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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