'Child helmet compulsion' bill will not get government support

That's the reading-between-the-lines conclusion reached by most bike bigwigs at the third annual Cycling Forum for England meeting held at the Department for Transport in London yesterday. Dr. Kim Howells, a transport minister since last July, told the assembled great-and-good that despite wearing a cycle helmet himself – he's a GT-riding roadie – he doesn't believe any helmet compulsion law could be enforced in England. Therefore Eric Martlew's private members bill will likely not be supported by the DfT.
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A broad coalition of cycle advocates, quangoistas, and anti-helmet campaigners have been pushing the Department for Transport to come out against Eric Martlew's bill, which gets its second reading on April 23rd.

The bill, drawn up for Martlew (Labour MP for Carlisle) by 'Be-Hit', the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, would possibly meet little opposition in the House of Commons because 'protecting children's safety' is such an emotive, tick-here topic. However, if the DfT does not actively support the bill, the message will go out loud and clear to MPs that helmet-compulsion could not be enforced and would have a detrimental effect on cycle usage in the UK.

As well as briefings from the usual suspects, such as the CTC, MPs are also being advised against supporting the bill by the National Cycle Strategy Board (NCSB) and the Cyclists' Public Affairs Group, which works on behalf of the Bicycle Association, the Association of Cycle Traders, British Cycling, Sustrans and cyclist user groups such as CTC and the London Cycling Campaign.

Here's the NCSB position statement on mandatory helmet use:

Arguments that appear to disavow the efficacy or utility of cycle helmet wearing, or on the other hand claim it as the major influence in reducing injury to cyclists, are both wide of the mark. In particular, campaigns seeking to present cycling as an inevitably dangerous or hazardous activity, or which suggest that helmet wearing should be made compulsory, risk prejudicing the delivery of those very benefits to health and environment which cycling can deliver: they also serve to confuse the general public about the wider social and economic advantages of cycling. As a result, the NCS Board is anxious that the question of wearing helmets is placed in its proper context.

The NCS Board has a clear view on this issue, which is that it must remain a decision for individuals as to whether to wear a helmet for some or all of their various cycle activities. Parents will need to take this decision on behalf of their children, bearing in mind all the particular circumstances. But any mandatory requirement to wear helmets on all occasions would greatly dilute the benefits which safe cycling can offer our society as a whole.


CTC has published a position paper on helmet compulsion and is firmly of the belief any imposition of a helmet law would lead to an immediate decrease in cycle use.

Officially, the government's position on Martlew's bill will be announced soon by road safety minister David Jamieson but, clearly, if Howells, the minister responsible for cycling, is not minded to push for legislation, the Department of Transport will probably not back the bill.

Howells, MP for Pontypridd, has been an active cyclist since the 1950s, and started wearing a cycle helmet five years ago. "But it's my choice," he told the delegates at the Cycle Forum for England at Great Minster House, near Westminster.

"There needs to be a damn good reason to bring in legislation. I am very, very much aware of the arguments on both sides, and in the middle. I think the Martlew bill will get wide, cross-party support in the House so the Government's position is critical. The official line is that we are currently considering the balance of arguments. My own feeling is that it would be very difficult legislation to enforce by the police. I can't even get my own kids to wear helmets."

Steven Norris, a known helmet hater, warned the pro-compulsionists would have the upper hand in parliament.

"Cycle helmets for children is perceived as a 'good thing' and will easily gain momentum. The Department of Transport's job is to kill these things early."

This met with a round of applause from delegates.

CTC is soon to publish a 16-page pamphlet to lobby MPs not to vote for Martlew's bill. 'Seven Reasons to Oppose a Child Helmet Law' says "the principal threats to children's lives are obesity, hearty disease and other illnesses resulting in large part from inactivity. Cycling has a key role to play in prevent these illnesses. Less cycling through a helmet law will aggravate the situation."

The CTC is keen to portray itself as pro-choice, not anti-helmet.

"CTC's position is to remain entirely neutral on the pros and cons of helmet-wearing per se. But CTC also believes that public policy should do likewise. The evidence currently available provides at least as much support for those who are sceptical of helmets as for those who swear by them.

"At a time of mounting concern over obesity and the lack of physical exercise in this country, especially among children, the last thing we should be doing is scaring or legislating people into sedentary, car-dependent lifestyles."

HERE'S A PDF OF THE CTC'S PAMPHLET:

http://www.bikebiz.co.uk/.../Child-helmet-law.pdf

MARTLEW'S BILL:

http://www.publications.parliament.uk/.../04021.1-i.html


On 3rd March, Jane Campbell MP (Labour MP for Cambridge) lodged this Early Day Motion:

"That this House notes the substantial disparity between claims made for the efficacy of pedal cycle helmets and their measured effect in real populations; notes that the Transport Research Laboratory has reported the promotion of pedal cycle helmets may lead to increased injury rates; notes that cyclist injury rates remain unchanged following passage of mandatory helmet legislation in several countries; and calls on the Department of Transport to initiate a programme of research designed to establsih why increases in helmet wearing rates are not associated with reductions in head injury rates, and why the countries with the lowest helmet wearing rates are those with the lowest cyclist injury rates."

This EDM has been signed by just 12 MPs to date. There need to be at least 80 signtaures for government to sit up and take notice. Ex-transport minister Peter Bottomley MP has added an amendment designed to wreck the EDM:

Line 1, leave out from 'substantial' to end and add 'numbers of head injuries to cyclists; recognises that, in a crash, cycle helmets are likely to reduce the incidence of deaths and injuries; and calls on cyclists' groups and on the Department for Transport to make this known widely, in addition to providing through track and road engineering; ways to reduce the risk if crashes involving bikes and bikers.'

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