Category Archives: Propaganda

Helmet fanatics misleading tricks exposed at senate inquiry

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 believers in the helmet law. Yet they are not aware of its poor track record. Lack of awareness sustains the belief.

Helmet fanatics make bold claims like “helmets reduce risk of serious injury or death by about 60 per cent”. If that were true, that would be a miracle for a polystyrene hat. Helmet fanatics confidently make such claims. Yet they are unaware that, with its peculiar helmet law, Australia’s cycling serious injury rate is 22 TIMES higher than in the Netherlands.

serious_injury_per_100m_km_cycled

Wearing a helmet can make us feel safer.
However feeling safe is different than being safe.
Helmet fanatics seem unable to understand the difference.
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Helmet fanatics bold assertions indicate 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 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.

CHAIR: 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”

It is odd to attempt to denigrate a phenomenon accepted worldwide as “Curnow hypothesis”.

What is the denial based on? A study that is an offshoot of this misleading study. This “study” was 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.

Yet, helmet fanatics claim that their denial is “not in dispute”.

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.

Conclusion

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:

  1. Appoint themselves as “safety experts”
  2. Conduct or quote misleading “studies”
  3. Make emotive statements, exploiting fears

For how long will these tricks keep working?

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Confusing helmets with polystyrene hats

Why are these two devices given the same name?

Motorcycle HelmetThis device protects in a serious accident

helmet-soft-shell-2This device crumbles in a serious accident

Imagine a drug manufacturer introduces a new medicine it calls new aspirin. Yet the new aspirin is only 1% as effective as current aspirin. There would be an outcry. It is misleading to give the same name to a product that isn’t as effective. The drug manufacturer would have to use a different name to avoid misleading consumers.

Yet, in the 1980s, helmet manufacturers marketed “bicycle helmets”. They were essentially a piece of polystyrene. They provided much less protection than existing helmets. Yet the manufacturers got away with the misleading label.

soft-shell-helmetMost “bicycle helmets” are actually a piece of polystyrene covered by a thin layer of plastic

Why do they have the same name?

There are two powerful vested interests benefiting from the confusion:

  1. Helmet manufacturers. Labelling a polystyrene hat a “helmet” suggests it provides significant protection. It becomes a safety device. A polystyrene hat couldn’t sell for much more than $10. A helmet can sell for $100.
    There are huge profits in selling bicycle helmets. In the late 1980’s, bicycle helmets were the most profitable of all types of helmets. Helmet manufacturer were keen to expand this market. They used their profit bonanza to increase market size. They commissioned “studies” claiming that bicycle helmets protect against brain injury. They lobbied governments for a helmet law. Their efforts lead to the introduction of a bicycle helmet law in Australia.
  2. Politicians like to be seen “doing something” to improve safety. In Europe, cycling safety has improved by protecting cyclists from motorised traffic. This reduces accidents, but requires effort and investment. In countries where there are few votes in cycling, politicians can take shortcuts. They can pretend that polystyrene hats make cycling “safe”. Imposing a mandatory bicycle helmet law sounds like a plausible policy.
    If the policy was called “mandatory polystyrene hat”, it would be obvious it is a fake safety measure.

Effective politicians master the art of peddling what seems plausible. Policies don’t have to work to attract votes. They only need to be plausible to appeal to enough voters.

Language affects our perception. We can be tricked by mis-labelling an issue. For example labelling a problem an “opportunity” makes it feel less painful. Labelling a polystyrene hat a “helmet” makes it seem like a safety device.

Why isn’t there any oversight?

Unlike medicine, road safety suffers from poor oversight. Companies can market products with misleading names.

“Road safety” bureaucrats are mostly unaccountable. They can produce policies that do more harm than good. There is no independent auditor that checks the policies effectiveness. In medicine, drugs have to go through diligent trials. They look for side effects, ensuring the drugs does no harm. Road safety policy lacks such safeguards.

