding no-handed on public roads is a no-no.

Kids also get a kick out of taking their feet off the pedals at times. This is fine for TV adverts and movies such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s also OK for off-highway fun at slow speeds but a slip can be painful.

An increasing number of cyclists wear helmets and, in some situations, helmets can protect the wearer from what otherwise could have been a nasty head injury. While many cyclists wear helmets this does not mean cycling is intrinsically unsafe. However, the key thing about cycle helmets is this: if your child wearing one makes you happier and more likely to let your child cycle, go for it.

Though, why a helmet for cycling, and not walking? Why not wear helmets in cars, too? Stats show this would be a measure to save lots of lives each year.

In 2005, a US lawyer patented a car helmet for kids. Michael Fleming told the Houston Chronicle: “Half of all motor vehicle deaths result from head injuries. Given this statistic, and if children must wear helmets when riding a bicycle, then why shouldn’t they wear helmets in cars?”

A 1998 study for the Australian Federal Office of Road Safety found that head injuries to car drivers and passengers could be reduced by as much as 25 percent if they wore light protective helmets, or even padded headbands. The study found that helmets would be as effective as driver airbags in preventing head injuries.

As car journeys are perceived to be safe, especially short, local car journeys, nobody seriously argues for car helmets. Are short, local car journeys, driven slowly, as safe as the perception? There are a lot more child deaths in cars, than on bikes. Of course, this is because there are less child cyclists than there are child car passengers. But excessive speed isn’t the only deciding factor. The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that in crashes between 1993 and 1997, half of all fatalities occurred at an impact speed of 30mph or less. All those drivers killed were wearing seat-belts.

Cycle helmets are designed for low-speed falls to the ground from one metre high, the kind of spills experienced by young children. Cycle helmets are not designed to be protective in collisions with cars, or at head-to-ground speeds above 12.5mph.

Critically, the great majority of children do not wear correctly fitting helmets (see pic above! – here’s how to get it right), negating most of the benefits.

Despite no whole population evidence to show the efficacy of helmets at anything other than the design parameters, calls for cycle helmet compulsion are often heard in the corridors of power.

In 2007, Peter Bone, the Tory MP for Wellingborough, and then Secretary of the All-Party Road Traffic Group, introduced a 10 minute rule bill on cycle helmet compulsion for children.

His bill failed to win support even though it was an issue about “child safety”. In 2004, a similar bill was ‘talked out’ of the House of Commons. Eric Martlew, Labour MP for Carlisle, wanted his ‘Protective headgear for young cyclists’ private members’ bill to force all those under 16 to wear helmets when cycling. He was briefed for this task by single-issue pressure group, BHIT, the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust.

His actions caused an uproar from cycle organisations – such as CTC – afraid that forcing folks to wear helmets when undertaking a very healthy, safe activity would lead to a decrease in the numbers of cyclists.

Some MPs remain keen to see helmet compulsion brought in although the Department for Transport is against compulsion, preferring helmet promotion.

The Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust said: “As a parent it is vital you understand why your child should wear a helmet…research shows that they can reduce head injury by up to 88 per cent.”

This 88 percent statistic – much used by helmet advocates – is from a 1989 report by US authors Thompson, Rivara and Thompson. They claimed wearing cycle helmets led to a 85 percent reduction in head injuries and a 88 percent reduction in brain injuries. Their work was based on heavy, hardshell helmets, not produced since the 1980s.

A report in the May 2005 issue of Accident Analysis & Prevention by Australian academic W.J Curnow criticised the methods used by the authors, and undermined the credibility of much of their helmet findings: “Due to the decline in use of hard-shell helmets, past findings of their efficacy are not applicable to most helmets now used.”

Curnow said Thompson, Rivara and Thompson’s studies did not possess “scientific rigour.”

Those opposed to bicycle helmet compulsion claim that wearing a helmet leads to a false sense of security. This is risk compensation, where a person responds to the safety measure by changing his or her behaviour in the light of it, resulting in a reduction in safety benefits or even an overall increase in adverse outcomes. Some helmeted riders ride faster, believing their helmets will save them in any resulting crash.

In ‘Cycling and Children and Young People’, produced for the National Children’s Bureau, child play expert Tim Gill said:

“risk compensation could be a significant factor in compromising the safety benefits of cycle helmets, particularly for children and young people. This is because they may be more prone than adults to compensate for obvious safety measures like cycle helmets, since they may find it harder than adults to understand the subtleties of the degree and nature of the protection on offer.”

A US study published in 2004 found that children fitted with helmets and wristguards ran faster over an obstacle course than children wearing no protective gear.

To many people it’s pure common sense that wearing a helmet for cycling make sense, but there are external factors which might consume any safety benefit. For instance, drivers pass closer when overtaking cyclists wearing helmets than when overtaking bare-headed cyclists, increasing the risk of a collision. This was the 2006 finding of Dr Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist from the University of Bath. He used a bicycle fitted with a computer and an ultrasonic distance sensor to record data from over 2,500 overtaking motorists in Salisbury and Bristol.

He found that drivers were as much as twice as likely to get particularly close to the bicycle when he was wearing the helmet.

