Eric Martlew's private member's bill (which would make it an offence to allow a child to cycle without a helmet) failed to achieve its second reading. Britain was spared from repeating the failed experiment. But they - the liddites - will be back, because they did not get what they wanted, and like spoiled children they will keep asking until they do get it, or are slapped down. It only takes one moment of weakness to get a helmet law passed, and then chances of getting it repealed are slim because politicians never admit they have made a mistake. Australia and New Zealand still have their laws, despite overwhelming evidence that they are an abject failure, delivering no measurable change in injury rates in exchange for setting back the cause of cycling by a decade or more.
They will be back, hopefully we will be ready. I set up nohelmetlaw.org.uk and there is also a nohelmetlaw.org. Remember, you can either promote cycling or promote helmets, the two are incompatible. You can't promote helmets without portraying cycling as unusually dangerous - which it is not. Scare them into wearing plastic hats, or scare them off completely? Evidence from around the world shows it's the latter. And remember especially that anybody who quotes 85% when trying to persuade you in favour of cycle helmets is either woefully ill-informed or deliberately misleading you. There are no other options. The 85% figure is completely discredited, and nobody who is both well-informed and honest will use it. It is a litmus test for propaganda.
Now read on...
- The Martlew Bill
- The Debate
- But what about...
- The effect of the Bill
- Summary of points against compulsion
- Related documents on this site
The Martlew Bill
Experience from other countries shows beyond doubt that such laws cause more harm than they alleviate, so the list of those opposed to the Bill included the British Medical Association and Royal College of General Practitioners. The text of the bill is here, or as a pdf. The procedure for Private Members' Bills is outlined in factsheet L2 (PDF, 141k) available from http://www.parliament.uk/factsheets/
Whatever your views on the merits of helmets themselves, the inescapable conclusion from every jurisdiction where compulsion has been tried is that (a) cyclist injury rates do not fall (and often rise), and (b) levels of cycling drop substantially.
From BicycleBusiness issue 63, April 2004
- See: Martlew bill/debate
As usual, it was necessary to resort to exaggeration and distortion to build a case for compulsion. Martlew made claims like "One primary class wiped out per year, one secondary school left with serious brain injury." Not only does this overstate the actual numbers (if it were true then every family in Britain would know at least one or two children who have suffered permanent brain injury or death through cycling), it includes those injuries not preventable by helmets and takes no account of the limited effect of helmets in preventing the most serious injuries (not more than one in ten, according to the Government). There was also a lack of consistency; having claimed that cycle use would not drop, Martlew then denounced the Association of Cycle Traders (opposed to the bill) as "only interested in selling bicycles". A pro compulsion survey carried out by a website was cited as if it were representative of the general population, despite it having no randomisation and links only to pro-helmet resources on the survey page.
In response to concerns about the bill's draconian nature, for example, affecting small children riding toy tricycles, Martlew suggested that the Police would know when to enforce a law. Doubtless he expects respect for this law to be improved, not reduced, by the fact that it is arbitrarily enforced. No rationale was given as to how police are supposed to identify which of a group of youths are over 16, and exactly who the "responsible adult" should be in each case.
Non-cyclist Martlew was scathing about those whose judgement of the evidence contradicted his own (or possibly BeHIT's). Those of us opposed to compulsion are "lunatics in Lycra" and the CTC needs to change its policy and its leadership, apparently, while the British Dental Association are said to be in favour of compulsion, presumably due to a conviction that cycle helmets in preventing jaw injuries. Steve Norris was criticised by name (despite standing down as chair of the National Cycling Strategy Board, due to his mayoral campaign, a fact of which Martlew was apparently in ignorance). The fact that the Tour de France's insurers now insist on helmets is apparently a rationale for everyday cyclists to be compelled to do the same; I await with interest the "protective headgear and fireproof clothing for motorists bill" which must surely follow.
Needless to say the CTC was painted as "anti-helmet" - a ludicrous assertion which is easily disproved by watching the staff turn up at Cotterell House on any weekday.
At 11:55, Eric Forth, MP, called for a vote to go into private session, a procedural motion designed to curtail the debate and allow the next Bill to be discussed. There being fewer than 40 members present, debate on the Bill was stopped and the House moved on to other business. The bill was re-listed for 18 June, but went to the back of the queue and on the day was not moved.