Policies that do more harm than good can be sustained for years. Bureaucrats can throw plenty of taxpayers money to defend their policies:

  1. “Road safety” advertising. This often uses fear mongering to scare people. When we are afraid, we seek safety. This is what the policy promises. The advertising finds an emotional way to associate the government policy with “being safe”. It doesn’t to have be true. It only has to be plausible. With enough emotional manipulation, any plausible policy can build up popular support.
  2. Commissioning “studies” to defend the policy. A bureaucrat offers generous funding to conduct a “study” related to a government policy. If the study concludes the policy is ineffective, the academic is unlikely to get further funding. Most studies conclude that the policy is beneficial.
    Most of these studies lack scientific discipline. A meta-analysis of drunk driving prevention and control literature from 1960 through 1991 identified 6500 documents, of which only 125 passed minimal standards of scientific rigor and qualityLess than 0.2% of the “studies” passed minimal scientific standards!  Lacking scientific discipline, studies make invalid claims defending the policy. This is junk science. It misuses science for political purposes.
    These “studies” are used to denigrate critics who point out the policy ineffectiveness. They are an obfuscation tool.

Using such tricks, policies that do more harm than good can remain in place for years. This keeps the bureaucrats in their cushy jobs, while the politicians get the votes. The bureaucrats and politicians do not suffer from the consequences of their mistakes. We do. This could not happen with independent oversight.

If it’s a duck, call it a duck!

Vested interests benefit from the confusion between helmets and polystyrene hats.

Yet, the public does not benefit from being mislead.
What we can do to reduce the confusion is to insist on a name that does not mislead.
When it’s a duck, call it a duck.
When it’s a polystyrene hat, call it a polystyrene hat.

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Meanwhile, the bureaucrats commission another “study”

Abstract

The failure of the bike share scheme in Brisbane led to calls to exempt it from the helmet law.
The government response was to commission a study to defend its controversial  legislation.
Bureaucrats even edited the “study” in favor of the legislation.
Such “research” should not be misrepresented as science.

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A strange “study”

The failure of the bike share scheme in Brisbane led to calls to to exempt bike share from the helmet law.

A document obtained under the Right to Information legislation (RTI) revealed that the government response was to commission as “study” to defend its controversial helmet law. CARRS-Q was only given 13 days, and paid $35,000 to produce a “study”.

13 days is too short to conduct high-quality research. Thus the “study” is mostly a re-hash of previous studies supporting helmets.

Email correspondance obtained under RTI revealed more shocking findings:

the report was reviewed no fewer than three times by the State Government’s Transport and Main Roads Department before its public release, with some significant changes made to ‘strengthen’ the supposedly academic findings.

Since when does academic research gets edited by the party commissioning it, in favor of its own agenda?

The study press release is full of bold claims, lacking supporting evidence. It dismissed calls to exempt bike share from the helmet law, backing the government agenda.

The government (surprise!) quoted this commissioned “study” to dismiss calls to review the helmet law.

Such use of dubious studies is not new. Governments have commissioned many policy-driven studies since the failure of the helmet law became apparent. Using junk science is not new either among helmet fanatics, as shown in Canada, where various tricks and optimistic assumptions are used to push for a helmet law. 

In another strange example, a helmet fanatic claimed that bike share increased brain injuries when the data in the study showed a significant decrease in head injuries despite an increased number of cyclists. It is quite common for helmet “studies” conducted by helmet fanatics to make claims that are contradicted by their own data from the study.

Where is the evidence?

A close look at the study reveals wide discrepancies between its bold claims and the evidence.  As would be expected from a report produced in a short time, and edited by the bureaucrats commissioning it, it is full of errors, invalid claims and unexplained discrepancies.

The study makes some strange assertions, for example:

the reason they don’t cycle is because it doesn’t fit in with their lifestyle

There is no evidence backing up this statement. This indicates the amount of “research” conducted. Somehow the study ignores that cycling numbers could conservatively double if the helmet law was repealed.

The study attempts to deny that cycling declined after the helmet law. It makes this strange claim:

”In Melbourne adult cyclist numbers doubled after the helmet legislation was introduced”

How this conclusion was reached is a mystery. The quoted source is another policy-driven study. It is difficult to see how such conclusion can be reached, even from the dubious data quoted. Perhaps it is one of the edits from the bureaucrats.

Figure 2 on page 26 of the study reveals that cycling injuries increased after the helmet law, despite a lower number of cyclists. This is consistent with what has been observed in other states. In NSW, the injury rate tripled after the helmet law, due to a strong increase in accidents. 

cycling_inury_rate_following_helmet_law_2

The injury rate tripled after the helmet law

This is hardly an indication of the success of the legislation. Yet that didn’t stop the study authors from claiming that the helmet law had been a success.

