1 in 8 of those signing our BMA helmet petition are doctors. When the British Medical Journal polled readers on how best to promote cycle safety, helmet compulsion came sixth out of six available options*. So, if rank and file doctors are against forcing all cyclists to wear helmets, who nobbled the BMA?

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know

A great many doctors have already signed our BMA-and-helmet-compulsion petition, worried that their ‘trade union’ is willing to argue for a measure that could severely reduce the amount of cycling in the UK at a time when Brits are fatter than ever and need more exercise.

Some doctors have told BikeBiz.com they are concerned the BMA has been "hoodwinked" by a single-issue pressure group, and has not adequately researched the "recent evidence" about helmet compulsion’s impact on levels of cycle use.

The doctors are worried the BMA is, in effect, portraying cycling as an inherently dangerous activity, and they wonder why the members of the BMA committee that made the helmet-compulsion decision didn’t seek advice from cycling doctors in the UK and medical practitioners in Germany, the Netherlands and other European countries.

There, helmet wearing is negligible yet there’s no epidemic of head trauma caused by cycling crashes.

This isn’t because cyclists are often kept apart from cars: cycle helmets are not designed, as compulsionists often believe, to protect wearers from impacts with speeding cars.

So who are the individuals who may have influenced the BMA’s u-turn?


Ms Lee, a former paediatric nurse, is the director of the Reading-based Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust.

She is nothing if not single-minded: "It is nonsensical that anyone can be opposed or critical of helmets," she has said.

Her organisation, which sells helmets from its website, has been funded to the tune of £200 000 by grants from the Departments of Health and Transport. However, since BHIT was revealed to be a political lobbying group – it was behind Eric Martlew MP’s failed helmet compulsion private members’ bill from earlier this year – this pool of taxpayers’ money may not be quite so forthcoming in the future.

In a press release welcoming the BMA’s decision to argue for helmet compulsion, BHIT repeated statistics that it will no longer be able to use in marketing materials. One of BHIT’s leaflets was the subject of a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority. A few days ago, the ASA asked BHIT not to repeat certain claims. BHIT agreed to comply in an "informal arrangement" that is a way of avoiding adverse publicity.

One of the pieces of evidence cited by the BMA’s u-turn on helmet compulsion was a paper co-written by a certain ‘A. Lee’. This paper contains many of the statistics BHIT will no longer be able to use on its marketing materials, a fact that the BMA’s Board of Science and Education was not aware of when it made the decision to argue for compulsion.


Mr Marlew is the Labour MP for Carlisle. In April, his private members’ bill to force children to wear helmets when cycling failed to win enough support from MPs. He believes the BMA’s anti-compulsion stance at the time was a major factor in his bill failing to gain government support.

He told Cumbrian newspaper News & Star that he was "delighted" with the British Medical Association’s u-turn.

Such a decision would make "the future introduction of a compulsory helmet law much more likely. The way forward now is for the government to accept these findings and bring in legislation. I think it’s much more likely now the BMA have said this."


Dr Tiplady, from Cumbria, is chairman of the BMA’s Committee of Public Health Medicine and Community Health. He’s said to be an associate of Eric Martlew MP. In the News & Star, Martlew thanked Tiplady for his "work in promoting the [helmet compulsion] issue." Dr Tiplady, however, has subsequently distanced himself from Martlew.


Mr McCartney is the minister without portfolio and chairman of the Labour Party. He’s a "personal friend" of Eric Martlew MP. On March 16th, McCartney wrote to the Leader of the House of Commons, and copied his letter to the Prime Minister and a few key ministers.

It might have been this letter which caused PM Tony Blair to divert from a prepared answer when Martlew raised the topic of cycle helmet compulsion during Prime Minister’s Question Time on 31st March.

McCartney reveals in his letter that the then transport minister David Jamieson wrote to the Leader of the House of Commons on 10th March, asking for "agreement to oppose" Martlew’s helmet compulsion bill.

