Resolution one of six to be voted on at May's AGM, winning initiative will be focus of future campaigns...

A petition has been launched by the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain and three cycling bloggers urging the National Federation of Women’s Instititutes (NFWI) not to adopt a resolution calling for compulsory helmet laws to be brought in for cyclists as one of its key campaigns.

The proposal is among six currently being put to the NFWI’s 210,000 members and reads: “The NFWI urges Her Majesty's Government to make the wearing of helmets when cycling a legal requirement.”

It is due to be voted upon at the NFWI’s Annual General Meeting at the Royal Albert Hall in May next year and if adopted will become one of its key campaigning issues in the years ahead. This year, 98 per cent of NFWI delegates voted to adopt a resolution opposing the closure of public libraries.

The NFWI has published Briefing Notes that set out the background to the issues and aim to outline the arguments for and against each of the proposed resolutions, although in the case of cycle helmets, there are some inaccuracies; even the most vocal supporters of compulsion would be hard pressed to back up the assertion that “compulsory helmet wearing may encourage more people to take up cycling.”

Putting forward the arguments against the resolution, the NFWI says that “It could look at compulsory helmet wearing as part of a drive to improve road safety and training for cyclists to increase safety for cyclists and encourage more people to feel confident to take up cycling” – while the wider call for improvements to safety is to be welcomed, it should be noted that mandatory helmet use still features within that.

The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, supported by the blogs I Bike London, Cyclists in the City and This Big City, has written to the NFWI asking it to reject the mandatory helmet laws proposal and to ask them instead to focus on campaigning for safer streets for all.

The full text of that letter is repeated at the end of this article, and you can also sign an online petition asking the NFWI to reject calls for compulsory helmet laws here.

The other five resolutions due to be voted upon next June, following a year-long debating and consultation process, relate to:

  • Field study centres and outdoor education;
  • Airborne litter;
  • Reducing fuel poverty;
  • Employment of more midwives; and
  • Achieving legal status for British Sign Language as an indigenous minority language in the UK.

Our own position here at road.cc is that we are helmet-neutral – we won’t tell you that you should wear a helmet while cycling, nor will we tell you that you should ride without one.

We do believe, however, that you should have the right to choose one way or the other – a freedom of choice that compulsory helmet laws, by their very nature, take away.

Letter from the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, I Bike London, Cyclists in the City and This Big City addressed to the NFWI:

Dear Women’s Institute

We are writing to you today with regards to the 2012 proposed resolution (6) which the Women's Institute is current considering regarding bicycle helmet compulsion.

We at the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain welcome the fact that the Women’s Institute is taking an interest in the safety of cyclists. Far too many bicycle riders, young and old, are killed and injured on the UK's roads every year. Many more will never even contemplate something so simple as riding a bicycle - or have tried and given up - through being too scared to mix with heavy and fast traffic on Britain's main roads. We do not believe that the way to remedy this situation, and to increase cyclist's safety, is through compulsory helmet laws.

As is stated in the summary of your resolution in the pros and cons, the focus of the resolution as it stands is currently very narrow and is likely to put people off cycling; something we have already seen happen in Australia and New Zealand. Both countries adopted compulsory bicycle helmet laws in the 1990s and both now see almost a third less cyclists on their roads. Recent research published by the Health Promotion Journal of Australia found that 1 in 5 adults would start cycling, or cycle more, if such laws weren’t in place. In 2008, the New Zealand Transport Safety Minister Harry Duynhoven publicly acknowledged that such laws are putting people off cycling. Urban cycle hire schemes in Melbourne and Brisbane have struggled to find an audience, with Aukland’s equivalent folding after failing to cover its costs. This whilst equivalent schemes in Paris, Barcelona, Montreal, Toronto, Washington DC, Mexico City and London (to name but a few) have seen huge success with hardly any accidents. London’s accident rate is a minute 0.002%. It can be argued that the consequence of a compulsory helmet law is a greater risk to public health than making cycling safer in other ways.

With less people engaging in everyday exercise like cycling, as in Australia and New Zealand, the risk of obesity and the many associated health problems increases. Even if cycle helmets protect against head injuries - and it is imperative that the Women's Institute is made aware that there is no conclusive evidence or academic consensus that they do - compulsory cycle helmet laws bring with them their own negative health repercussions. Obesity cost the NHS an estimated £4.2 billion pounds in England alone in 2007, with the NHS themselves expecting a £50 billion annual cost by 2050 should current trends continue. Any motion which encourages easy, everyday exercise like cycling should be applauded, but there is not one single example of a compulsory helmet law increasing rates of cycling.

