Friday, April 15, 2011

The Cycle of Obesity

The cycle of obesity is as follows:

 1. The media focuses on obesity because of a new report that usually adds nothing new to the existing canon of evidence;
2. Politicians note that cycling would be the easiest way of integrating exercise into daily life;
3. They do nothing decisive to increase cycling because that might upset a few drivers;
4. Britain continues to get fatter, the obesity bill continues to grow;
5. Go to step 1 and repeat.

Well, guess what, we're at Step 1 again. Obesity is back in the headlines. Kids clothes no longer fit them because today's youngsters are considerably, and worryingly, bigger and fatter than they were a generation ago. Yesterday on BBC Breakfast, resident doctor Rosemary Leonard was bemoaning the fact that she is seeing more teenagers with Type 2 diabetes, but cannot talk to youngsters about their weight because if she does they don't come back to the surgery. She also commented about the importance of exercise, and the fact that children aren't cycling to school because of safety fears.

The Standard reports the financial cost of obesity to London is approaching £1bn/year, according to the London Assembly. James Cleverly, chair of the Health and Public Services committee, said "something must be done to stop today's young people becoming obese adults." The report claims "although the Mayor says childhood obesity is his number one health priority – and has introduced initiatives that encourage walking, cycling, food growing and sports participation - few of his initiatives are focused exclusively on obesity-reduction and they are not coordinated."

The wife called me up almost in tears on Tuesday. She'd cycled with the kids to Wimbledon Park, along the official cycle route, and been buzzed repeatedly by aggressive van and car drivers. I've experienced this myself. Although most drivers are considerate, and even more so when you're with a child, it only takes a very few clumsy, inattentive or aggressive drivers to make the experience very stressful.

I doubt if the roads have got more dangerous over the few decades since today's parents were growing up, when we were always out and about on our bikes and as long as we were back in time for tea, no-one worried overmuch. What has changed is our expectations of child safety. As a nation, we no longer tolerate our children being put in harm's way...but  road danger reduction has not kept pace with our child safety expectations. Result: many people don't let their children cycle on roads.

There are those in the cycling community who claim that roads are safe for children to cycle on, that we shouldn't cotton-wool our kids, that the consequences of chaperoning our wee'uns everywhere means they grow into fat adults with poor judgement of risk and little road-sense. I think there's merit in a lot of that, but changing public perceptions seems like an impossible task to me.

To get children cycling, we need a few routes that give parents the confidence that their little treasures will get to school without being endangered by speeding, distracted drivers. It really is that simple. These routes need to be segregated, or very low traffic. CCTV monitoring of driver behaviour could give extra confidence. Yet this government seems intent on making the roads more dangerous, and eroding the confidence of vulnerable road users, by its cavalier attitude to speed enforcement and reduced spending on road safety.

So we're nearly at Step 3 again.

1 comment:

  1. I've said elsewhere, that if you want to see how crap some of Britain's drivers are, cycle on the road with someone you love, who doesn't normally ride in traffic.

    I blame a road safety culture that emphasises the vulnerable mitigating risk rather than the motorist taking responsibility. A road culture that sees thuggery we'd not tolerate elsewhere as "just one of those things", even giving it a special, exculpatory name "road rage". The partial application and observance of traffic law, and connivance in breaking it (drivers flashing each other to warn of speed cameras, f'rexample, or the number that continue to use mobile phones).