Martlew was right in one respect: we are "sacrificing" 28 (well, 22, but who expects accurate figures in a helmet debate) children per year. Of these, the best estimates show that at most one or two could be saved by helmet compulsion. How many could be saved by the extension of home zones, traffic calmed 20mph areas designed around walking and cycling? There is no doubt that helmets for child cyclists will have no effect on those who do not die of head injuries, those who also have other mortal injuries, and child pedestrians. The maximum reduction in child road fatalities which might be expected is around 1%. It is not cycling which is dangerous, but motor traffic.
But what about...
A recurring theme of the helmet debate in general is reference to motorcycle helmets and seat belts.
Few people realise that the relative risk of death or serious injury for motorcyclists rose sharply in the two years following compulsion, and that there is no known case where compulsory seat belt use has resulted in improved road fatality figures (if that form of words sounds familiar it is possibly because the Government has admitted that it knows of no case where cyclist safety has improved with increasing helmet use). The Isles Report compiled for the DfT analysing claims made by John Adams to the effect that seat belt laws were ineffective, showed that he was right. The report was buried and the bill pushed through anyway. The Isles Report was leaked after the event, and following passage of the legislation there was a substantial rise in pedestrian, cyclist and rear-seat passenger fatalities (all this is documented in <a href="Risk">Risk</a> by John Adams).
The fact that compulsion did not deter car and motorcycle use is a red herring. Both are forms of transport which require a substantial capital outlay, and where no physical effort is required. There is little disincentive to use either mode, whereas with cycling there is a need for motivation to get on the bike. It is also worth noting that the US states where motorcycle helmet laws have subsequently been repealed have both the best safety trends, and the highest levels of motorcycling.
The effect of the Bill
The Bill was a serious distraction to a large number of people who would much rather have been getting on with positive things like the review of the national cycling framework, and indeed a large number of other public policies relating to cycling, which were up for review at the same time.
During the process of lobbying the projected number of injuries saved dropped from 100,000 per year in an Early Day Motion drafted by the bill's sponsors, to under 400 per year. The potential number of fatalities saved dropped from 50 per year to under a dozen. Both figures are still an order of magnitude too high, according to Government research which indicates that no more than 10% of serious injuries would be prevented by helmets.
During the lobbying process many of us learned a lot about <a href="lobbying">the process of lobbying MPs</a>.
Summary of points against compulsion
Here are some summary points regarding the bill:
- Is cycling without a helmet really so dangerous that it should be a criminal offence? What is the level of risk compared with other activities?
- The compulsion campaign uses grossly exaggerated statistics and scare tactics which raise a false impression of an urgent need for action. They are helped by the general perception of cycling as "dangerous" - they hook into this misconception and offer a "solution" which of course fails to address the source of danger.
- The compulsion campaign denounces those who are anti-compulsion as being anti-helmet, and then "proves" that helmets work - by this technique they hope to make it seem that it is we, not they, who are denying the facts.
- The compulsion campaign repudiates the idea of risk compensation, the main mechanism by which it is believed that the protective effect of helmets is undermined in the real world. They advance no alternative hypothesis to explain the observed facts.
- The compulsion campaign makes use of anecdotal evidence and shroud-waving. This is dangerous: it builds a supposition in the public mind that everybody who dies while not wearing a helmet would have lived if they wore one, and everybody who lives while wearing a helmet would have died without. Both ideas are demonstrably false, and there are cases which "prove" the precise opposite.
- The compulsion campaign seeks to conflate head injuries with life-threatening head injuries. The vast majority of cycling head injuries are trivial - and these are the ones most likely to be prevented by helmets. The effect of helmets on serious or life-threatening injuries is at best unproven. Diffuse axonal injury (DAI) is the leading traumatic cause of permanent intellectual disablement (a bogey often raised by compulsionists), but there is no known mechanism by which a helmet could affect the type of twisting injury which causes DAI. A few studies indicate that helmets may even make it worse.
- The compulsion lobby makes much of the fact that half of all cyclists who die, die of head injuries. A recent review of nineteen fatal cases where cause of death was recorded as head injury, sixteen had other mortal injuries as well. Other research shows between 50% and 100% of cyclists with fatal head injuries having other mortal injuries.