We at the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain believe in prevention rather than cure. Cycle helmets do not prevent accidents from occurring the first place and we believe it is more effective to reduce cyclist's exposure to danger rather than try and mitigate against being exposed to it.

Whilst there are opportunities to improve training for cyclists and drivers, too often it is the design of our roads, particularly our junctions, which bring bikes into conflict with larger, heavier vehicles. Many of the high-profile deaths of cyclists, particularly in London, have been women riders who were wearing a helmet, and who were experienced - neither factors which saved them when they got hit by an HGV. We believe that safe areas for people to walk and cycle should be created, particularly in populated areas where people live and go to school or work or the shops. At present approximately 75% of all regular cyclists in the UK are men; we believe that focusing on creating attractive and safe conditions for riding a bicycle have a much larger possibility of enacting positive change within society - most especially for women and families - with all the wider benefits that increased riding will bring (less congestion, less pollution, fitter population etc)

Mandating helmet use for those who are comfortable cycling in our present road conditions, whilst not considering those who would like to cycle but are too afraid is not the way forwards for a safe, successful and equitable society.

A lot of us are able to remember that when we were children, our bikes were our passports to freedom and independence. There is no reason why this cannot be the case for current generations. There are cities and countries who already achieve safe mass cycling rates; we should look to their successful examples rather than countries, like Australia, where mandatory helmet laws have been disastrous. In the Netherlands, children are still free to go to school unaccompanied, on their bikes, on average from the age of eight. That is because their roads and towns are designed to make cycling safe for all ages, from children with stabilisers all the way up to grandparents and great grandparents. The result is civilised streets and happy children. In a 2007 UNICEF study, the Netherlands came top for safest roads and child wellbeing.

The UK came 21st.

Whilst levels of cycling dropped by almost a third in Australia, obesity increased dramatically. Australia now has the fastest growing obesity rates of any developed country, with 1 in 2 people overweight. Additionally, since introducing mandatory cycle helmet laws, neither Australia nor New Zealand has seen a reduction in head injuries beyond the general trend for the population at large.

Traffic safety in the Netherlands is the best in Europe, and obesity is among the lowest of any developed country in the world. We believe that with pragmatic problem solving at the root cause, and hopefully a bit of imagination, the UK could achieve the same.

The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain is a newly formed organisation campaigning for just that. We'd be thrilled to have the WI on our side on this. Your resolution shows that you've the interests of cyclists and their safety at heart but we hope that you'll be able to think wider than just helmets and training to infrastructure based on the Netherlands model that has had proven success giving freedom of movement and empowerment to all. We'd be delighted to give you more information, or come and talk to your groups in person about the wider issues at stake. Above all, we would be honoured for you to join us in a proper cycling revolution

This letter is from the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. It comes to you with the support of the campaigning group Cyclists in the City of London and the websites This Big City and ibikelondon. The undersigned call on the Women's Institute to reject Resolution 6 calling for compulsory helmet laws and to focus instead on creating conditions in which all members of society will feel safe and comfortable riding a bicycle

The undersigned call on the Women's Institute to reject Resolution 6 calling for compulsory helmet laws and to focus instead on creating conditions in which all members of society will feel safe and comfortable riding a bicycle:


Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.


BigDummy [314 posts] 5 years ago

Good letter, but how is this the WI's business? Haven't they got jam to make or something?

I remain to be convinced that engaging with every group of basically anti busybodies who think more laws are needed is the way to go...

downfader [213 posts] 5 years ago
BigDummy wrote:

Good letter, but how is this the WI's business? Haven't they got jam to make or something?

I remain to be convinced that engaging with every group of basically anti busybodies who think more laws are needed is the way to go...

The WI do have a lot of clout.

I think they're wrong on this, wrong approach when so much else needs to be done first, wrong sponsor (Headway), all compulsion law does is criminalise an activity that doesnt affect or risk others on the road.

If the WI come on-side, and help cyclists fight for safer roads, roads that children can ride on without personal fear or that of their parents, it could be highly beneficial in raising cycling's profile in the UK.

Ian Brett Cooper [6 posts] 5 years ago

The fact is, helmet use is already criminalized in the UK, not by law but by the media. How often do we see news reports of cyclist deaths which state, in condemning tones: "The cyclist was not wearing a helmet"? Such articles seem to suggest that death or serious injury are appropriate penalties for such a 'crime'.