“This study shows that when drivers overtake a cyclist, the margin for error they leave is affected by the cyclist’s appearance,” said Dr Walker, from the University’s Department of Psychology.

“By leaving the cyclist less room, drivers reduce the safety margin that cyclists need to deal with obstacles in the road, such as drain covers and potholes, as well as the margin for error in their own judgements.”

Nevertheless, Dr Walker advocates helmets for child cyclists. So long as they are worn correctly.

In 2004, the National Cycle Strategy Board – forerunner to Cycling England, the agency behind Bikeability, the child cycling proficiency scheme (which, since the demise of Cycling England in March 2011, is now run by the Department for Transport) – said it was against cycle helmet compulsion:

“Campaigns seeking to present cycling as an inevitably dangerous or hazardous activity, or which suggest that helmet wearing should be made compulsory, risk prejudicing the delivery of those very benefits to health and environment which cycling can deliver: they also serve to confuse the general public about the wider social and economic advantages of cycling. [It] must remain a decision for individuals as to whether to wear a helmet for some or all of their various cycle activities. Parents will need to take this decision on behalf of their children, bearing in mind all the particular circumstances. But any mandatory requirement to wear helmets on all occasions would greatly dilute the benefits which safe cycling can offer our society as a whole.”

We’re generally very poor at working out which risks are genuinely life threatening and which are not. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, twice as many people died from ‘ordinary’ road smashes than from sectarian killings, a fact hardly, if ever, reported by the mass media. Sky-diving is touted as a dangerous sport when parachute-failed-to-open stories are carried in the media but such deaths are rare. It’s far more dangerous to drive to some airports than sky-dive out of aeroplanes from the same airports. 

Psychologists call this the ‘availability bias’, the phenomenon whereby we judge risks based on how easily we can bring examples to mind. Unusual events – such as terrorist attacks – are plastered all over the media. Less sensational events – such as a solo motorist driving off a motorway after falling asleep, killing only himself – are more commonplace but don’t make the news. It’s not unusual, it’s not novel.

Scare stores are used by the media to sell their wares. Parents are bombarded with shocking, sensational stories about how unsafe the world is for our children, from the supposed dangers of the MMR vaccine to the heady risk of concrete playgrounds. Evidence from personal experience is often discounted.

The unintended results of believing scare stories can be far, far worse than the supposed danger. Because many parents refused to vaccinate their children against mumps, measles and rubella in the late 1990s – thanks to panic reporting of a flawed medical study which claimed the MMR jab led to autism – there’s now a sharp increase in the spread of measles, a potentially fatal disease. 

In the 1980s, the TV programme That’s Life highlighted cases of head injuries caused by high-level falls on to hard playground surfaces. Since then, at great cost, many playgrounds have been fitted with softer surfacing. But limb injuries from falling in rubberised playgrounds have risen, leading many experts to believe children may be less careful on equipment they think is safe to fall from, and parents may supervise younger children less than they would have done in a playground with hard surfacing.  

Professor David Ball, the top expert on playground safety, has stated that softer play surfaces may prevent 0.2 child fatalities per year but there is a “possibility that interventions will create new risks of their own which, especially if the target risk is small, could result in more harm, not less.”


Eyes glaze over when statistics are used, but here goes, children are injurying themselves less by falling out of trees but, by being inside more, there’s been a rise in home injuries. In 2006/07, 1,067 children under 15 needed medical assistance for tree falls. In 1999/00 the figure was 1,823. The number of youngsters under 15 admitted to A&E after bed falls in 2006/07 was 2,531, up from 2,226 in 1999/2000. Yawn. Numbers can be made to say anything but the bottom line is our kids are not in mortal danger when they venture outside.

In his book ‘Risk’, geographer John Adams, a leading authority on perceived risk, said:

“The safety advice aimed at cyclists stresses the danger of cycling to the point that all but the heedless and foolhardy are likely to give it up.”

In the preface to the 2009 edition he writes:

“…statistics show that per kilometre travelled a cyclist is much more likely to die than someone in a car. This is a good example of the importance of distinguishing between relative and absolute risk. Although much greater, the absolute risk of cycling is still small ‐ 1 fatality in 25 million kilometres cycled; not even Lance Armstrong can begin to cover that distance in a lifetime of cycling. And numerous studies have demonstrated that the extra relative risk is more than offset by the health benefits of regular cycling; regular cyclists live longer.”

Cyclists live longer because cycling is good exercise. Despite the health benefits of cycling outweighing the risks by 20:1, cycling is perceived to be dangerous, so dangerous it requires head protection while other activities that also carry a risk of head injury are deemed intrinsically safe. Few parents worry about head injuries in football yet eleven British children have died in recent years following head-meets-goalpost injuries. As we live in a football-mad society, such statistics never see the light of day. This is cultural filtration, a bias against cycling. MPs call for cycle helmet compulsion for children, but do not call for mandatory helmets for child pedestrians or junior football players. The perception of risk, it seems, has little to do with evidence and a lot to do with cherry-picking.

Now, despite all of the above, the fact remains that if you and your children will cycle more if you wear helmets, wear helmets. But don’t stop cycling if you misplace your helmet one day: cycling is much, much safer than you might think. As has been mentioned numerous times throughout the article, the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks by a factor of 20:1. Get out there and ride!

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