McCartney was opposed to this "handling strategy."

He asked Jamieson to "outline the measures that DfT will implement to ensure the safety of young cyclists."

In a phrase that it’s claimed caused consternation in a number of government departments, McCartney said:

"I would rather a child not cycle than cycle and be unsafe."

And, flying in the face of statistics, McCartney claimed "Children who cycle without helmets do so at risk of serious injury or death."

It’s not known whether the BMA has seen McCartney’s letter but Martlew believes that the BMA’s anti-compulsion stance was of pivotal importance in April.

"I know there was major debate in Cabinet as to whether the Government should support this bill and the views of the BMA were given a lot of consideration," Martlew told his local paper.






Much of the literature on child cycling takes an adult-centred approach leading to the idea that children should protect themselves with helmets, and are to blame if they are injured. However, children should have the freedom to cycle in safety, and to achieve this requires a change in the behaviour of adults, rather than "suits of armour" for children.

Focussing on cycle helmets as the answer to reducing cycle accidents could detract resources from other more effective means of accident prevention. Cycle helmets…are only designed to protect the head during low speed impacts, (e.g. 13 mph) such as would occur in a fall to the ground from a bicycle, rather than in an impact with a motor vehicle.

An individual who wears a helmet by choice may be more selective about the quality of helmet purchased and take the time to fit it correctly, than someone wearing a helmet only to comply with legislation and avoid prosecution. This is should be taken into account in any consideration of compulsory helmet legislation.


BMA Press release: BMA says no to compulsion on cycle helmets

Wednesday 2 Jun 1999

The British Medical Association today publishes a report on cycle helmets

which calls for an active campaign to promote the wearing of cycle helmets

but rejects the idea that wearing cycle helmets should be compulsory. The BMA says that cycle helmet costs should be substantially reduced and

suggests that manufacturers could supply a free cycle helmet with every bike

sold. The BMA concludes that well-designed and well-fitting helmets are an

important protection for cyclists but only one part of a bigger road safety

picture. Dedicated cycle paths, road traffic reduction and traffic calming

measures, driver training and cycle proficiency training are equally important. The report reviews the evidence from other countries. In the Netherlands,

helmet usage is minimal but cyclists are segregated from fast moving and

dense motor traffic. Cyclists and pedestrians make up 30 per cent of road

deaths compared with 45 per cent in the UK. In Australia, helmet wearing is

now compulsory in all states and territories. Deaths and head injuries fell

sharply when compulsion was introduced but critics argue that this is due to a dramatic drop in the number of people cycling, down by 40 per cent. In this country, the BMA believes that as only 18 per cent of cyclists

currently wear helmets, it would be impractical and possibly

counterproductive to make it mandatory to wear them. Dr Vivienne Nathanson, BMA Head of Health Policy and Research says: "In

this country, I would like to see every cyclist and particularly every child cyclist wearing a good quality helmet but I also want to see them cycling in a much safer environment with dedicated cycle paths and lower traffic

speeds." "Experience shows it is possible to increase cycle helmet use by positive

publicity campaigns but if children are going to wear them consistently, they must be comfortable, stylish, well-designed and affordable. It is also vitally important that cyclists are taught to ride safely and that drivers are aware of how vulnerable bicycle users are."

In May 2002, 566 respondents to a poll conducted by the British Medical Journal, placed ‘helmet compulsion’ seventh in a list of seven cycle safety measures Using a ranking system where 1.00 = Least effective, 6.00 = Most effective 4.04 Traffic calming to reduce vehicle speeds in urban areas

4.04 Reduce car use by better public transport and by encouraging walking and cycling

3.85 Banning motorised vehicles from towns and cities

3.42 Separate lanes for bicycles in urban areas

3.25 More and better cycle safety training

2.87 Compulsory cycle helmet wearing http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/…/DC1?ck=nck

In other news...

The top five jobs in the bike trade this week – 24th March

The BikeBiz jobs board helped filled over 740 positions in 2022, and listings are still …