Since this is the case, any cyclist who refuses to wear a helmet should be aware that, no matter how innocent, competent and law-abiding he is on a bicycle, if he gets injured or killed in a collision on the road, he will be deemed guilty by the court of public opinion. It doesn't matter whether the driver who hit him was drunk, texting, using a phone, high on drugs, etc. Cyclists who don't wear a helmet deserve death.

That's the main reason I always wear a helmet. It has little to do with safety, and everything to do with PR. If I ever get killed on my bike, I do not want the newspapers to suggest that the death sentence was appropriate.

So I advise every cyclist to wear a helmet. Make sure it's comfortable, make sure it's cheap. Safety comes a distant third, because let's face it - the chances of sustaining a life-threatening head injury when you take your bike out for a ride are a couple of million to one against, and if you do happen to be in an accident, the jury is still out on whether a helmet even does much to help. It probably does, but it would for a car driver too, and how many of them wear helmets? Car accidents are more likely than cyclist accidents to involve head injuries, but how often do we see news reports of motorist deaths that say "The driver was not wearing a helmet"? Never.

So wear a helmet. It could save your reputation even though it might not save your life.

PeteH [151 posts] 5 years ago

@Ian, hope you'll also be wearing clean undies!

This one is an old chestnut which was probably debated on this site, what, a month ago?

All I would say is that if the WI want to take a stance on this, they should also be prepared to justify why they feel it appropriate to oblige other people to conform to the WI's wishes.

Its nothing to do with safety - I am intelligent enough to make that call for myself - its about some other ***** telling me what to do!

thereverent [450 posts] 5 years ago

Looking through the briefing notes it is a poorly constructed argument. They state how many cyclists were killed in 2008 (is no more recent data available?), then state that the DfT found cycle helmets were effective at reducing injury in accidents that do not involve another vehicle. I would put a large amount of money on the great majority of the fatalities being accidents with another vehicle.

“compulsory helmet wearing may encourage more people to take up cycling.”

A truely bonkers statement from the WI proposal.

Just because it is not compulsory to do something, does not mean you can't voluntarily do it. You can wear a helmet or get training without being required to by the law  14

There could be many sensible proposals about road safety (more 20mph limts, stricter driving tests, better enforcement on the roads, etc), but they have chosen this half baked proposal.

abudhabiChris [691 posts] 5 years ago

Couldn't the Cycling Embassy have asked someone literate to check their letter ?

As a small taster from the first few paragraphs - I honestly couldn't read the whole thing:

"...and to increase cyclist's safety". Who is the lucky single cyclist that we are talking about here ?

"Aukland" . Is this is the place where auks come from, or did they mean the city in New Zealand ?

"With less people engaging in everyday exercise..." FEWER people.

"we believe that focusing on creating attractive and safe conditions for riding a bicycle have a much larger possibility... " HAS a much larger.

It's a serious point - given the well-educated middle class audience it is aimed at a lot of them will dismiss it as coming from a group that can't be taken seriously.

Not a great start when you are trying to convince someone you are right and they are wrong.

CraigTheBiker [11 posts] 5 years ago
abudhabiChris wrote:

Couldn't the Cycling Embassy have asked someone literate to check their letter ?

Completely agree. Attention is drawn away from many of the letter's valid points simply because of grammatical errors.

Personally, I tend to wear a helmet when cycling in towns and cities, or in bad weather, but I would like to retain the freedom to take off my helmet when cycling on quieter country roads.

joemmo [1164 posts] 5 years ago

" neither factors which saved them when they got hit by an HGV "

one suspects some WI members might conclude cyclists deserve everything they receive for using such ghastly grammar.

Paul M [363 posts] 5 years ago

OK, abudhabichris, craigthebiker, joemmo (and I don't give a shit whether I've spelt your handles correctly) why don't YOU petition the WI to lobby for improved educational standards in our schools? God knows we need them - yer average politician is just as bad, even if we don't have the guy who insists it's spelt "p-o-t-a-t-o-E".

And in defence of the WI, it is definitely no longer an entirely middle-class organisation which is up its own rear end about spelling and grammar. And it cowed Tony Blair which not many organisations could achieve.

townmouse [14 posts] 5 years ago

Lovely. What's more important - grammar or preventing pressure building up for a disastrous piece of legislation? That letter was put together in a hurry at a very busy time of year in an attempt to get it out quickly - I hope the nit pickers have signed it as well as picking holes in it, or is it just too distressingly badly punctuated?

