Category Archives: Propaganda

A funny parody of a fearmongering helmet ad

Listen to this.

Contrast it to the original ad.

A bicycle activist has created an amusing parody of a fearmongering ad commissioned by a government agency to promote bicycle helmets.

The ad makes this extraordinary claim:

“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 can have a big fall and you can suffer a MAJOR brain injury

This is misleading nonsense for two reasons:

  1. The chance of getting a major brain injury while cycling gently to the shops is less than when crossing the street as a pedestrian. To tell cyclists they have been singled out to wear a helmet when their risk of head injury is lower than others makes no sense.
  2. It is suggested that wearing a helmet would prevent a severe brain injury. That is not true. Bicycle helmets are not capable of doing that. On the contrary, they are known to increase the risk of brain injury. It is ludicrous to use brain injury scare tactics to push people towards the “safety” of polystyrene helmets that are known to increase the risk of brain injury.

This ad misleads people by reinforcing two myths:

  1. Cycling is dangerous
  2. Wearing a polystyrene hat makes cycling “safe”

These myths have been refuted many times, like here for example:

  1. Cycling is safer than netball.
  2. Bicycle helmets increase the risk of accidents and injury.

The core message people retain from such ads is that “cycling is dangerous”.  Helmet promotions like this one are known to scare people off cycling. This turns people away from a safe, gentle and healthy mode of transport.

This “message” was commissioned by “road safety” bureaucrats who are very generous with taxpayer’s money to fund propaganda. How can it be money well spent to tell people that cycling is dangerous when other bureaucrats from the health department are spending taxpayer’s money to encourage cycling?

HelmetFreedom has put together an analysis of this misleading ad.

HelmetFreedom has also some sample letters you can use to write to your MP, so that we can put an end such waste of our money.

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Study reveals increased accidents and injuries after helmet law

Abstract

The injury rate has tripled since the helmet law.
By increasing the risk of accidents, helmets have made cycling more dangerous. 

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A recent study reveals a steady increase in cycling injuries after the helmet law. Between 1991 and 2000, arm injuries doubled (indicating a doubling in accidents), while head injuries increased by 40%.

cycling_injuries

A 1996 cycling survey in Sydney revealed that cycling counts were 48% below 1991. According to the census, cycling in Sydney slightly decreased between 1996 and 2001.

sydney_cycling_counts

This indicates that the risk of accidents more than tripled, consistent with other studies.

The study reports a reduction in head injuries since 2006. This coincides to a resurgence in cycling, with many of the new cyclists not wearing helmets. Head injury rates decreased while fewer cyclists wore helmets. Oblivious to this, the study attributes the reduction in injuries to spending on cycling infrastructure that occurred mostly in Sydney after 2009.

Oddly, this study was used as the basis of a newspaper article defending the helmet law. The usual scaremongering tactics are there, suggesting that helmets protect against serious brain injuries, even though they are not designed to do so. The propaganda did not fool many people though, as the comments below the article highlight.

Despite the large increase in head injuries while cycling almost halved, the study claims:

the benefit of MHL to lowering head injuries

Oddly, the study fails to mention the reduction in cycling.

What’s going on?

It is odd for a study to ignore the increase in accidents and injuries, and the decrease in cycling after the helmet law. The rise in injuries is obvious from the main graph in the study. This blindness to negative side-effects of the helmet law is similar to another study affected by confirmation bias.

This study was funded by a government who, struggling to justify its counterproductive policy, is funding more “studies” to defend it. This trend was reported here.

This did not fool a UK reporter:

As the fallout from Australia’s failed bike sharing schemes continues, it seems we haven’t seen the last of government-funded research showing that helmet laws are great actually, thanks very much.

