UK transport minister Norman Baker this week refused to apologise for saying that cyclists may be safer not wearing helmets. Baker, whose role includes responsibilities for cycling, cited research that drivers tend to go closer to cyclists who are wearing helmets, but give a wider berth to those who are not. Indeed, the national cyclists' organisation itself argues that those who wear helmets are 14% more likely to have a collision than those who don't. Perhaps drivers take more risks because they believe that helmet-wearing cyclists are well protected; or perhaps they think that cyclists without helmets are more amateur and likely to cycle more erratically, making it best to keep well out of their way. Right now, nobody exactly knows.
Of course, if you come off your bike and hit your head, you are definitely better off with a helmet, says the minister. But on the other hand, he continues, "it may be that divers drive closer to you and there is more risk of an incident... The jury is out."
Many people will be shocked by Baker's seemingly cavalier attitude. But his position does reflect a basic truth about risk-taking: that if people believe things are safer, they will take more risks. The law requiring front-seat drivers to wear seat-belts, for example, apparently made motorists drive more carelessly, thinking themselves safer – but leading to a rise in pedestrian deaths. The evidence isn't incontrovertible, but that's certainly how it looks. Prof John Adams, author of an ASI report on risk some years ago, jokingly argued that, in the light of this evidence, the best way to improve the safety of road users would not be to fit seat belts, airbags and the rest to protect drivers, but to have a large steel spike sticking out of the front of each car steering wheel, ready to impale the driver at the first shunt.
We see the same phenomenon in other areas of life, too. The fact that financial firms are now regulated by government authorities means that people are far less careful when they decide where to invest their money. Something that has the government's seal of approval, they figure, must be OK. But recent events have shown how useless our regulators are in doing their job of protecting the public.
The best thing about the transport minister's intervention, though, is that it has got the elf 'n' safety lobby into a right lather. They can hardly take the usual holier-than-thou attitude to Mr Baker – who is himself a keen cyclist and who, when he became the cycling minister, steadfastly refused to change his practice of 45 years and give in to the cotton-wool crew by donning a helmet.