Monday, 2 January 2012

Considerate Cycling 8

"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" link

At the time of writing, this statement has been signed by 750 people. It is addressed to The National Federation of Women's Institutes (WI) by the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. The WI have a shortlist of 6 suggestions, one of which could form the basis of a WI national campaign if its local federations and annual conference agrees. Each shortlisted proposal is to be discussed locally and nationally. A summary of the WI's procedure is here:

A bit of publicity for a cherished cause is no bad thing. But the signatories to the Cycling Embassy petition seem to me to be doing something a bit silly. For one thing, the WI is a voluntary organisation who have their own democratic procedures. They decide things for themselves. They have provided a briefing for members that is even-handed about the pros and cons of each proposal, with evidence that they have made efforts to find out about the views of interested parties (including the CTC) and to let members know about these.

At this stage, the idea that another voluntary organisation can petition a body that has not yet made a democratic decision is one that I don't understand. A petition, in normal use, is a word that refers to a demand or request made by a group of signatories to a recognised authority who have the power to accede to the demand or request. In this case the WI is not a recognised authority. The WI might have influence, but it is not a statutory body and in any case, they haven't finished deciding what to do. Sending them a petition is just a gimmick – a publicity attracting device.

The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain has just got itself into a muddle here. They and those who are signing its petition are making themselves look a bit daft. (sadly, adding an ounce or two to the public perception of cyclists as a bit eccentric). A voluntary association with a specific interest has every right to campaign on whatever it wants to campaign on - calling on another voluntary association to stop a process that would lead to a campaign the Cycling Embassy doesn't like reveals a fairly worrying lack of understanding of democratic processes.

To put it more simply the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, if it wants to, should campaign against compulsory helmets for cyclists. The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, if it wants to, can publish opinions about the WI and one of the WI's membership-generated proposals (even though it has not yet been accepted). But in my opinion The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain should not put itself or its supporters in the non-democratic position of calling on a voluntary association not to mount a campaign. They are meddling in someone else's affairs.

Sorry, I have to say The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain and the 750 "petitioners" have put themselves in a wrong place.

I do, incidentally, agree that compulsory helmet legislation would be a bad idea. As far as I understand it there is good evidence that segregated provision improves safety and that there is no equivalent evidence that compulsion to wear helmets changes the likelihood of casualties. Please let me know if I'm wrong on either of those points. They are, however, nothing to do with what I am saying about the folly of this petition.


  1. Sally Hinchcliffe (@sallyhinch) was kind enough to send me this response to what I wrote above.

    To support the Cycling Embassy's position (I am a board member and was one of the people who instituted this) I'd like to make a couple of points. The first is that the WI was lobbied in the first place by Headway to put this proposal to the national federation, so I think it's perfectly fair for us to counter lobby. Ideally, we would have been lobbying them beforehand, to support our preferred policies (which basically is for Dutch style dedicated cycling provision in the UK) rather than fighting what is essentially a rearguard action.

    Secondly, while more or less balanced, we felt the WI's briefing note was rather narrow, pointing only to training as a countermeasure to increase cyclists' safety. While we don't doubt the importance of training to help cyclists on the UK's roads, we would prefer to work towards road conditions where children and novice cyclists can ride safety without having to master cyclecraft. At the time the WI policies came out, there was a bit of a twitter storm developing and I felt that the WI were likely to feel a bit beleaguered - there's a limit to the sort of reasoned subtle point that can be squeezed into 140 characters. Rather than just shout at them from the sidelines, we decided to write a letter (jointly with other bike bloggers, such as cyclists in the City and This Big City) and then, because a lot of other people felt strongly about it, opened it up for wider signatures through the petition. Maybe that was the wrong form - really we were thinking of it as an open letter - but it's hard to get a lot of people (over 900 now) signing a letter over Christmas without using something like a petition.

    Is it a bit of a sideshow? Well, yes, probably. But the WI are not an irrelevant institution in this country, especially in the rural areas and we strongly felt at the time that they'd be a powerful force to have on our side - and an equally powerful force if ranged against us. As well as likely being cyclists themselves, they represent the mothers and grandmothers of children who should be free to ride their bikes as we could as kids, and so we wanted the space to put our counter view across to an audience that might not otherwise have been aware that there's another way to keep cyclists safe than armouring them and training them to ride like ninjas. I'm sorry that you disagree as I sense from your blog that we're basically on the same side here.

  2. And my comment on that is to say thanks Sally for taking the trouble to reply so constructively and to apologise for the struggle you had in getting the message past Blogger's awkward infrastructure.