The authors, Olivier, Walter and Grzebieta, previously published a paper in 2011 claiming to “end the debate about the effectiveness of cycle helmet legislation”, but which was severely criticised by fellow boffins

the government of NSW has commissioned research which (surprise!) finds the effect of their helmet law is massive and sustained, ignoring the uncomfortable fact that helmet wearing rates have actually fallen back significantly without any accompanying jump in head injuries.
The authors fail to consider long-term trends in admission protocol when comparing arm:head injury admissions over two decades. They also include all types of minor flesh wounds, bruising etc. which you would certainly hope would be prevented by helmet use, rather than looking at a reduction of critical injury / death which is what public health policy should be worrying about, when the alternative is serious sedentary disease.
It’s generated some nice headlines and superficial reinforcement for the helmet law (which is probably what the government were really trying to commission), but this is far from the conclusive study that is being spun in the media.
Opposition to helmet legislation in Australia continues to grow and academics on the other side of the fence are unlikely to struggle to dismiss the conclusions of this paper.

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Trying to deny that the helmet law reduces cycling

Abstract

Cycling was rising in Australia by 10% per year until the helmet law. Afterwards, it dropped by 30%.
A government commissioned “study” has misrepresented a bicycle rally as a revival in cycling.

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Bicycle travel in Australia was increasing by 10% a year from 1986 to 1989, before the helmet law. After the helmet law, surveys showed cycling declined by 30 to 40%. An independent assessment estimates that cycling was 50% below previous trend by 1996.

The Victorian government commissions studies defending its policies through organisations like the Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC). MUARC has published studies claiming the helmet law had reduced head injuries. Such “studies” use biased statistics, resulting in misleading claims defending the legislation.

MUARC conducted this study, claiming that adult cycling recovered two years after the helmet law.

According to the study, child cycling dropped 30% but did not recover.

MUARC_count_child_cyclists

Yet adult cycling appeared to recover.

MUARC_count_adult_cyclists

Why would adult cycling recover but not child cycling?

A bicycle rally passed through one of the counting site in 1992. At that site, there were 451 cyclists in 1992, versus 72 in 1991.

The study authors knew about the bicycle rally. Yet they included it in the study, claiming:

“Another explanation for some of the increase in bicyclist numbers in 1992 is related to the fact that there appears to have been a bicycle rally passing through one of the sites …

From a statistical point of view, however, an occurrence such as this is a true observation, well within the bounds of “normal” behaviour for that time period, and cannot be excluded from the analysis”

The whole point about those comparisons is to keep everything else the same. Same sites, same observation periods, same time of year, so that noise does not distort observations.

The site with the bicycle rally showed a 6 TIMES increase. This is not “normal behavior”. It distorts the results. Yet the study authors chose to include it. This misrepresents a bicycle rally as a revival in cycling.

 

A recent “study” commissioned by the Queensland government claims:

 “In Melbourne adult cyclist numbers doubled after the helmet legislation”.

, quoting the study mentioned above. How they arrived at this conclusion is a mystery. This “study” was edited several times by the Queensland department of transport.

The fundamental role of science is to serve the truth.
It is NOT to serve the interests of the state.

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Misguided doctors or marketing agents?

Abstract

In the 1980′s, Bell, a helmet manufacturer, was keen to expand the market for bicycle helmets, its most profitable product. It approached the Snell foundation and offered funding for research on bicycle helmets. The Snell foundation chose avid helmet lobbyists to conduct this “research”.

The helmet lobbyists initial “research” claimed that helmets reduce 85% of head injuries. This claim is impossible due to inherent limitations of helmets. The authors had to re-work their data, and withdrew their claim.

The Snell foundation has kept funding these researchers. Boosted by the “research”, the market for bicycle helmets expanded. At $100 for a piece of polystyrene, the profits are huge. Helmets manufacturers have reinvested their profits into lobbying for helmet legislation. They sent executives all the way to Australia to lobby for a helmet law.

In 2013, the US government dropped its claim that helmets reduce 85% of head injuries. It first made the claim based on the research mentioned above, but then admitted that there was no credible basis for the claim.

