The compulsory use of bike helmets for cyclists in cities formed the focal point of a debate in Congress on Tuesday, despite being just one part of the Popular Party (PP) government's planned reforms of road-safety regulations. Not even the always-controversial raising and lowering of speed limits, also contained within the plan from the director general of Spain's DGT traffic authority, managed to raise as many hackles as the proposal to force those on two wheels to wear protection.
"I have no doubts about the beneficial effects [of wearing a helmet]," DGT chief María Seguí told Congress on Tuesday. "And there is not a single association that has denied the usefulness of helmets in the prevention of accidents."
She did, however, recognize the fierce criticism from bicycle associations, as well as some local authorities, over the planned measure. Around 20 city councils, including those in Barcelona and Madrid, have rejected outright making helmets compulsory by law, and have the support of all political parties — including the PP.
Seguí was looking to seek consensus, and suggested that Congress debate the measure on its own before the new regulations are put into place. All of the parties accepted that suggestion, but that does not mean that the text of the reforms will be altered. "The most important thing is that practically everyone agrees with 95 percent of the proposed legislation," she said. "The rest is about the fine print, and a chance to reflect and to redirect certain opinions that might be slanted one way or the other."
The proposals also include reducing the speed limit for all vehicles
Aside from cycle helmets, other measures included in the reforms are the reduction of the speed limit for vehicles in many built-up areas from 30km/h to 20km/h; allowing cyclists to use pavements that are more than three meters wide; and measures to encourage cyclists to wear high-visibility clothing.
But it was the issue of helmets that dominated the debate in Congress, with Jordi Jané of the CiU Catalan nationalist bloc saying that the measure was "too hasty," and that the government should instead opt for educational campaigns to explain to the public the benefits of using a helmet. Socialist deputy Juan Carlos Corcuera pointed out that most cyclists who are killed on the roads die after being run over, in which case a helmet has little effect.
These are the main arguments that have been used by cyclist associations, who are engaged in an intense campaign against the measure. On Tuesday, the technical director of cycling association ConBici, Manuel Martín, warned of the "health costs" that would be caused by the fall in the numbers of people who would use their bikes, because, he said, "many people would stop taking exercise" were they forced to wear a helmet. He also pointed to the low mortality statistics among cyclists: in 2011, 49 people were killed while on their bikes, of whom just 12 were in a city at the time.
Despite the criticism for a measure that does not currently exist "in any other European country," the head of the traffic authority pointed out that the use of helmets has been recommended by the World Health Organization and has already been made compulsory in New Zealand, Israel, Colombia and Finland.