That aside, cycle safety is of course the WI's business as much as anyone's - and if they were really campaigning for safer streets rather than the placebo safety of cycle helmets, then they'd be an awesome force for good in the country. Older women actually make up a surprisingly large proportion of cyclists, possibly because they came from a generation that didn't learn to drive. If they're being forced off the roads due to fears for their safety they'll suffer far more than someone who's got an alternative means of transport

abudhabiChris [691 posts] 5 years ago

@townmouse The point was about how to get the message across most effectively.

Given that the proposal is not going to be voted on until May, what exactly was the mad rush to get it out ?

Apart from the grammar it's just badly written and far too long and rambling.

Better to have a well-presented, clear and concise message in a week than rambling nonsense now.

@Paul M - I don't see there's any need to be so aggressive. This is nothing to do with educational standards in schools. I don't expect everyone to have perfect grammatical knowledge.

I do however expect an organisation which purports to speak on behalf of others to take a professional approach if it wants to be taken seriously. That means making sure their communications, particularly at an 'official' level are properly written and presented.

If they send something out which is clearly half-arsed and hasn't been given more than momentary attention, why should the recipient give it more than half-arsed, momentary consideration.

I didn't say the WI was a middle-class organisation, but I expect quite a few people reading it will have been wincing and grinding their teeth, cyclists and WI members alike.

So no, I haven't signed it. Maybe the Cycling Embassy should leave these things to more professional organisations like the CTC.

Or was it just that they actually don't care what the reaction is from the WI and this was more about getting a bit of publicity among cyclists at a quiet time of year, before someone else could do it.

WolfieSmith [1387 posts] 5 years ago

I hope they can get the WI on board and petition for safer roads. With 75% of UK cyclists being men getting more women on bikes is the answer - not just for recreational cycling but commuting and the school run. My kids can safely cycle around the block but no farther. At their age I was over the hills and far away.

Grammar corrections? Those that complained were absolutely right to complain. As an individual I would have had such an important letter proof read by at least one other person. Unprofessional.

Low Speed Wobble [156 posts] 5 years ago

I must confess I haven't read the whole thing (therefore am not commenting on the specific issue), but it did just cross my mind as to who the rather pompously self-titled 'Cycling Embassy of Great Britain' purport to represent, other than themselves. Who are they? What mandate do they possess? Or isn't this important? It strikes me that they may do more harm than good unless they become accountable to the greater mass of cyclists.

joemmo [1164 posts] 5 years ago

PaulM / townmouse - if you're so easily riled by some tongue in cheek comments on a website it doesn't bode well for any genuinely difficult discussions you might encounter in future.

As for the importance of well written communication, it's all about establishing credibility and influence. The WI has both of these because it is a long standing organisation but also because it has registered, subscribing members who it can genuinely claim to represent and who are answerable to it in some form at least (code of conduct, etc.).

Having a pretentious name, an ambiguous manifesto and free-to-join membership or a band of followers on twitter is not the same thing so it is even more important to get communiques like this right to gain credibility with the people you seek to influence and those who you claim to represent.

Finally for the record, my mum is in the WI and though I doubt she's ridden a bike in 25 years she does make bloody good marmalade.

dr2chase [16 posts] 5 years ago

Perhaps the WI could be persuaded to call for mandatory helmets for automobile drivers. At least in the US, auto accidents cause about half of serious head injuries (problem with that stat, is it does not say whether the injured are in the cars, or merely hit by the cars). Drivers don't need to worry about sweaty-head in the way that cyclists do, and there's no tension between crash deaths and public health -- if mandatory helmet use happens to discourage automobile use, that is good for health, not bad.

barogerl [25 posts] 5 years ago

My neighbour ( a man) fell off his bike in the middle of the road as he turned right and broke his hip.. A neighbour commented, " it's a good job he was wearing his helmet!". Trouble is he wore it on his head, not his  20 bum. Most cycle accidents involve injury to limbs, not the head.

Viro Indovina [81 posts] 5 years ago

Thanks for posting this item and for clarifying your position.

It's an important debate and I hope it leads to rational and flexible solutions.

Cycle helmets are placebos? Rubbish. Hit yourself on the head with a hammer and then (if you are still able to) put on a cycle helmet and hit your self on the head with a hammer.

MrHappyCyclist [17 posts] 5 years ago
Viro Indovina wrote:

Hit yourself on the head with a hammer and then (if you are still able to) put on a cycle helmet and hit your self on the head with a hammer.

I must remember that next time I get attacked by someone wielding a hammer when I'm on my bike.
I must admit, there is an airgun pellet embedded in the side of my helmet, though.