LibLink: Tom Papworth – why Norman Baker is my Liberal Hero

Over at liberal think-tank CentreForum’s blog, Tom Papworth has nominated Lib Dem MP and transport minister Norman Baker for the honorary title ‘Liberal Hero of the Week’. The reason? Norman’s libertarian stance on the proposal that wearng cycle helmets should be compulsory:

I think anybody who rides a bike without wearing a helmet is taking an enormous risk. I’ve fallen off my bike in the past and had my helmet (rather than my head) bounce off the tarmac. I also know that cycling can be very dangerous; the chair of one the neighbouring constituency party was killed a few years back while cycling when he was hit by a car. So I am under no illusions about the importance of wearing a cycling helmet for road safety. But a cycling helmet only protects the cyclist themself. There is no danger posed to other road users if a cyclist chooses not to wear a helmet. And liberalism is all about preventing people causing direct harm to third parties. … So (ahem!) hats off to Norman Baker, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport with responsibility for cycling, who described as his “libertarian right” to cycle without a helmet on.

You can read Tom’s post in full here — complete with JS Mill quote!

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  • All true, but people in London are being crushed under hgvs not falling off onto tarmac. So the helmet won’t actually protect them from the most common cause of death. Injury, perhaps, but the evidence is very sketchy.
    There’s good scope for evidence based policy here as well as liberal ideology.

  • Hmm, the evidence that cycle helmets improve safety is not there. Weird to cite libertarian views over this basic fact.

  • Richard Dean 4th Aug '12 - 1:03pm

    Tom and Norman demonstrate an immature approach to liberalism, in this instance, IMHO.

    Head injuries affect not only the injured person, but family and friends, the other driver, passengers, onlookers, the traffic that piles up behind as the ambulance pushes through, and the state which has to foot the medical and welfare bills. All of those affected have rights too, not just the injured one.

    Helmets are cheap ways of avoiding much of this, and they are even comfortable, fashionable, and quite cheap; there’s no excuse for not wearing one.

  • Perfect example of how an ideology can quickly become ridiculous when taken to every logical conclusion. Libertarians and seat belts all over again.

  • As usual, only those opposed to what someone has written on LDV seem motivated to comment, so let me chip in with: well said, Tom. Whether someone wants to wear a cycle helmet should be entirely up to them.

  • FedUpofCeredigion 4th Aug '12 - 3:33pm

    Apologies if this is a double post, the first one seemed to vanish into the ether when I posted it.

    To cut my first comment short:

    I think most people will be more inclined to support to sporting hero, and all round ‘guy next door’ Bradley Wiggins than ‘liberal hero’ Norman Baker on this.

    Many cyclists are young people, inclined to worry about looking uncool wearing a helmet or taking the view that they are young so nothing will ever happen to them.

    An earlier poster points out the misery that cycling injuries and deaths cause to families and friends.

    Hopefully Wiggins will use his celebrity status to push the need for leglislation, and also use his own sporting prowess to publicise the need to wear helmets.

    No doubt he’ll be accused of being a socialist killjoy by the usual suspects.

    Also as the Lib Dems are enabling cuts to public services , they might also like to consider the extra cost to the NHS and emergency services of having to deal with the victims of road accidents who choose to ride without helmets.

  • Well said Tom – And the Univ of Bath evidence is that you are less likely to be knocked off if you ride without a helmet.

    (For the record I ride with one in central London and without one in Kingston. Have just cycled round Richmond Park without one – bliss!)

  • Simon McGrath 4th Aug '12 - 5:34pm

    I think anyone who rides without a helmet is an idiot – I believe that saying among A&E doctors is that it may be the difference between giving you a paracetemol and teaching you to talk again. But as as Liberal I think think people whould be free to do idiotic things if they wish.
    @Geoffey Payne “Would LDV like to devote an article on how I would like Tim Farron to continue as president of the Liberal Democrats?” – why not write one and find out ?

  • It needs to be pointing out that legislating for compulsory helmet use reduces the amount of cyclists because it places an extra burden on any prospective cyclist. If, as I hope they do, the government wish to increase cycling, which has massive health and environmental benefits, they should be focussing on making roads safer, not adding extra requirements for cyclists to protect themselves.