- The compulsion agenda focuses on the risks of cycling and ignores the fact that, even with present low levels of helmet use, the benefits of cycling outweigh the risks 20:1 (BMA).
- The compulsion campaign places much emphasis on the danger posed by motor vehicles and ignores the fact that helmets are fundamentally not designed to protect in crashes involving motor vehicles. This also raises the interesting point that most of the children killed in road traffic crashes - the leading cause of mortality in school-age children in the UK - are not riding bicycles: in this respect the campaign is targeting the victims, not addressing the cause of danger.
- McCarthy states in Child: Care, Health and Development that "Helmets are similar to filters in cigarettes ---- they give the illusion of safety to both consumer and producer of the product, but the illusion is fatal." This is nicely stated!
Other issues which merit consideration include:
- is helmet use the first, best way to improve cyclist safety, or would other measures such as greater availability of training, more liberal lighting laws (allowing flashing lights), or increased enforcement of road traffic regulations (for drivers and cyclists) yield greater benefits.
- given that 90% of road crashes are attributed by Police due to human error, and 3/4 of serious cycle crashes are the fault of a motor vehicle driver, is it reasonable to place the emphasis on those being injured rather than those causing the danger; would measures to tackle the danger at source have collateral benefits in reducing the 3,000+ dead and tens of thousands injured on Britain's roads every year.
- The definition of cycles in the Bill is such that it would be mandatory to wear a helmet when riding a child's tricycle in a park.
- The definition of cycles in the Bill is such that no helmet would be required when riding a unicycle.
- The U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) warns that children should not wear bike helmets when playing, especially on playground equipment. CPSC has reports of two strangulation deaths to children when their bike helmets became stuck in openings on playground equipment, resulting in hanging. CPSC also has reports of four cases where no injury occurred.
- There would have to be an exemption for religious headgear, since helmet makers state nothing should be worn under the helmet.
The bill was drafted by BHIT. Their methods are far from scrupulous.
- BHIT's favourite statistic, that helmets prevent 88% of injuries, comes form a single study which was corrected by its authors in the original journal in 1996. No other study has approached this number.
- BHIT have claimed that compulsory helmets for children would save the NHS £2bn per year. Using ONS and Audit Office data, the NHS spend on children aged 4-15 for all treatments is £1.5bn.
- BHIT have claimed that the 1/3 drop in cycling in Australia post-law was due to a one-year reduction in the qualifying age for driving. Residents of the area have pointed out that the overall effect of this change was actually to make it more difficult to get a licence.
Other dodgy stats are rebutted in the <a href="../Images/GCHN-62HN4S/$file/CTC12ppleafleta_w.pdf" target="_blank">CTCs leaflet</a> (in collaboration with CCN and LCC), in <a href="/hospital-admissions.html">my analysis of hospital data</a> and in <a href="/child-cycling.pdf">my recent CCN presentation</a>.
After the debate BHIT's Angela Lee said: "We feel that we pursued our case in an entirely factual way and were completely above board. Some of our opponents in the cycling lobby were putting out propaganda on websites. We can at least say that all the information that we used was based on real evidence and genuine facts." I disagree: some of the "genuine facts" they quoted in their briefings were subject of <a href="ASA_Complaint">a complaint I made</a> to the Advertising Standards Authority. </TD> <TD><IMG SRC="/icons/ecblank.gif" WIDTH=4 HEIGHT=180></TD> </tr> </table>
Related documents on this site
- Lobbying: Lessons learned about lobbying during opposition to the Martlew Bill.
- Martlew_Bill_Text Text of the Child Cyclists (Deterrence and Criminalisation) Bill
- Martlew_Debate: Transcript of the Martlew Bill debate taken from Hansard
- Martlew Example Letters: Examples to help you crafting that vital letter to yor MP
- Organisations Opposed: Organisations opposed to helmet compulsion
- Martlew Guardian Article: An article on the Martlew Bill from the Guardian (8/1/2004)
- Guardian Article: Article questioning the wisdom of helmet promotion
- Martlew Letter Jamieson: My letter ot David Jamieson, the Minister responding to the Bill
- Alan Meale re EDM 1783: A letter to the proposer of an Early Day Motion commending BHIT and urging the Government to introduce compulsion.
- The More The Merrier: Abstract of a paper in Injury Prevention which shows why reducing cycling would increase danger
- Annetts: An example of egregious shroud-waving