There is an Australian federal government senate inquiry on personal choice. Its terms of reference include:
“bicycle helmet laws, including any impact on the health, enjoyment and finances of cyclists and non-cyclists;”
Most submissions to the inquiry requested a review of the bicycle helmet law.
The senate inquiry held hearings on the bicycle helmet law on the 16th of November 2015. This hearing included testimonies from helmet law supporters.
In their opening statements, helmet fanatics claim to be experts on bicycle safety. However they were unable to answer this question:
“CHAIR: Does Australia have a significantly lower rate of serious head injuries and deaths amongst cyclists than other countries in the OECD?
Mr Healy : We would have to take that question on notice.”
The self-appointed “experts” are fierce defenders of the helmet law. Yet they are not aware of its track record compared to other countries.
Helmet fanatics rely on bold claims like “helmets reduce risk of serious injury or death by about 60 per cent—in the case of death by about 74 per cent“. If that were true, that would be a miracle for a polystyrene hat. Helmet fanatics confidently make this claim. Yet they are unaware that, with its helmet law, Australia’s cycling serious injury rate is much worse than most developed countries.
Helmet fanatics bold assertions show they are rarely challenged. When challenged for evidence, they retreated to evasive statements or misleading assertions.
Trying to deny the helmet law reduces cycling
A key point from helmet choice advocates is that a helmet law reduces cycling. Many cycling counts show this. Yet that does not stop helmet fanatics from trying to deny it:
“CHAIR: We do have some evidence. We have evidence relating to participation in cycling. We have evidence in relation to cycling accidents. One of you—I cannot recall which—said that cycling participation has not declined following introduction of mandatory helmet laws, and yet even here in Victoria 679 fewer teenage cyclists were counted in identical pre- and post-law surveys, but the number of teenage cyclists wearing helmets increased by only 30. Doesn’t this suggest that the main effect of the law was to discourage cycling rather than encourage helmet wearing?
Prof. Olivier : No.
CHAIR: Fewer cyclists, only 30 more helmets over pre and post? What does that suggest to you?
Prof. Olivier : If you are trying to estimate the prevalence of people cycling, you do not do it by standing on the street corner and counting. That is not a proper statistical method for estimating prevalence. We would not do that with infectious diseases. We would not do it with other diseases or any other health related thing. We would not just stand on a street corner and ask people: ‘Do you have HIV? Yes or no?’ and then do that over several years and count the number of times someone says yes. That is not how it is done. It is very weak data and, from other stuff that we have done and I have done with colleagues here, we know that, as the data has got stronger—there is not any ideal data around the time of the helmet legislations across the Australian states—and better in terms of quality, we do not find big drops in cycling. We do not find any significant changes in cycling.
CHAIR: But others do, so I am struggling to understand how you can be so positive.
Prof. Olivier : Because, as the data is better—
CHAIR: What data? Which data set are you relying on?
Prof. Olivier : The census data of hospitalisations in New South Wales.”
So, let’s denigrate cycling counts as a method of measuring cycling levels, then claim “we have better data”.
Yet the evasive answer fell flat on its face when the chair asked for evidence.
Hospitalisation data is a better measure of cycling levels that cycling counts?
Really? That takes trying to deny the decline in cycling to ridiculous levels.
Another way to denigrate evidence detrimental to the helmet law is to claim the data is inconclusive. Yet that does not stop helmet fanatics from making bold statements. Senator CANAVAN frustration with evasive answers can be felt:
“Senator CANAVAN: That is what I continue to hear—that there is not enough data. In your opening statements and submissions you have made some fairly strong conclusions and assertions, but if there is not the data there to judge these matters how do you make those strong assertions and judgments? …”
Trying to denigrate evidence from the Northern Territory
One of the arguments from helmet choice advocates is the Northern Territory. The helmet law has been relaxed. It is rarely enforced. The helmet wearing rate is the lowest in Australia. Cycling to work is 3 times the national average. Cycling injuries are below the national average. Such evidence shatters helmet fanatics claims of high traumatic injuries should the helmet law be relaxed.