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The misleading “research”

A 1989 study on bicycle helmets claimed:

“we found that riders with helmets had an 85 percent reduction in their risk of head injury”

How can helmets reduce 85% of head injuries considering they don’t cover the face where 70% of head injuries are?

bicycle_body_injuries

Injuries to the skull (the part of the body a helmet covers) constitute 10% of cycling injuries,
or 30% of what is usually classified as head injuries (including face injuries).
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How did they arrive at such impossible claims?
They compared a helmeted group who rode supervised in parks with an un-helmeted group who rode unsupervised on busy roads. The difference between the two groups was attributed to helmets. They failed to consider confounding factors, a common error in statistics.

The study compared helmeted cyclists in bicycle paths with un-helmeted cyclists on roads. It attributed the difference to helmets.

This flawed study was widely criticized. It failed to select a representative control group. It misused the odds-ratio. It lacked serious injuries. It failed to adjust the results by age group.

As summarised in this review:

“The study compares groups of cyclists who chose to wear helmets with those who did not. Many variables, such as the reasons for wearing a helmet and attitudes to risk, were not controlled for by the researchers and may have influenced the results.”

The 85% figure is meaningless. It does not correspond to physical protection provided by helmets. It is the authors own generous estimate misrepresented as the result of their “study”. Many researchers have tried to replicate its results, but have been unable to do so. The authors had to re-work their data, and withdrew the claim.

The data from the study indicates that helmet wearers were 7 times more likely to have accidents. The study ignored this.

Instead of claiming
“Helmets protect x% of head injuries”
A more objective assessment would be:
“Helmets appear to protect against some head injuries. However, they are also associated with more accidents.  It is not clear whether there is a net safety benefit.”

This study was influential. Few questioned it, as they were eager to believe its claims. Despite the authors withdrawing the claim, it is still quoted as if it was true.

This research became a model for further “research” replicating its flaws and bias. Such research tends to jump to a predetermined conclusion. Such studies exaggerate the protection provided by helmets while ignoring the increase in accidents. The sheer volume of this “research” has misled the medical community.

The vested interests behind this “research”

In 1956, a racing driver called Peter Snell died from head injuries despite wearing a Bell helmet. His death to the creation of the Snell foundation. Since, Bell has developed a close relationship with the Snell foundation.

In the 1970′s, Bell introduced polystyrene bicycle helmets. They were not adopted by mainstream cyclists. In the 1980′s, Bell started to market bicycle helmets more aggressively. They became the most profitable range of helmets. In the mid 1980′s, Bell suggested that the Snell foundation should commission research into bicycle helmets, and provided funding to do so.

Snell chose 3 researchers to do the study, including Dr. Frederick Rivara. Dr. Rivara was a bicycle helmet advocate and an active helmet lobbyist. This was an odd choice. Helmet research conducted by helmet lobbyists was likely to be biased.

Snell requested that the study was

“done to demonstrate the effectiveness of bicycle helmets in reducing head injury”.

Note the assumption of effectiveness upfront instead of asking an open-ended question. The bias also came from the Snell foundation.

Using sponsored “research” to promote helmets and lobby for legislation

Bell used the commissioned study in its advertising:

Bell advertising, using the “study” it sponsored to claim that helmets prevent 85% of head injuries

Scaremongering is a key tactic. Parents are an easy target, scared into buy a product to protect their child from an exaggerated danger.

Bell then used this commissioned research to lobby governments to promote helmets. Lobbyists funded by Bell started to lobby for mandatory legislation. The commercial benefits of such legislation was clear to the helmet industry.

Bell funded organisations like SafeKids. This was shrewd, as it made it look like there was popular demand for helmet legislation. This lobbying resulted in mandatory helmet laws for children in various US jurisdictions.

A vice-president from Bell flew to Australia to attend EVERY mandatory helmet law hearing.

The market for helmets almost doubled between 1993 and 1995. This lead to record profits for Bell bicycle helmet division. In 1995, the bicycle helmet market was worth about $200 million dollars. Large profits could be re-invested into further lobbying and funding of “studies”.