A key claim from the study is that exempting bike share from the helmet law would result in increased head injuries. This is based on an old discredited “study” conducted by helmet lobbyists, that claimed that bicycle helmets protect against 85% of head injuries. Since, the researchers have disowned their claim. Why is it used as the foundation for this study then?

The study ignores that helmets tend to increase the risk of accidents, DESPITE the fact that its own data indicates an increase in injuries after the helmet law.

There are so many errors in this study, that would be too long to list. Some of them are described herehere, here, and here for example.

Prophetic statements contradicting the evidence

The study makes strange  prophetic statements, contradicting real-world evidence. For example, this claim:

“Only requiring bicycle helmets to be worn by children or when riding on the road would result in substantial increases in the percentage of riders in crashes who sustain head injuries”

Such claim contradicts the most relevant evidence available. The best evidence we have of what might happen if the helmet law was relaxed is the experience in the Northern Territory.  NT relaxed its helmet law in 1994 and reduced its enforcement.  Since then, the helmet wearing rate is the lowest in Australia, cyclist hospitalisations per capita are the lowest, and cycling to work is 3 times higher than the national average.

The study makes prophetic claims about bike share, also contradicting the available evidence. In London, after 7 million trips, there were no fatalities and only 9 injuries requiring hospitalisation. The serious injury rate is 3 times lower than for all cyclists.

bike_share_LondonBike share is safer than walking. The helmet requirement is irrational.

With its low speed and upright position, bike share is safer that walking.
Why require a helmet?
How can such a counterproductive policy have greater benefits than negative side-effects?

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Official misrepresentation of Australia’s bicycle helmet law

Abstract

The helmet law has failed to achieve its stated goal of reducing the cost of cycling injuries.
Several government agencies have 
obfuscated this disappointing result through misrepresentation.

The information below is an extract from CRAG submission to the Prime Minister in 2009.
Following this submission, the federal government abandoned its policy of supporting compulsory bicycle helmets.

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Federal authorities’ commitment to compulsory wearing of bicycle helmets has never wavered since 1984 and excessive assurances of its value have continued. Although federal authorities knew of the deficiencies of helmets that Corner et al. had found, they pressed the states and territories to pass laws for compulsory wearing. The federal minister threatened to seek reimbursement of funds in the event of non-compliance and he dismissed his South Australian counterpart’s reservations, arguing that permanent brain injury would be prevented.[17],[18]Federal authorities also criticised an exemption which the Northern Territory granted for adults on cycle paths[19],[20], but their main effort to uphold compulsory wearing was directed to Western Australia.

Western Australia [162-63]

Opposition to compulsory wearing of helmets was strongest far from Canberra, Western Australia being the last state to legislate, in 1992. Its Parliament’s Select Committee on Road Safety reviewed the application of the helmets law to adults in 1994. As this threatened the integrity of the national policy, the Federal Office of Road Safety made a submission which argued for upholding the law  FORS’s argument on the effects of compulsory wearing on fatalities and injuries, and the fall in rates of usage of bicycles is examined here.

Fatalities

FORS presented two graphs which purport to show the effect of compulsory wearing on bicycle fatalities. The first, Figure 1 (with data for 1994 and pedestrians added here), is misleading in not taking any account of the effect of the fall in usage.

Figure 1.  Road user fatalities, Australia (indexed to 1986)

Separate listing of fatalities to children and adults, as in Table 1, together with data from surveys showing declines in cycling post-law [162], makes it possible to correct for both the effects of reduced usage and the general improvement in road safety.

Table 1. Fatalities to road users, Australia 1989 – 1993

YearTotal road usersAdult          ChildPedestriansAdult         ChildBicyclistsAdult          Child
19892505           296428             7354               44
19902093           238344             7647               33
19911915           198292             5135               23
19921783           191297             5324               17
19931775           178284             4730               15
Change, 1989-93-29%         -40%-34%         -36%-44%          -66%

Source of data: FORS, 1997. Road Fatalities Australia: 1996 statistical summary.

The fall in fatalities to all cyclists from 1989 to 1993 can be explained as being the product of improved road safety and declines in cycling of 40 per cent by children and perhaps 20 per cent by adults; it is not evidence that the helmet laws reduced the risk of death. FORS also claimed that the reductions in head injuries and fatalities are far greater than the decline in cycling, but this made no allowance for the general improvement in road safety; the claim is irrelevant.