    And, Wiggins has pointed out that he was speaking off the cuff and didn’t mean to suggest that helmets should be compulsory.

  • Richard Burton 4th Aug '12 - 6:58pm

    Since there is no reliable evidence that wearing a helmet makes cycling safer, why are all these people calling for it to be made compulsory? If you want to bring in a law, it is up to you to show that it would be beneficial. If you can’t, stop promoting something that can’t be proved to have any benefit. You can’t base laws on assumption, anecdote and “common sense”.

    Several countries have had helmet laws for many years, and the result has been a massive reduction in the public health, as the only two effects were to deter some people from cycling and to make obscene profits for the helmet manufacturers, there was no safety improvement. Because cycling confers such huge health benefits, regular cyclists live longer and are fitter, healthier and slimmer than the general population, by deterring a significant number of people, the overall effect of helmet laws was a reduction in the public health, with no proven safety benefit.

    Check out for a few facts rather than guesswork.

  • Richard Dean 4th Aug '12 - 7:41pm

    Sometimes you do things because they’re sensible, you don’t wait for evidence before taking action.

  • The idea that the dangers of not wearing a helmet only affect the wearer is absurd. To take an obvious case: a person cycling with a trailer containing a child (I see this all the time where I live). If the rider receives a head injury, you can imagine the dangers it puts the child in. Likewise if the rider receives a head injury in traffic and is unable to move himself and his bicycle to a place which is safe for the remaining traffic. Or if the rider receives a head injury whose seriousness he underestimates, and proceeds to ride in a manner unsafe to himself and others. Not to mention all the secondary effects.
    Bicycling is like driving. We expect drivers to drive in a manner that best protects their safety, because we know that when that safety is compromised, a car can become an unintentionally lethal weapon. Though bicycles may be somewhat less dangerous, they are still machines that can pose a danger to those in their vicinity, especially when moving at speed. Bicycle helmets are an issue of public safety. Opposing their requirement is not a sign of a passion for liberty; it’s just dumb.

  • @David, are you serious? Taken to its ultimate level one could argue that placing a child in a cycle trailer or the passenger seat if a car exposes them to a danger that they are not at their age able to make an informed decision as to whether they are happy to be exposed to that risk. Perhaps children should be raised in laboratories, examined for their understanding of risk and be made to wait until an eligible age before being allowed to enter the real world for fear it may be too dangerous for them?

    Helmets are contentious, sometimes I ride with, sometimes without. When mountain biking, the “community” frowns upon riders not wearing helmets, my local cycle and triathlon clubs insist on helmets for club rides, and if any one of my friends attempted to drive home over the limit they would not be permitted and heavily criticised by the group. This is the power of peer pressure and is by far a better way to promote the willing use of helmets than having a do-gooder politician say so.

  • Richard Dean 5th Aug '12 - 9:11am

    If you expect society to do something for you, like repair your head if it gets broken, then you should in fairness expect to do something for society in return for that expectation and service, like wear personal protective equipment.

  • Richard – presumably you also think that the NHS should not help people in car crashes unless their car had a 5* Euro NCAP safety rating, and at least 9 airbags, you think that all shoes should be tested for sole grip, pedestrians should wear climbing helmets, etc? Perhaps we should all have to carabiner ourselves to fixed ropes when we walk up and down stairs? Since cars kill c. 2000 people a year, why not return to the red flag rule?

    Alternatively we could accept that the best scientific study – the Univ of Bath one – showed that helmets had both positive and negative effects on cyclists safety, and note that all the big cycling countries (Holland and Denmark) don’t have idiotic laws like this?

  • The evidence that helmets save lives or prevent injury may be contradictory across the cycling community as a whole; however it is powerful enough from the experiences of cyclists who have hit their heads in a crash or simply fallen off their bikes at speed: virtually all those riders wearing one believe their helmet saved them from injury or, in many cases, death.
    This is a view endorsed by the BMA and ambulance crews throughout the country – views which are at odds with those of nutty professors and libertarians like, in this instance, Norman Baker and, as usual, Boris Johnson.
    For the moment, at least, the choice is ours; but to disagree so immediately with a considered plea by the best known and most highly regarded exponent of cycling in Britain only invites ridicule.