Funding more research

The Snell Foundation has kept funding these researchers. In 1996, they published a study claiming:

“Bicycle helmets, regardless of type, provide substantial protection against head injuries for cyclists of all ages involved in crashes, including crashes involving motor vehicles.”

There was a failure to disclose conflicts of interests:

“This research was supported by a grant from the Snell Memorial Foundation, to which the principal bicycle helmet manufacturers are contributors.”

The study attracted much criticism. The authors again failed to consider confounding factors. They made more implausible claims.

Close analysis of their data indicates that:

“The data show that, apparently, the protective effect of a helmet increases with increasing severity of injury. It is extremely difficult to accept such a result, and indeed, it is the opposite of what is seen in population level studies, which return the more sensible outcome of declining protection with increasing severity of injury. It must be the case that confounding factors systematically caused non-helmeted cyclists to be in more severe crashes”

These implausible claims did not cause the “researchers” to question their assumptions. Such lack of scientific discipline is disturbing.

The implausible Cochrane review

In 1999, the same researchers published a “review” of helmet studies in the Cochrane review, that claims

“helmet dramatically reduces the risk of head and facial injuries for bicyclists involved in a crash, even if it involves a motor vehicle”

This claim ignores the limitations of helmets.  Polystyrene helmets are designed for minor impacts. They do not cover the face.

Brian Walker,  a helmet testing expert from helmet-testing lab Head Protection Evaluations, reports:

“Cycle helmets are designed for falls without any other vehicle involved …

The tests that cycle helmets currently go through mean that they should offer similar protection to a pedestrian who trips and falls to the ground …

In today’s road traffic accidents, it’s not unlikely for a cycle helmet to be subjected to severity loads greater than it is designed to cope with.”

The study misleading claims were rebutted by an independent researcher:

“It is concluded that the review takes no account of scientific knowledge of types and mechanisms of brain injury

This biased review attracted much criticism, including the following:

“The review is not independent. Four of the seven papers selected for inclusion were the work of the reviewers themselves 

Only case-control studies were considered for inclusion, … studies of this type are acknowledged to be prone to bias …

The paradox presented by the failure of other types of studies to show any benefit from large increases in helmet use is left unstated and unaccounted for

The authors are dismissive of the possibility of risk compensation. However, it has subsequently been demonstrated that child cyclists often ride more riskily and suffer more crashes when wearing a cycle helmet (Mok et al, 2004).

No consideration is given to rotational injuries, which dominate the most serious injuries. Helmets … may increase the risk and/or severity of rotational injury.(BHRF, 1039).

Claims are accepted of efficacy for which no plausible mechanism exists (e.g. the prevention of mid-face injuries), … and which would not be possible even if helmets prevented all head injuries (e.g. an increase of 35% in cyclists wearing helmets leading to 66% fewer head injuries).

There is misleading interpretation of ‘odds ratio’ … This exaggerates the predicted benefit of helmets and masks the fact that studies of this type are not truly predictive, being essentially the authors’ estimate … The reviewed paper showing the least benefit from helmets is omitted from computation of odds ratio, thus again exaggerating benefit.”

One of the study included reported a higher accident rate and higher neck injuries for helmeted cyclists. This was ignored in the summary.

The review claimed that cyclists would need to increase their risk-taking four-fold to overcome the protection of helmets. This claim was refuted by an independent researcher.

From research to lobbying

The helmet lobbyists used their “research” to peddle their beliefs. For example, this article entitled “Bicycle helmets: it’s time to use them” claims:

“Further delays in promoting the use of helmets will be measured in the number of lives ruined by the devastating consequences of preventable brain injury.”

This ignores that helmets can increase brain injury.

Conclusion

This “research” contradicts the limitations of polystyrene helmets. It ignores whole-population studies, where a large rise in helmet wearing did not show any benefit. Yet it has been influential.

Manufacturing an artificial perception has delivered profits to the helmet industry. With a piece of polystyrene selling for $100, the profits are huge. No wonder Bell sponsors racing cyclists. Let the profits roll.