Injuries

FORS stated that helmets have little or no effect on injuries other than to the head, but this discounted the possibility, well known at the time, that wearing one could change behaviour and the risk of accident. Decreases in head injury in some states were cited, but with no allowance for improved road safety or the declines in cycling. According to FORS, reduction in head injury is the best measure of compulsory wearing, but this highlighted its failure to understand the real problem, namely, how to protect from brain damage and consequent death or chronic disability, not from minor trauma.

For Victoria, FORS noted that in the first year after helmets became compulsory, cyclists’ claims on the Transport Accident Commission (TAC) for head injuries decreased by 51 per cent compared to a fall of 24 per cent in non-head injuries. In the second year, the respective decreases were 70 per cent and 28 per cent. FORS said that Lane and McDermott (1993) ascribed the difference to increased helmet wearing. As the difference would seem to be unaffected by the general improvement in road safety or declines in cycling, it might appear to be persuasive evidence of the efficacy of helmets – until inquiries to the TAC revealed a similar trend for pedestrians. This is shown in Figure 2, the vertical line showing the start of the helmets law. Again, it would appear that the cause of the decline in the risk of head injury was changes in other conditions, not helmets.

Figure 2.  Per cent head injury, of accepted TAC no-fault claims, Victoria

Source of data: Transport Accident Commission, pers. comm. 1.12.95.

 

Usage

FORS discussed the fall in bicycle usage as shown by survey data from Victoria, NSW and Western Australia. For all three states, the declines in cycling that followed the helmet laws were underestimated and similar declines pre-law to post-law which had been measured in Queensland, the ACT and the Northern Territory were disregarded. FORS argued that reductions shown in surveys are not a proven result of helmet laws, which could only be found from much bigger surveys or over a longer time. “Unfortunately, long term data is not available”, it said, but it is government, not fortune, that was to blame for that. It was known in 1985 that cycling had declined when private schools compelled students to wear helmets[21], but FORS’s advice to its Minister on the compulsory helmets proposal did not mention this or the need for monitoring.[22]

Monograph 19

FORS’s Monograph 19 (1997) makes three arguments. The first is that compulsory helmets resulted in serious casualties to cyclists declining by more (33 cent) than all road users (23 per cent), from the 4 years “prior to compulsory wearing” (1987-1990) to the 4 years after (1993-1996), but if 1989, the last year before any helmet laws, is compared with 1993, the first year when all were in force, the respective declines are 31 per cent and 25 per cent, much less different. FORS says use of a 4 year period allows evening out of random variations from year to year, but the argument is specious because the numbers in each year exceed 1000. (By contrast, FORS’s submission to the review of the law in Western Australia, discussed above, claimed a reduction in fatalities by using numbers of less than 200.) Also, it is wrong to include 1990 in the base period because the helmets law came into effect in Victoria mid-year. As casualties to all road users in 1990 were 13 per cent below 1989, those to cyclists being unchanged, this results in further over-statement of the difference in the declines in the two groups from pre- to post-law. Also, FORS disregards the decline in numbers of cyclists. Taking this into account, it is clear that cyclists became worse off compared to other road users [164].

Second, FORS states that helmet wearing rates, as measured from casualty crashes, are negatively correlated with deaths and casualties to cyclists, but it provides no details of statistics or sources. The meaning of the claim is not clear and it is at odds with data on wearing rates of casualties [166].

Third, FORS finds from pooled data for 1988, 1990, 1992 and 1994 from its Fatality File that known wearers of helmets suffered fewer severe head injuries on average than non-wearers. It concludes that the absence of a helmet significantly increased the number of severe injuries by up to 21 cent. It is not clear that the finding has any clinical importance, it not being shown that the number of head injuries was related to fatality, nor even stated that head injury was the cause of death, and the data are confused by a change in coding practice by which multiple injury to a single region of the body was coded as multiple in 1990 but under that region in 1992.[23]Also, the data span a great increase in the wearing of helmets after compulsion, and a change in the standard. In 1988, hard shells were required, but from 1990 cyclists were able to wear soft helmets. A more apt description of FORS’s pooling of data is jumbling together and obscuring the important trends that are shown in Table 3 [165].

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The myth that cycling is dangerous

You’ve heard it again and again:

“Cycling is dangerous”

When we keep hearing the same statement again and again, we end up believing it. This is a well-known manipulation technique, mentioned by Daniel Kanheman in his acclaimed book “Thinking fast and slow“:

“A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth. Authoritarian institutions and marketers have always known this fact.”