  • I have read the evidence base myself, and if doing so invites ridicule then so be it. Now I am off for another ride!

    You can find a critique of the BMA position here: There is a good list of studies here:, including the finding that 14 children have been strangled by cycle helmets.

  • I really don’t go along with this strict interpertation of ‘liberalism’. It is stupid to ride a bike without a safety hat so we are debating the freedom to be stupid. That is fine. There are many ways in which harmless eccentrics can behave if it doesn’t affect anyone else. Surely the example of seat belts is a reasonable enough example – unless the freedom to impale oneself on the steering wheel and often incur huge NHS resouces to address the consequences is being liberal. Is it? Medical procedures for head injuries are complex, expensive, possiblly life changing incurring ongoing care costs to society and families. Some could certainly be avoided.
    Isn’t the issue a judgement as to whether my freedom has any consequeses to the rest of society. Perhaps, in a complex interdependent society such as our own we might just hesitate to trumpet ‘liberalism’ as an unthinking mantra.

  • Richard Dean 5th Aug '12 - 5:39pm

    @Tom Papworth.

    Liberalism is not at all the same as doing whatever you please. Any relationship involves restructions on freedoms, and those restrictions create benefits. Thus, by and large, husbands and wives are not expected to cheat on each other, and that restruction can help to build a valuable partnership. A cyclist with a head injury restricts a surgeon’s freedom to play golf that morning, restricts his or her partner’s ability to have a happy life, restrains those paying for the health service from using that mponey for something else. To think that liberalism does not involve restraining soe freedoms would consign liberalism to a childish fairy tales. LibDems are in government, and need a better philosphy tha n that.

    My guess is that the Bristol University evidence has been misinterpreted. My understanding from elsewhere is that cyclists who wear protective gear tend to have more confidence and so get into a few more accidents, but those accidents result in far fewer injuries per member of the cycling public than would be the case if the cyclists did not wear helmets.

    The wife example is typically immature. It is not a husband that is compelling a wife to be asfe. It is society who is compelling both husband and wife and child and grandparent to be safe.

    It is crazy not to wear a hard hard on a building site, and it is likewie crazy to not wear a head protector when cycling on a main raod. The principles of responsible liberalism require workers to don approproate PPE when working in hazardous environments, and it is entirely consistent with those principles to require cyclists to were approproate PPE in hazardous environments too.

  • Richard Dean 5th Aug '12 - 5:43pm

    @Tim Leunig.

    I see no reason why you should presume those things. They certainly don’t follow from what I write. Maybe you’ve had a cycle accident recently? 🙂

  • Tom papworth just doesn’t get it. The NHS is an advantage of living in a civilised state. With that privellige don’t we all owe some responsibility? The ethos in some enligtened schools is around “rights respect and responsibility”
    What a shame the doctrinaire liberalism of some contributors is so similar to the unthinking ‘socialism ‘ tag

  • Richard Dean 5th Aug '12 - 6:49pm

    Indeed, liberalism is the very opposite of what Tom write about himself and his wife. The UK has about 60 million people, and most of them are not Tom or his wife. Those 60 million are a hugely diverse lot, and liberalism is about making the most of individuality and diversity. It is about ways of being for all those diverse people. It is about interactions and responsibilities ane expectations as well as freedoms, and its principles need to be independent of particular individuals. It is very specifically NOT about making us all clones of particular Toms or their wives.

  • I would be keen to know if those who are supporting compulsory helmets believe that those with private health insurance should be subject to this rule or whether they should be exempt (ie like car driving a car, it is only legal with insurance). We could then determine whether we are dealing with a financial issue or whether the proposal to compel people to wear helmets is based on the loss to their family if they are injured.

  • Ed Shepherd 5th Aug '12 - 8:35pm

    I don’t see how a cycle helmet law would work. Would it mean wearing a helmet that conforms to an approved standard? If so, what happens when the standards are updated? Does it mean everyone has to buy a new helmet and it will be an offence to wear the old one? How would they let people know about the standard required? What about helmets that have been damaged or degraded? Will the police test those helmets to ensure that they still meet the required standard? Will the chinstrap have to be fastened? Sounds like a waste of police resources and a licence for officious police officers looking to bump up their statistics.. Cyclists get killed and injured mostly because of poor driving by motorists. Better enforcement of motoring laws might save the lives of more cyclists more easily than compulsory wearing of cycle helmets.

