Cycling: the Battle of the Panics

Children should be allowed to ride to school, not to prevent obesity or global warming, but simply because cycling is fun.

Getting children to cycle to school would seem to tick a lot of modern policy boxes. A daily return-trip provides children with an independent means of transport that’s fairly quick and gives them a useful burst of exercise, while cutting down on traffic (and those dreaded carbon emissions) on the school run. Yet it appears that many schools aren’t too keen.

According to a report in yesterday’s Guardian, school heads are discouraging or even banning cycling on the grounds that it is too dangerous. Debra Rolfe of the cycling campaign group CTC told the newspaper: ‘It’s very hard to say exactly how big a problem this is. We often get contacted by parents raising this as an issue, but they don’t want to make too much of a fuss because their children aren’t keen on standing out.’ The problem is particularly acute in primary schools. Phillip Darnton, the chairman of Cycling England, told the Guardian that well under one per cent of primary school pupils ride to school with about two per cent doing so in secondary schools (1).

CTC relates the tale of Sam O’Shea, an 11-year-old from Portsmouth, who was told by his school head that he couldn’t ride into school. Despite Sam’s parents doing everything in their power, the school only agreed to meet with CTC after Sam had already moved on to secondary school. ‘The school said I needed to do cycle training, which I’ve done. Then they said the road layout was dangerous, so we got the council to change it, but they still said it was unsafe. I just want to ride my bike to school. It’s good for the planet, and it’s good fun.’ (2) Clearly, Sam is an articulate and eco-aware young man.

Debra Rolfe was furious: ‘It is unbelievable that a school would actively discourage children from taking regular exercise when obesity is such a problem. Research shows schoolchildren who cycle are healthier and happier than those who don’t – it makes sense for schools to promote cycling, not ban it.’

So, how dangerous is cycling? According to the UK government’s road casualty statistics (3), in 2007 there was one fatality for every 32million kilometres cycled. That’s slightly fewer per kilometre than for pedestrians, who suffered one fatality every 28million kilometres. But because each cycle journey is, on average, longer than a walking journey, the chances of a cyclist being killed on a particular journey are 2.5 times higher, on average, than for a pedestrian. In turn, both these rates are considerably higher than for car drivers and passengers (one death per 400million kilometres travelled), and those on buses and trains (one death for every 3.3billion kilometres travelled). Nonetheless, it is clear that deaths are extremely unusual on our roads, even for those who aren’t wrapped in a ton or two of metal.

Cyclists do make up a slightly disproportionate number of those killed or seriously injured (KSI) in accidents on the way to school. Of the 541 KSI in journeys to and from school in 2007, 10 per cent were cyclists, mostly 11- to 15-year-old boys (4). So Sam O’Shea’s teacher was right that cycling is probably a bit more dangerous than other means of getting to school, but even then the risks are tiny.

Those risks should be weighed against the freedom provided to children by having their own form of transport, allowing them to explore a much wider area on their own. It also liberates parents from the school run. There may be other reasons why parents and teachers might not want to encourage cycling, like the difficulties of keeping bikes secure on school grounds, but safety shouldn’t really be one of them. As long as children are sensible and alert on their bikes, they will almost certainly be fine.

Unfortunately, emphasising freedom would mean encouraging risk-taking behaviour and independent play, two things that are generally frowned upon today. So, instead, campaigners assert the threat of obesity as a reason to encourage cycling. But trading one panic for another is wrong-headed.

Just as fears of tragic road accidents are overblown, so are fears about child obesity. The Health Survey for England 2007 found that while 18.3 per cent of children were obese in 2005, this had fallen to 16.5 per cent by 2007 (5). Moreover, the definition of obesity used in the survey is a broad one. The more widely recognised international definitions show much lower rates of obesity. The vast majority of children have a perfectly healthy weight. Even then, most fat children don’t go on to be fat adults. For a variety of reasons, from changing personal habits to genetics, our bodyshapes in childhood do not pre-determine how we’ll look for the rest of our lives.

Rehashing a panic about obesity to get more funding and attention for cyclists is a bad idea. Even if obesity was a bigger problem than it is at present, encouraging a few more children to cycle will make little impact on it, particularly as the children most likely to cycle will probably be the most physically active already.

What this Battle of the Panics - road accidents vs obesity vs climate change - does illustrate, though, is the way in which risk informs every aspect of our lives today, what Frank Furedi has called a ‘culture of fear’ (6). We are constantly made aware of our vulnerability, out of all proportion to any sensible assessment of risk. By highlighting one aspect of risk - obesity - as an argument for ignoring another - the danger of road accidents - the result is only to increase our sensitivity to risk in general. This in turn is debilitating, because we end up persuading ourselves that many perfectly safe activities should be avoided.

Cycling is fun, and learning to handle yourself amongst the dangers and distractions of the road is a valuable lesson. Schools should do more to enable children to cycle if they want to, not because it will turn fat children into potential Tour de France competitors, but because cycling is a pleasure in itself.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Helene Guldberg said parents should not be blamed for ‘cotton-wool kids’. Elsewhere, she questioned the claim that children are becoming hostages to parental fears. She also argued that it was the government, not parents, which made us so uptight about kids’ play. Nancy McDermott spoke to the woman who was labelled ‘the world’s worst mom’ after letting her son take the subway alone. Or read more at spiked issue Risk.

(1) Children face cycling bans over schools’ safety concerns, Guardian, 8 September 2009

(2) Is this the worst school in the UK for cycling?, CTC, 13 July 2009

(3) Road Casualties Great Britain 2007, Department for Transport [pdf]

(4) Pedal cyclist casualties in road accidents: 2007, Department for Transport [pdf]

(5) Health Survey for England 2007, Child Trend Tables

(6) The only thing we have to fear is the ‘culture of fear’ itself, by Frank Furedi

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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