CTC, Cycling Scotland, the Cycle Campaign Network, public health doctors, and the anti-compulsion Bicycle Helmet Reseach Foundation have all thrown up their metaphoric hands in horror at the "unscientific" nature of yesterday's cycle helmet debate at the British Medical Association's annual meeting. BMA bosses influenced the pro-vote with "misleading statistics" and there was a "low level of intellectual debate".

Cycle orgs and doctors say BMA helmet vote will “cause great harm”

Cycling Scotland was quickest with its response, emailing a press release just an hour after doctors voted in favour of calling for legislation requiring helmet compulsion for all adult and child cyclists.

Its press release was entitled ‘BMA vote risks Scottish lives’, an emotive headline that will puzzle mainstream journalists who tend to assume the evidence for cycle helmet wearing is cut-and-dried.

Cycling Scotland said the yes vote was "a potential disaster for efforts to encourage physical activity in Scotland. Although helmet compulsion has proved in other countries to make cycling more dangerous per mile travelled the BMA has voted to make this recommendation."

Cycle use will drop, if helmet wearing was made compulsory for all cycle journeys, said Cycling Scotland.

"With one in four Scots currently at risk of early death as a result of inactivity related illnesses, many organisations see cycling’s role in active travel as a key method for encouraging healthy lifestyles. As well as health issues, attempts to reduce congestion and improve road safety on Scottish roads will be hindered by the reduction in cycle use that accompanies helmet legislation."

The BMA’s call for compulsion could also "significantly and wrongly influence the public’s perception of the dangers of cycling."

The Cycle Campaign Network said the BMA ignored its own, evidence-based 1999 report on cycle helmets:

"Unlike the more extensive review of evidence carried out by the BMA in 1999 (which came out strongly against compulsion), the organisation seems no longer to be willing to consider the wider evidence that shows more harm than benefit from helmet laws."

This morning on GMTV, CTC director Kevin Mayne shared a sofa with pro-compulsion Angie Lee of the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust.

In a statement issued yesterday he said: " “This decision could not come at a worse time. Right now we really ought to be working closely with the BMA and other health professionals to encourage more and safer cycling as a way to tackle Britain’s obesity epidemic.

"The doctors who voted for helmet-compulsion may have been well-intentioned, but actually their stance will do far more harm to the health of the nation than any benefit which helmets might have achieved."

A CTC press release said the pro-vote was a "serious blow to the promotion of cycling as a healthy form of transport and recreation," and was "based on an inadequate and unscientific debate, flawed evidence and against views of its own members working in public health."

Dr Stephen Watkins, chair of the BMA’s Transport and Health Working Group and Director of Public Health at Stockport Primary Care Trust, backs up this assertion:

“Almost everywhere cycle helmets have been made compulsory cycling has fallen by 25-40 percent. Last time the BMA’s own public health conference considered the issue it rejected it by a large margin. It is depressing that the BMA has now adopted this unscientific stance that will cause great harm.”

Guy Chapman, a cycling advocate and member of the editorial board of the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation said he found the standard of the BMA debate "as disappointing as its outcome."

He said delegates were treated to a litany of pro-compulsion falsehoods:

"We were told that 594 children and 1081 adults were killed in road traffic accidents in 2002. The real total is 3431, of which 107 were adult and 22 child cyclists, half of whom did not die of head injuries. And we had the bogus ’88 percent reduction in brain injuries’ statistic.

"Although the audience were doctors, I wonder how many of them saw through the smokescreen of permanent intellectual disablement to the fact that most of those ‘brain injuries’ are simple concussions? I was forced to wonder why, if the case for helmets is so strong, those who promote them feel the need to distort and exaggerate?

"The BMA now has a problem reconciling the promotion of cycling as a healthy activity with the idea that it is some kind of extreme sport, so dangerous that no journey may be contemplated without special protective equipment."

Road safety organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) and the Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety (PACTS) remain opposed to bicycle helmet compulsion.

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