  • Richard Dean 5th Aug '12 - 8:46pm

    Surely the analogy with cars would be with seat belts, not with driving? But yes, I do think there is a case for 3rd party insurance when riding bicyles on highways – cyclists can cause accidents that are seriously damaging or fatal to others. There does not seem to be a problem with updating standards for motor cycle helmets, so why would there be one for pedal power cycles?

  • @Richard

    ?? The question was about first party not third party insurance – or were you answering another post

  • I totally support Tom Papworth’s critique of Richard Dean’s comments. I find RD’s comments frightening, quite frankly. Feel free to correct me, Richard, but you basically argue that my freedoms to make decisions about my life should be secondary to what a whole raft of people think about the wisdom of what I wish to do. I think Tim Leunig makes some good points too.

  • Richard Dean 5th Aug '12 - 10:59pm

    Stuart. Think! Do you wear a seat belt?

  • Richard Dean 5th Aug '12 - 11:05pm

    Ed. Think! Does insurance get you out of having to wear a set belt?

    I wonder whether those who object to pmpulsory helmets are still thinking that roads are basically free as wild fields for walking on. That’s just not the case in the UK. Roads are dangerous places, probably more dangerous than most factories, and the danger is created by people. As such, it is entirely consistent with liberalism that society has every right to restrict what people do on them and how people should behave and be on them.

  • Peter Watson 5th Aug '12 - 11:19pm

    I find the cycle helmet debate fascinating when it strays from the area of ‘cycle helmets cause more injuries than they prevent’ into the wider issue of rights versus responsibilities.

    If this is about liberalism and freedom of choice then where do we draw the line. Do those who think that cycle helmets should not be compulsory also believe that helmets for motorcyclists and seat belts for car drivers and passengers should be optional? Should tax-payers have the right to opt out of funding health and social care for those who suffer injury when exercising the right to neglect their own personal safety? We uses taxes to make smokers and drinkers contribute to the burden they place on the NHS, but what about those who place additional demands on the health service, the emergency services, mountain rescue services, etc., because of their lifestyle choices.

    It reminds me a little of a rant by Ben Elton. Everybody feels sorry for the guy who breaks his leg hang-gliding, but how much sympathy do I get when I’m hungover because I chose to go out drinking instead? If the choice of a cyclist to not wear a helmet imposes a cost on the rest of society, is that cyclist any more worthy than a binge-drinker who keeps ambulance crews busy on a Saturday night?

  • Richard Dean 5th Aug '12 - 11:43pm

    @Peter. Yes indeed. What is “right”? I believe the answer lies in the “Dem” part of the LibDem concept. What is right is what the people decide is right. And the Lib part allows each person to have a different opinion and argue it without fear of jail or worse, even an opinion that the people are all wrong!

  • @ Richard

    ?? No – did I suggest it did ?

    My question is simply that if people had their own health insurance would it be OK to not wear a helmet since the objection was that they would use the NHS if injured ? A car is a slightly different case because cars have passengers whereas bike don’t – so somebody could injure a passenger by losing control (although many similar ideological issues exist).

    It is a simple question. Is you objection to helmet less cyclists ended if the only harm they do is to themselves. The alternative is that you seek to protect them from their own actions as an act of good will for their benefit on your part .

    I just wondered which it was. It seemed to me that as an act of kindness on your part you sought to protect them from the foolishness of their actions.

  • Richard Dean 6th Aug '12 - 12:15am

    @Ed. Are you saying that it’s ok not to wear a seat belt if you don’t have passengers in the car?

  • Richard Dean 6th Aug '12 - 12:27am

    @Ed. Myfeeling is that kindness is irrelevant. The question is, what is the best way to organize our society?