 Bell advertising in the Tour de France 2011

Update July 2013

In June 2013, the US government dropped its claim that helmets reduce 85% of head injuries. It first made the claim based on the research mentioned above, but then admitted that there was no credible basis for the claim.

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My helmet saved my life!

Abstract

After the helmet law, many cyclists insisted that their helmets had saved them.
Yet cycling injuries tripled.
Why? Because helmets increase the risk of accidents.
 

What the data tells us

Here are some stats on cycling death & serious injury for children in NSW, before and after the helmet law. Two years after the introduction of the helmet law, death and serious injuries decreased by 32%. Hooray! This proves that helmet saved lives! That is what many government commissioned studies have claimed.

Can this 32% decrease be fully attributed to helmets though? What if it was due to something else? Like what? Like a decrease in the number of cyclists. After the helmet law, the number of child cyclists in NSW decreased by 44%. The decrease in death & serious injuries was less than the reduction in cycling.

The helmet law was introduced at the same time as other road safety measures, like a crackdown on speeding and drink driving. This would have benefited cyclists and pedestrians. Pedestrians death and serious injuries decreased by 23% during this period.

The risk of death and serious injuries for cyclists, adjusted for the lower number of cyclists, increased by 21%.  For pedestrians it decreased by 21%.

It seems that the helmet law has made cycling more dangerous.

Hmm …..

Where are the cyclists saved by their helmets?  They cannot be found in the injury data. Many people claim a helmet saved their life. Yet the risk of death and serious injury has increased.

Why have helmets failed to reduce injuries?

One possible explanation is that the risk of accident tripled.

A false sense of safety can induce people to take more risks, leading to more accidents and more injuries. This is risk compensation, a well-known safety factor:

“the law of unintended consequences is extraordinarily applicable when talking about safety innovations. Sometimes things intended to make us safer may not make any improvement at all to our overall safety”

risk-compensation

Risk compensation is the tendency to take more risks when wearing safety equipment.
Lured by a false sense of safety, helmeted cyclists tend to have more accidents.
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Wearing a helmet can induce cyclists to take more risks, as reported in the New York Times:

the rate of head injuries per active cyclist has increased 51 percent just as bicycle helmets have become widespread. …

the increased use of bike helmets may have had an unintended consequence: riders may feel an inflated sense of security and take more risks. …

The helmet he was wearing did not protect his neck; he was paralyzed from the neck down. …

”It didn’t cross my mind that this could happen,” said Philip, now 17. ”
I definitely felt safe. I wouldn’t do something like that without a helmet.” ”

Risk compensation also affects motorists who tend to be less careful around helmeted cyclists. As reported in a study published by the University of Bath in the UK:

“Bicyclists who wear protective helmets are more likely to be struck by passing vehicles”

Both the behaviour of helmeted cyclists and surrounding motorists increase the risk of accidents.

 

There is a well-known phenomenon called safety in numbers. According to empirical data, reducing cycling by 44% increases the risk of accidents by 41%. Research published in the Injury Prevention journal concluded:

“the behavior of motorists controls the likelihood of collisions with people walking and bicycling.  It appears that motorists adjust their behavior in the presence of people walking and bicycling …

A motorist is less likely to collide with a person walking and bicycling if more people walk or bicycle. Policies that increase the numbers of people walking and bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving the safety of people walking and bicycling.”

safety_in_numbers_6

A key factor for cycling safety is the number of cyclists.  This is “safety in numbers”.
With fewer cyclists, cycling becomes more dangerous.
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What protection do helmets provide?

Despite the increase in accidents, helmets should have saved these people. Helmets saved some of them, as the 55% increase in the risk of death & serious injury is lower than the 93% increase in accidents. Yet overall the risk of death & serious injury increased.