How to denigrate the evidence from the Northern Territory? How about this …
“Senator CANAVAN: Okay. I suppose that we do have some degree of competitive federalism in Australia, where the Northern Territory have relaxed their laws. I am not sure if you are familiar with this but the evidence to us is that apparently they have allowed bicycle use without a helmet on footpaths, and I think on low-speed roads as well. Do you have evidence that that has led to an increase? They did that in 1994 or some such—in the mid-1990s, so it was some time ago. Has that led to a marked difference in the quantum or severity of brain injuries in the Northern Territory as a result of cycling, relative to the rest of the country? Is there any evidence there?
Prof. Ivers : I am not aware of the specific details about head injury, but I think it is worth noting that the fatality rate for the Northern Territory is three times that of the rest of the country. The fatal—
CHAIR: On bicycles?
Prof. Ivers : No, overall.
Prof. Ivers : Yes, that is right.
CHAIR: Not specific to bicycles?
Prof. Ivers : No, that is right. It is not specific to bicycles. As I said—
CHAIR: There might be a few other reasons for that.”
So, it is worth noting an irrelevant statistic that misleads about cycling safety in the Northern Territory?
Such confusion does little to foster an informed debate.
Trying to deny that bicycle helmets are not designed to protect against brain injury
Bicycle helmets are not designed to protect against brain injury. This is inconvenient for helmet fanatics. Their rhetoric exploits fears of brain injury. Without it, the emotional appeal for a helmet law dwindles.
This limitation of bicycle helmets is well known. A recent article in Bicycling Magazine acknowledges it. Yet helmet fanatics still try to deny it:
“CHAIR: Well, the evidence we heard was that that is not likely to be the most typical injury incurred when you fall off your bike—that you are more likely to have a twisting injury. That was the suggestion.
Prof. Grzebieta : Yes, that is the Curnow hypothesis. Curnow put together evidence on the basis of other people’s work that was not substantiated through appropriate testing. McIntosh and a number of others at the University of New South Wales did some tests …. That is not in dispute”
What is the denial based on? A “study” that is an offshoot of this misleading study. This was a study commissioned to defend the helmet law. It sets up unrealistic conditions. It makes unwarranted claims by generalising the results beyond the laboratory artificial set up.
Helmet manufacturers have been sued for selling helmets that fail to protect against brain injury. They have made prototypes of different designs that might reduce rotational acceleration. Helmet manufacturers don’t deny that bicycle helmets are not designed to protect against brain injury.
Quoting misleading studies
Helmet fanatics eagerly quote claims from “studies”. Such studies are often conducted by helmet advocates. They are funded by governments desperate to defend their controversial policy. The studies bold claims are often contradicted by the data within the study. The inquiry highlighted an example:
“Senator CANAVAN: The submission of the Australian Injury Prevention Network says, ‘A multicentre study found the cost of medical treatment was triple for cyclists not wearing a helmet when they crashed’ and it has the data. However, Dr Robinson’s submission says that the source you have quoted actually compares costs for cyclists and motorcyclists together with the data you have used, that when you use just the cyclist data there is a different result.”
So, make a study with motorcycle helmets, then attribute the results to bicycle helmets. This makes no sense from a scientific point of view.
Such confusion does little to foster an informed debate.
Helmet fanatics have much in common with religious fanatics:
- They are passionate about their belief
- They speak like priests, talking as if they held the unquestionable truth
- They denigrate heretics
- They use emotive arguments: “Why don’t you come and visit us in the hospitals?“
- They exploit fears
- They promise safety
For 25 years. Helmet fanatics have got away with these tricks:
- Appoint themselves as “safety experts”
- Conduct or quote misleading “studies”
- Make misleading statements, exploiting fears
For how long will theses tricks keep working?