    Most people seem to feel that seat belts really do save lives, and produce a better society as a result. Cycle helmets also save lives, and my feeling is that the saving of those lives and the reduction of collateral trauma for relatives etc will produce a better society as a result. And at very little cost – a helmet is cheap, light, comfortable, stylish, fashionable, as well as providing that extra safety, just like a motocycle helmet. ASnd it can be made almost child-proof. No parent wants their child to suffer brain injuries, and a good way to help reduce the chance of that happening is to have the force of the law on your side.

    Law, of course, is just a choice that has been made. It is one end of a spectrum. My guess is that the people will agree with me, if asked in a referendum.

  • Thanks for a clear answer which I think/hope gets to the heart of the issue. The question of whether the individual is prepared to insure themselves against the harm that they will do to themselves is not the key issue. The key issue is that some people feel that it is valid to prevent others from risking harm to themselves.

    The heart of the matter is ‘collateral trauma for relatives’. As Richard says ‘no parent wants their child to suffer brain injuries’. Richard wishes to protect helmetless cyclists because he does not wish them to suffer brain injuries.

    It comes to a simple issue Jim wants to cycle in the park without a helmet. Bob ‘knows better’ than Jim and tries to stop him predominantly for the benefit of those who will be affected by any injury.It is meaningless for libertarians to say that ‘Bob has no right’ because Bob can suggest a referendum and force Jim to accept anything if the majority accept it. According to this logic the following is reasonable as there are no innate rights.

    I would agree with Richard that Richard may well be right when he states “the people will agree with me, if asked in a referendum.”

    In Jamaica, however, it is accepted that homosexuality is traumatic for relatives and should be illegal. Where does Richard draw the line on the argument that the majority can enforce their will on the minority – are there any inalienable rights ?

  • Richard Dean 6th Aug '12 - 2:56am

    @Ed. I don’t think there’s a key issue, or if there is one it’s about what kind of society is best for people to be in. There are a number of considerations all of which point in the same direction. One is collateraol trauma to relatives, onlookers, etc. Another would be cost to the NHS. Majorities matter, they have rights too. Here in the UK we don’t use LGBTs or Jamaica as an argument against seat belts; likewise they are not rguments against cycle helmets.

    Jamaica is an interesting place though. Most of the people are really nice, relaxed, friendly – this and the climate make me prefer it to the UK – but a few are not nice at all. There is lots of ganga, cocaine, carjacking, rape, kidnapping, home invasion, murder, and ignorance and poverty. It’s not a first world country yet. Every society has to learn, Jamaica is in one place, but not where seat belts and cycle helmets are.

  • The argument that ‘majorities matter’ is used but there if that is the case then we need a definition of inalienable rights. If we do not do this we could find that homosexuality is illegal. If we are to allow the majority to compel the minority we should make it clear where this applies and what are the inalienable rights. Mill uses the harm principle ie if you don’t harm someone else you can do what you want. I am still not clear whether those supporting helmets disagree with the harm principle. Only by understanding this can we determine whether we should mitigate the harm by demanding insurance or whether the supporters of helmets will always compel cyclists to wear helmets ‘because the majority know better than the minority what is good for them’

  • Richard Burton 6th Aug '12 - 7:36pm

    @Richard Dean

    “Helmets are cheap ways of avoiding much of this, and they are even comfortable, fashionable, and quite cheap; there’s no excuse for not wearing one.” Apart from the fact that it has never, despite more than twenty years of experience of helmet laws, been proven to be an effective way to reduce injuries and deaths to cyclists.

    “Sometimes you do things because they’re sensible, you don’t wait for evidence before taking action.” But we have the evidence, those kind Aussies and Kiwis have done the experiment for us and there is no evidence that they reduce risk, only that they reduce the number of cyclists, with a consequent massive reduction in the public health.

    “If you expect society to do something for you, like repair your head if it gets broken, then you should in fairness expect to do something for society in return for that expectation and service, like wear personal protective equipment.” The Health and Safety Executive have specifically excluded cycle helmets from the designation “Personal Protective Equipment, presumably because they looked at the evidence.

    “My guess is that the Bristol University evidence has been misinterpreted.” And your guess is wrong, probably because you have no understanding of the risks and benefits of cycling, or the protective effect, or lack thereof, of helmets.