Unfortunately polystyrene based helmets are not designed to protect in a serious accident:

“In cases of high impact, such as most crashes that involve a motor vehicle, the initial forces absorbed by a cycle helmet before breaking are only a small part of the total force and the protection provided by a helmet is likely to be minimal in this context. In cases where serious injury is likely, the impact energy potentials are commonly of a level that would overwhelm even Grand Prix motor racing helmets. Cycle helmets provide best protection in situations involving simple, low-speed falls with no other party involved. They are unlikely to offer adequate protection in life-threatening situations.

soft-shell-helmet

A soft-shell helmet is a piece of polystyrene covered by a layer of plastic less than 1mm thick.
It can protect in a minor accident.  However, it is not designed to protect in a serious accident.

 

Helmets make little difference in a serious accident, as Dr Hooper reports:

“Looking at evidence, it does not matter if people are wearing a helmet or not, any serious accident on a bike is likely to kill them,”

Suspending belief

On one hand, we have plenty of anecdotes from people who claim that a helmet saved their lives.
On the other hand, we have an increased risk of death and serious injury after the helmet law.
Both cannot be true at the same time.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that some people BELIEVE that a helmet saved them:

“The next time you see a broken helmet, suspend belief and do the most basic check – disregard the breakages and look to see if what’s left of the styrofoam has compressed. If it hasn’t, you can be reasonably sure that it hasn’t saved anyone’s life.

A helmet protects by absorbing the energy of the impact through compressing the polystyrene layer. If the polystyrene has not compressed, but has broken into pieces instead, it has failed. It may have prevented bruises & lacerations, but it didn’t do much to reduce the energy of the impact.

One can expect a severe head injury from cycling once every 8,000 years of average cycling.

It is natural to assume a helmet saved us. But that doesn’t mean it is true. We don’t know what would have happened without it. Cyclists, with and without helmets, get hit by cars; the survival rates are identical. Most bicycle accidents do not result in serious head injuries, with or without helmets. We tend to overlook this, and attribute a lack of head injury to the helmet:

“see the double-standard of finding it entirely logical when helmeted cyclists who survive collisions report that wearing a helmet saved their life. It is a powerful emotional argument, but logically, statistically, and scientifically, it is erroneous for the same reasons it would be erroneous to say that not wearing a helmet saved Gene Hackman’s life. If a cyclist wears a helmet and they emerge from a collision alive, that implies correlation, not causation.”

It is important to be realistic about helmets capabilities, and to base that assessment on facts rather than personal experiences, however traumatic they may be.

After being asked

“Can your helmet save your life?”,

a helmet manufacturer salesperson shrugged and laughed uncomfortably, before responding:

“Can it?” “Well, not save your life, no.”

This doesn’t mean that it is not possible that a helmet saved a cyclist life. It might have in some cases. However, few people consider that the lack of a helmet tends to make them ride more cautiously, and have fewer accidents. If they weren’t wearing a helmet, they may not have had a crash in which their life needed saving in the first place.

In many other instances, a helmet failed to save cyclists. Overall the risk of death & serious injury increased after the helmet law.

Before claiming that a helmet saved your life, ask:

  • How do I know what would have happen without a helmet?
  • Would I have ridden more cautiously without a helmet?
  • Is it reasonable to rely on a piece of polystyrene to save my life in a serious accident?
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Trying to deny that helmets can aggravate brain injury

Abstract

Several studies have reported that bicycle helmets can increase rotational acceleration. Rotational acceleration is the primary cause of brain injury.

The Australian government commissioned a study to defend its controversial helmet law. The study set up unrealistic conditions fostering low rotational acceleration. The study claims that helmets do not increase brain injury. This is deceitful. The study unrealistic conditions are not representative of real life accidents.

An interview with a study author revealed the study was not set up to address rotational acceleration. The author said:

“soft-shell helmets are for cosmetic purposes, not really for protection, …
current helmets do not appear to protect against brain injury.”

 

Look at a bicycle helmet. It has been designed with comfort in mind. It is made of light weight material that grip the road on impact rather than glance off it (as is the case with motorcycle helmets).