How dangerous is cycling?

Not as dangerous as it has been portrayed. According to this assessment and this summary, cycling is less dangerous that walking for the same distance traveled.

In other words, cycling to the shops is less dangerous than walking to the shops.

Statistically, one can expect a severe head injury from cycling once every 8,000 years of average cycling.
Wardlaw M. British Medical Journal 2000;321(7276):1582 (23 December), doi:10.1136/bmj.321.7276.1582

What type of cycling might be dangerous?

Sweeping statements such as “cycling is dangerous fail to distinguish between very different types of cycling.

downhill-mountain-bike-small-3cycling downhilll

Sports cycling can be dangerous

Yet cycling as a mode of transport is safe.

lady cyclingThis is less dangerous than walking

bike_share_London This is even safer

With its low speed and upright position, bike share is safe. In London, after 7 million trips, there were no fatalities and only 9 injuries requiring hospitalisation. The serious injury rate is 3 times lower than for all cyclists.

These people don’t seem to think that transport cycling is dangerous:

But they keep telling me that all cycling is dangerous!

The myth that all cycling is dangerous comes from years of helmet promotion campaigns. Scaremongering tactics manipulate our fears to push helmets.

How do you promote helmets for a safe activity? Make it look more dangerous than it really is.

This is eloquently illustrated in this report:

“our politicians and transport bureaucrats feel compelled to constantly remind us of how dangerous cycling is …

“Don’t think that little ride to the shops warrants wearing [a helmet]? Well I’ve got news for you. Even on a short ride you could have a big fall and you could suffer a major brain injury.”

Misconception 1: Cycling is dangerous. … Melbourne newspaper The Age quoted an emergency physician who opined that riding a bicycle on Melbourne’s roads was “verging on suicide” – an almost hysterical assessment of the risk. ….

The reality is that riding a bicycle is a safe activity. The following table shows Australian government data on the relative injury risk of a number of sporting and recreational activities.  …

Unfortunately, despite the evidence, governments continue to portray cycling as unusually dangerous”

The claim made in the fear mongering propaganda quoted above is particularly misleading, considering that cycling to the shops is safer than walking to the shops. Even though cycling is less dangerous than many comparable activities, it is portrayed as being particularly dangerous.

A funny parody of this ad highlights how cycling is misrepresented as being far more dangerous than it really is.

Not every country suffers from fear mongering tactics from their government. In the UK, the transport minister admits that:

(cycling is) a “safe activity” … safer than walking

In Canada, the hysteria about cycling being “dangerous” is being challenged in the media:

“bicycling had the lowest “burden” of deaths and head injuries of the three transportation modes …

There were 14 deaths per 100 million trips for bicycling, 15 for walking and 10 for driving – remarkably similar. …

Are these risks high? One way to think about this is the number of trips for one death to happen: one car occupant dies every 10 million trips and one pedestrian or cyclist dies every seven million trips. ….

Both walking and bicycling are active modes of travel. The physical activity they entail reduces the risk of developing many chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and dementia. Many studies have compared these benefits to the injury risks. All have found that the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. The benefits of walking and cycling (lower risk of death from chronic diseases) are 10 to 100 times higher than the risk of death from injuries

US data reports:

“Research studies and data clearly show that, in the current environment, cycling benefits greatly outweigh its tiny risks. We know of no study that contradict this fact.

Contrary to common belief, cycling is safer than many other activities.

Cycling is over three times safer, per mile, than walking.

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The art of politics, and its unintended consequences

Economic vs political decision making

For those frustrated after dealing with uncompromising bureaucrats and politicians who refuse to acknowledge the damage they have caused, the field of economics can explain how such disasters can happen, and the built-in incentives that prevent corrective action.

There is a strange discrepancy between economic and political decision making, that is eloquently explained in this presentation by economist Thomas Sowell.

“Economics is the study of scarce resources which have alternative uses…

Politics is the art of the plausible ….

Economics involves trade-offs. Politics involves solutions, real or imaginary …

You generate political support by creating a “crisis” … After you convince people there is a crisis, you show your solution … When it leads to a detrimental result, the only cure for this new bad situation is more of the same policy”

Economics is the study of scarce resources that have alternative uses. The rationing of scarce resources is inevitable. A famous saying in economics is “there is no such thing as a free lunch“: you can’t expect results without allocating resources. Economics involves trade-offs between alternatives at its core.