    “It is crazy not to wear a hard hard on a building site, and it is likewie crazy to not wear a head protector when cycling on a main raod.” Except that all the long term, large scale, highly reliable evidence shows that, at best, helmets don’t reduce risk, and at worst increase it.

    ” It is very specifically NOT about making us all clones of particular Toms or their wives.” But you’re quite happy to inflict your views on people who know better than you, and to make them clones of your own misinformed, risk averse self. Do you think it’s really consistent with liberal values to pass a law when all the reliable evidence shows that it will not have the effect proposed, but will have massive negative side effects?

    “But yes, I do think there is a case for 3rd party insurance when riding bicyles on highways – cyclists can cause accidents that are seriously damaging or fatal to others.” So you are in favour of 3rd party insurance for pedestrians too then, since they can cause accidents too.

    “Roads are dangerous places, probably more dangerous than most factories, and the danger is created by people. As such, it is entirely consistent with liberalism that society has every right to restrict what people do on them and how people should behave and be on them.” And you appear to have no concept of Health and Safety principles, which state that the first thing to do is to reduce the danger at source, and the last thing you do is armour people. If you really want to reduce danger, to everyone, not just cyclists, you’ll be demanding much more vigorous enforcement of the road laws to those creating the danger, drivers.

    “Most people seem to feel that seat belts really do save lives,,,,” and they are wrong. The government of the time instigated a research paper which was duly produced before the vote in parliament, but it was never issued, because it showed that the evidence from countries which already had seat belt laws could show no overall reduction in the death and injury rate. It’s called the Isles Report and there’s a copy on the web.

    “Cycle helmets also save lives….. ” And no, helmets cannot be demonstrated to have saved lives. All the reliable, long term, whole population data shows that there is no reduction in risk, only a reduction in the number of cyclists.

    “……providing that extra safety, just like a motocycle helmet.” And no again. There is vanishingly little evidence that motorcycle helmets reduce risk to motorcyclists. The data shows that when the helmet law was introduced, deaths of motorcyclists fell, but the number of them also fell. The death rate to motorcyclists fell by a large amount during the hours of 2200 to 0200, so unless their helmets became magically effective during those hours, there is some other explanation, and it seems much more likely that the effect was due to the breathalyser which was introduced at the same time. In the USA, some states withdrew their helmet laws, and there was a rise in motorcycle deaths, but it was lower in the states that withdrew the law, and higher in those states which kept it.

    ” My guess is that the people will agree with me, if asked in a referendum.” And while there is a massive propaganda campaign to promote helmets, largely fronted by that most unimpartial of broadcasters, the BBC, you are probably correct. The fact that most people are as badly informed as you is hardly a reason for creating a law though.

    “…… I don’t think there’s a key issue, or if there is one it’s about what kind of society is best for people to be in” Surely you must agree that the best kind of society is one where laws are passed based on evidence, not assumption, propaganda and downright lies?

    To be honest, Richard, you are so lacking in knowledge on the subject of cycle helmets and road safety generally that your opinions are valueless, to put it politely. Can I suggest that you might like to check a few facts before you post again

  • Richard Dean 6th Aug '12 - 8:26pm

    @Richard Burton

    If you had any experience at all of accidents, you would know that helmets save lives. They also prevent brain injuries that blight lives.

  • I would like to depersonalise one of Richard Burton’s points however it does echo my frustration

    ” It is very specifically NOT about making us all clones of particular Toms or their wives.”

    My comment would be

    In reality what happens is that the majority can inflict their views on minority regardless of whether they know better and to make them clones of the risk averse . The Liberal Democrat Party is one of the most important organisations in the UK which prevents this from happening.

    Those who legitimise this approach seem unable to agree on a boundary which allows for ANY innate rights.

  • Daniel Henry 7th Aug '12 - 4:52pm

    Largely agree with the case against making helmets mandatory.
    I think those who have cited the lack of evidence for helmets make a good point, but I think even more importantly, if we believe in personal responsibility then we have to give people a degree of freedom in their choices, for better or for worse. I think that using the police to enforce health and safety on people “for their own good” goes too far.

    After a couple of years cycling without a helmet, I made the personal decision that it wasn’t worth the risk and have changed my habits. I made my own decision on that, and I wouldn’t have appreciated the state trying to make it for me.

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