Helmets increase the volume of the head. In the event of an accident, this increases the risk of the head hitting the road.

The increase in the volume of the head, coupled with the gripping of the road surface, means that when a head comes into contact with the ground at speed, the head rotates quickly. This quick rotation is the main cause of brain injury.

What causes brain injury?

An old popular belief is that brain injury is caused by a direct hit the head, like a head hitting a wall, causing linear acceleration. This is focal brain injury. Bicycle helmets are designed to reduce focal injury. The polystyrene reduces linear acceleration by compressing on impact.

Scientific research done in the 1970′s has revealed that the main cause of severe brain injury is not focal injury but diffuse axonal injury:

“Protecting the brain from injury that results in death or chronic disablement provides the main motivation for wearing helmets. Their design has been driven by the development of synthetic polystyrene foams which can reduce the linear acceleration resulting from direct impact to the head, but scientific research shows that angular acceleration from oblique impulse is a more important cause of brain injury. Helmets are not tested for capacity to reduce it and, as Australian research first showed, they may increase it.

Rotational acceleration means the head turning quickly. This can create shearing inside the brain, tearing apart brain tissue. This is diffuse axonal injury. It can lead to permanent disability. This article reports from a surgeon who operates on cyclists:

” “The ones with brain swelling, that’s diffuse axonal injury, and that’s bad news” …

the whole brain is shaken up, creating many little tears in its inner structure …

Such patients undergo personality change, can contract epilepsy and have difficulty controlling their anger. They might become unemployable. Depression is a common accompaniment to brain injury. Rosenfeld sees patients’ families shattered, too. “They’re never the same. It often leads to marriage disharmony and family breakdown.” …

Rosenfeld’s opinion is candid.  “I don’t know if [helmets] do much to protect the inner part of the brain,” “

Helmets cannot protect against rotational injury but they can increase it, according to research done in Sweden:

“The non-shell helmet did in all trials grab the asphalt surface, which rotated the head together with
the helmet. The consequences were in addition to the rotating of the head, a heavily bent and compressed neck, transmitted on through the whole test dummy body after the impact.  …

This gives an average angular acceleration of 20800 rad/s² for rotating the head from 0 to 0.26 rad during the 5 ms. Löwenhielm proposes 4500 rad/s² to be the maximum angular acceleration that can be tolerated for a limited time period.”

Soft-shell helmets amplified rotational acceleration to four times higher than the tolerable maximum. Soft-shell helmets are helmets without a hard shell. They are the most common type of bicycle helmet.

On impact, the larger head volume amplifies rotational acceleration. 3cm increase in helmet circumference increases rotational acceleration by 150%:

“the 3000rad/s² to 8500rad/s² measured during abrasive and projection oblique tests with size 54cm (E) helmeted headforms. However, for the most severe cases using a size 57cm (J) headform, rotational acceleration was typically greater than 10,000rad/s² and increased to levels of 20,000rad/s², a level at which a 35% – 50% risk of serious AIS3+ injuries is anticipated.”

The difference between a helmeted and non-helmeted head is about 20cm.

In 1987, an Australian government agency released research that highlighted deficiencies with bicycle helmets:

The substantial elastic deformation of the child head that can occur during impact can result in quite extensive diffuse brain damage. It is quite apparent that the liner material in children’s bicycle helmets is far too stiff …

rotational accelerations were found to be 30% higher than those found in similar tests using a full face polymer motorcycle helmet. More work needs to be done in this area as there would seem to be a deficiency in rotational acceleration attenuation that may be the result of insufficient shell stiffness

doctor from New Zealand reports:

“cycle helmets were turning what would have been focal head injuries, perhaps with an associated skull fracture, into much more debilitating global head injuries”

In Canada, the length of stay in hospital increased increased following helmet laws, from 4.3 days to 6.9 days. The number of serious head injury admissions increased by 46%.

