In a heated, emotional debate in the House of Commons this morning, the roads minister was let off the hook by not having to reveal the government's position on Eric Martlew's helmet bill. However, Martlew says he wants to form an all-party parliamentary group to push for compulsion at a later stage. He had better get better at culling facts: he ridiculed the bicycle trade for, he said, putting sales of cycles ahead of children's safety. His evidence for this? Philip Darnton, chair of the National Cycling Strategy Board, is MD of Raleigh. Really?

Martlew helmet Bill fails

He’s not, of course. He’s unpaid president of the Bicycle Association and is a former MD of Raleigh, leaving the employ of that company in April 2003.

This is just one of the many inaccuracies in today’s hour-long presentation from Eric Martlew.

The debate wasn’t well attended. Only 15 or 16 MPs bothered to attend, most other MPs having elected to attend ‘MPs back to school’ days in their constituencies.

When Martlew was asked why he thought every single bicycle organisation was opposed to his bill, he said British Cycling was in favour. Wrong.

Here’s British Cycling’s statement as given to

"British Cycling considers that hard shell helmets are a necessity in all events run under our technical regulations. British Cycling recommends the use of these helmets for leisure riding but recognises the right of each individual to chose whether or not to accept this recommendation."

An MP presenting a private members’ bill is expected to be on top of his subject. Martlew was surprisingly ignorant on many aspects of his own bill, relying almost wholly, it seems, on the statistics and advice of the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust.

BHIT receives the bulk of its funding from the Department’s of Health and Transport. No doubt these government departments will consider very carefully their cash contributions in the future.

Of those handful of MPs in the House this morning, the majority supported Martlew’s bill, most quoting statistics and opinions from BHIT, an organisation that has zero support from the UK bicycle trade.

Many mentions were made to head injuries and deaths suffered by constituents. Those organisations which oppose mandatory helmet wearing were labelled ‘lunatics in Lycra’ by Martlew. This is softer than his previous condemnations: he called the Association of Cycle Traders "cycling fascists" for daring to ask why Martlew had threatened to expose one of the ACT’s member shops to the media for ‘putting cycle sales ahead of child safety’, a bad taste claim many miles from the truth.

It’s not just "lunatics in Lycra" who oppose helmet compulsion. RoSPA is not in favour, nor is the British Medical Association.

Despite the strongly worded arguments used by both sides in today’s debate, the proceedings were brought to a halt by Eric Forth MP, Con, who, at 11.55 am took the gamble there weren’t enough MPs in the House to vote in the division lobbies. In a dramatic, and well-worn, move, Forth asked for the House to go into private session, a procedural device to cripple a bill.

The trick worked, less than the 40 MPs required were in the chamber and the topic of discussion had to move to the next debate, a bill on the EU referendum. Despite the PM’s acceptance of a referendum, government whips had not wanted the private members’ bill discussed and had been willing to fillibuster it by allowing MPs to talk about cycle helmets from 9.30am to 2.30pm. Forth’s intervention scuppered that plan, and scuppered Martlew’s bill in the process.

Worringly, Martlew’s plan to form an all-party group on cycle helmets could split the all-party cycling group in Westminster. Many cycling MPs are against helmet compulsion, other cycling MPs are for it. Again, Martlew is more than willing to sacrifice the greater good for his adopted hobby horse.

The fat lady has not yet sung, Martlew gets another chance to air his bill on June 18th. But, as he’s tenth on the list, it’s Commons knowledge that he won’t get a chance to read his bill.

Opposition to Martlew/BHIT’s bill will also have mustered forces by June. A broad coalition of pro-helmet, anti-compulsion organisations will have impressed on the government that consumer education on how to wear helmets properly will have a greater impact on cyclist safety than enacting mandation. It’s likely the government will take heed of this argument and helmet compulsion legislation in the UK is now unlikely for years to come.

If you wrote to your MP, pat yourself on the back. Such lobbying can work wonders. Mark Lazarowicz, Lab, said his "gut reaction" had initially been to support Martlew’s bill. ‘This must be a sensible idea, but as I have had information sent to me, I have swung to an extremely sceptical position….We must regard cycling as natural, not needing special protective equipment. Pedestrians are more likely to suffer head injuries than cyclists."

For the 20+ stories has run on the Martlew bill, click on the link below


* Eric Martlew claimed his Bill had the support of the Prime Minister Tony Blair, Transport Secretary Alistair Darling and Home Secretary David Blunkett. However, Martlew furnished no proof of his claims.

* Martlew said the equivalent of one primary school class were killed and an entire secondary school seriously injured in cycle-related accidents every year. “The death of a child is a tragedy. But the death of a child that could have been avoided is a scandal. And for every child that dies there are probably 10 severely injured – many of them with brain damage.”

* When asked to reply to a certain fact, Martlew said he couldn’t locate the fact because he had left the relevant paper upstairs. "Nothing like being well-prepared, hey?" said a Commons commentator later…

* Martlew claimed his bill was "simple, well-defined, modest, targetted and will work."

* Sir George Young, the ‘bicycling baronet’, commended Martlew on his bill, and supported it. There would be no rise in obesity should children cease to be cyclists after being forced to wear cycle helmets, said Young in a considered, temperate speech. He said the policy advisor to Sustrans had written asking him not to support the bill. He acknowledged that MPs who cycled had different opinions on the helmet issue. "I hope those who disagree with me do not let my tyres down in the member’s cycle racks."

* Martlew said Halfords supported his bill. He also said David Millar, the time trial specialist, was a supporter, and read out a short extract from a letter. Martlew also said Jason Queally supported the bill. This is wrong, see links below.

* The CTC was attacked by Sir George Young, Martlew and others for being "anti helmet". Martlew was aghast that the CTC could complain about last year’s DfT Cycle Sense helmet campaign which used images of x-rayed skulls to make children wear helmets.

* Martlew suggests CTC members should take action: "I would suggest to the CTC that if they want to be taken seriously they should change their policies and their leadership."

* Martlew: "The cycle trade association is more interested in selling bicycles than saving children."

* Edward Leigh, Cons, read out a letter from Brian Walker of Head Protection Evaluation which said that cheap helmets do not meet the tough Snell B standard or the EN1078 standard. "I have hardly ever seen a helmet worn properly," wrote Walker. On cheaper helmets "correct adjustment is not possible." Leigh asked whether 28 lives a year would really be saved by helmet compulsion.

* Leigh also quoted from a recent court case where a neurosurgeon said he had seen brain damage in patients who had been wearing cycle helmets.

* Leigh: "A layman assumes that when you wear a helmet you’ll be safe but it’s not a given fact that 28 lives would be saved."

* Leigh didn’t want to get into a statistics fight but he did want to say that when helmet compulsion was introduced in New Zealand it led to a 20 percent fall in cycle use, and there has been little recovery. In Sydney, there was a 91 percent drop in cycle use by secondary school pupils following helmet compulsion.


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