Global Politics

British safety minister won't play it safe

by Laura Lynch

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Before we hop on the bikes, a bit of background: Norman Baker has been a bareheaded bike rider for many years. But it only became an issue two weeks ago, when helmet advocates like Julie Townsend spoke out.

"We think it's very disappointing that the minister is choosing to ignore the very extensive evidence we have that helmets are effective in reducing the risk of serious head injury," Townsend said. "And he's not taking the very, very simple step of wearing a helmet. As you say this isn't only a public figure we're talking about this is the minister responsible for cycling."

So here I am, just outside the minister's office in downtown London, heading out for a ride with Norman Baker.

"I think we make a fine pair on our bikes. Have you ever been in a scrape or an accident?"

"No."

"Then you're doing better than me. I had a very bad one once."

"That's probably because you were wearing a helmet you see," Mr. Baker said.

I'm no fanatic advocate of helmets but I do like to be safe. So our formal interview took place on the sidewalk, not while we were cycling. I asked him why he doesn't wear a helmet.

"Well the first reason is I don't want to and I don't want to be told by government what I should and shouldn't do unless there's a very good reason to have that sort of restriction placed on me. Secondly, I think it can actually be less safe wearing a helmet because drivers actually drive closer to people wearing helmets on than without. And thirdly, I want to, as a minister, stress the freedom that comes with cycling not the restrictions that are associated with it," Baker said.

The libertarian argument is one he's made before. But the minister has more reasons for baring his balding head aboard his bike.

"You've got more contact with the world around you. You get the wind blowing through your hair — what's left of it. All those sorts of things are sorts of attractions for cycling. And it's one of the reasons why people like cycling."

Mr. Baker regularly bikes from his office to the House of Commons in time for parliamentary votes. He boasts he can make the trip in three minutes.

"Now aside from the wind going through your hair — such as it is — how does the helmet interfere with that?" I ask him.

"Making people wear cycling helmets, dressing up in fluorescent costumes may in fact give the impression that cycling is somehow a risky activity. It isn't. Cycling is by and large, statistically quite a safe activity. And by making it look risky, people are getting a wrong impression of cycling and that will also put them off," Baker said.

Now I'm trying not to take this personally, but it's hard. Not only am I wearing a helmet, I am also decked out in a garish fluorescent vest, cycle gloves, tights and running shoes.

He couldn't look more — well as he puts it — more English: Dark suit, yellow tie, he tucks his pants inside his socks. Now that's what I call risky — particularly for one's wardrobe.

The ride, brief as it is, has gone smoothly, though I notice he doesn't use hand signals.

Even though helmets aren't mandatory, his own department's policy encourages people to use them. But Baker said even that isn't enough reason for him to change gears.

"Most people and certainly most cycling groups and a few health professionals surprisingly have been very supportive of the stance I've taken," Baker said. "The tide of comment is very much in my direction from people who have contacted me."

And so Norman Baker won't be changing his unhelmeted mind anytime soon — ignoring the advice of the department he runs.

A renegade on a bike, following his own path down London's crowded streets.

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