A strange “study”

The Australian government introduced a policy of mandatory helmets. Many people wrote to the government about brain injury from rotational acceleration. The bureaucrats claimed:

“A 2009 study by the University of NSW confirmed the effectiveness of a bicycle helmet in reducing angular acceleration and subsequent brain injury in crashes”.

This study was commissioned by the government. It was not published. After much insistence, a copy was obtained from a government agency. The abstract states that the study’s aim is to

investigate the ability of a bicycle helmet to reduce angular head acceleration“.

It seems to be a “study” with a pre-determined conclusion, like this one.

The study was set with unrealistic conditions, by

  1. Using a type of hard-shell helmet not representative of the most common type of helmet used
  2. Testing at unrealistically low speeds of 5 to 11 km/h
  3. Testing on a non-abrasive surface not representing standard road conditions
  4. Failing to test for oblique impacts (Oblique impacts generate high rotational acceleration)

Studies have reported high rotational acceleration with soft-shell helmets, at speeds above 30 km/h. This study fostered low rotational acceleration. 

The study used a helmet with a ABS shell, like the one on the right. Then it generalised its results to all bicycle helmets.

The study conclusion makes no mention of the unrealistically low speeds (5 km/h to 11 km/h). How can accident protection research only do tests a low speed? Speed is a major factor affecting impact severity. Testing only a low speeds is almost useless.

The study tested a low speeds like 5 km/h, even though the risks they are “studying” have been reported at higher speeds like 30 km/h.  The study then claimed that the risk doesn’t exist.

The conclusion fails to qualify the results by mentioning it was not using a realistic road surface. The flat surface used reduces the risk of the helmet sticking to the surface. Other studies have reported that helmets tend to stick to the road surface.

Despite the unrealistic conditions, the study claims are generalized without qualifications:

“At worst bicycle helmets do not appear to exacerbate head injury risks arising from angular acceleration.”

This is deceitful, as this claim is the result of the peculiar set up of the study. It cannot be generalised beyond the laboratory conditions.

Interview with an author of the study

CRAG has interviewed one of the study authors:

Why use hard-shell helmets?

“The helmets were supplied to us”

Why not use a soft-shell helmet, the most common type used today?

” the soft-shell helmet doesn’t do much – basically for cosmetic purposes – falls to pieces very easily – When touched can dent easily – Main function of soft shell helmets to ‘retain foam in semi-rigid format,’ not really for protection”

The tests were done at speed from 5 km/h to 11 km/h.  Why not higher speeds like 20 km/h?

“We had borrowed the RTA’s crash dummy and didn’t want to damage it”

Do you believe that the conditions used in the study are realistic of real-world conditions?

“No “

Is this study comprehensive enough to assert that helmets do not increase rotational acceleration?

the study does not address any oblique impact issues so therefore does not address potential increase in rotational acceleration of the brain

… current helmets on the market are limited in preventing rotational acceleration

… there is no rotational testing element in the helmet standard.”

In your opinion as an expert, do helmets do their job?

“As long as there is no oblique impact, yes

… But in an accident with any oblique impact, probably not

.. Current helmets do not appear to protect for brain injury such as concussion or haematoma

Ethical issues

Between 2006 & 2009, the University of NSW earned $248,000 from helmet “studies” such as this one.

This study is still not published, escaping independent scrutiny. Its purpose seems to be to defend a controversial government policy.

The government is expected to fund research to improve helmets, like it did in 1987 (before the helmet law). Commissioning research to mask deficiencies of a government policy is unethical.

The fundamental role of science is to serve the truth. It is NOT to serve the interests of the state.

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July 2013 update

The same team of researchers published a related study in 2013. It is called: “Bicycle helmets: head impact dynamics in helmeted and unhelmeted oblique impact tests“.

Like the “study” described above, this study sets up unrealistic conditions. Nothing can be concluded about real life accidents from unrealistic conditions.

Bureaucrats have peddled this study as “proof” that helmets reduce rotational acceleration.
Public money well spent?

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