Politics is different. Politics tries to ignore the inherent constraints that economics must deal with. Instead it pretends that grand objectives can be achieved at no cost. Bold promises get votes.

Politics is the art of the plausible. What politicians advocate doesn’t have to be possible, merely believable. Much legislation is not properly thought through, resulting in unintended consequences.

Politicians love to talk about solutions, as if they had no associated costs. Yet there are no magic solutions, there are only trade-offs. You make something a little better at the expense of making something else worse. If resources are devoted to a particular issue, they can’t be spent dealing with other issues.

Politics involve solutions, real or imaginary. The perspective of trade-offs is lacking. Alternatives are not explored objectively. The touted solution is put forward, typically by exaggerating its benefits and ignoring its side-effects.

A solution needs a crisis. A crisis can be easily manufactured using creative statistics. A crisis does not mean that it is worse than many other undesirable issues facing society, or even that it is getting worse.

It’s easy to call anything a crisis, exaggerate its negative aspects, then call for a solution without considering alternatives. A policy is put in place, supposedly to respond to the crisis. Despite its well-meaning intentions, it can result in harmful unintended consequences.

Sometimes the situation becomes worse. The bureaucrats then call for more of the same policy, throwing more of other people’s money at the “crisis”. The cure for a failed policy is often more of the same.

An insidious side-effect of a failed policy is to create a new set of bureaucrats and consultants who make a nice cushy living out of it. They are happy with the status quo, it works nicely for them.

Political decision making applied to the bicycle helmet law

Sounds familiar? This is the perverse process that brought the bicycle helmet law to Australia. From the history of the helmet law, the typical steps are there:

  1. Even though cycling head injuries were not greater than pedestrians or motorists, the government, lobbied by misguided doctors, singled out cycling as being a “problem” requiring government intervention.
  2. At the time the legislation was introduced, cycling was rising, providing significant health benefits to society, while cycling injuries were falling. There was no “problem” to fix.
  3. The policy failed to achieve its objective. The unintended consequence was to reduce cycling and to increase the risk of injuries. Before the policy the “problem” was getting better. After the policy, it was getting worse. The bureaucrats response has been to call for more of the same policy.
  4. The bureaucrats have funded many “studies”, using creative statistics, to defend their policy. These studies may be worthless from a scientific point of view, but they are useful political propaganda, often quoted in media responses to justify the policy. There seems to be no shortage of academics willing to take easy money for policy-driven studies.
  5. The bureaucrats keep trying to justify their policy using a naive narrow point of view exagerating its benefits while ignoring its side-effects. They still use long discredited claims like “helmet protect against 85% of brain injuries“, even though helmets are more likely to aggravate brain injury. They ignore negative side-effects: the decline in cycling, or the increase in accidents and injuries. They still defend the helmet law based on its theoretical benefits while ignoring its actual results. They seem unable to distinguish between helmets and the helmet law. Even though helmets can protect in some circumstances, that doesn’t mean that forcing them on all cyclists is a good idea, any more than it would be for pedestrians.

This ideology can be seen in this road safety strategy. Unimaginative bureaucrats can think of nothing better than this to improve cycling safety:

“Develop educational communications to target bicycle riders to increase the use of helmets”

Proven measures to improve cycling safety have been well documented. Whoever drafted this “strategy” seem uneducated about those proven measures. Yet they suggest “educating” cyclists on the magic benefits of polystyrene helmets, while they continue to do nothing to address the core issue: the danger from motorists.

That they are so blinkered and unimaginative to believe that more helmet promotion is the solution to cycling safety illustrates the abyss of their ideology.

A broader perspective

Economists bring a perspective that can be helpful to assess policy decisions. By taking a broader perspective, considering the full consequences of a law on society, and comparing it with alternatives, people can rationally assess whether its benefits are worth its costs.

Other countries have chosen different approaches to cycling safety. The results speak for themselves. In Australia, the cyclist fatality rate is five times greater than in the Netherlands, while the serious injury rate is 22 TIMES greater.

It’s not hard to figure out which policy works best, except if you are a bureaucrat who makes a nice cushy living out of the current status quo, or a politician who gains votes by pretending to “do something for safety” while most people have been fooled into believing that the current policy “save lives”.

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