Category Archives: Helmet Law

When the worst in the world try to lecture the rest

Abstract

Despite having one of the worst track record, Australians academics try to lecture the world about cycling safety.
This may seem odd.
Yet it fits with the Australian government agenda of obfuscating the disappointing results of its controversial bicycle helmet law.
This is not about cycling safety.
It is about defending government policy.
The target audience is in Australia.

An odd display of confidence

Professional conferences are places where people present results they can be proud of. For example when they have achieved superior outcomes.

It was a surprise when academics from Australia went all the way to Finland to lecture about bicycle safety.
Australia is far from being a role model in cycling safety.

Australia’s cycling safety record is 22 TIMES worst than best practice

Why would a country with a poor track record attempt to lecture others?

Australia was the first country to introduce a compulsory bicycle helmet law in 1990.

27 years later, it is still controversial.

The main result has been to reduce cycling:

Following the helmet law, cycling declined sharply in Australia

Fewer people cycling lead to a less healthy population. Obesity rates rose sharply after 1990.

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
Australia’s obesity rate rose sharply after the helmet law was introduced in 1990

Australia is now one of the most obese nation in the world.

obesity-cycling-internationalCountries with less active transport (walking, cycling) have higher obesity rates.

The cost of obesity in Australia is estimated to be $58 BILLIONS per year.
If the helmet law was responsible for only 5% of obesity, that would cost $3 BILLIONS per year.

Why would any country want to emulate such results?
Only one country, New Zealand, has followed Australia, in 1994.
The result has been a reduction in cycling and an increase in the risk of injury:

New Zealand helmet law resulted in a reduction in cycling and an increase in the risk of injury

Other countries have shun this policy.

This policy has done more harm than good.
Australian politicians have failed to admit it.
Instead, bureaucrats have commissioned “studies” to defend government policy.

A reluctance to admit mistakes

Australian government agencies have commissioned academics to defend its controversial helmet law for more than 20 years.
For example, a 1993 “study” tried to deny that the helmet law reduces cycling.
A 2009 “study” tried to deny that helmets can aggravate brain injury.

Generous funding rewards studies praising bicycle helmets.
It is a brave academic who risks their career criticising government policy.

Australian academics went to Finland full of confidence. They are rarely challenged at home. They receive generous funding for “studies” defending government policy.

An example is this study, that claims the helmet law as a success.
Yet, the data within the study shows rising injuries after the helmet law:

cycling_injury_rateDespite rising injuries, this “study” claimed the helmet law was a “success”.

How to claim “success” when injuries increase? The creative spin used was to claim that, as head injuries did not rise as much as arm injuries, the helmet law was a success. The injury rate tripled after the helmet law. That’s labelled a “success”.
The government
quoted this study to defend its policy:

“A recent study from the University of New South Wales showed that the initial benefits of the mandatory helmet laws have been maintained over time.”

This “study” was conducted by the academics who presented in Finland.

The target audience was in Australia

The presentation in Finland was widely covered in the Australian media.

The presentation in Finland made it to the front page of a major Australian newspaper

Bike helmet review throws cold water on sceptics: they’ll likely save your life:
The largest review yet of bike helmet use by 64,000 injured cyclists worldwide has found helmets reduce the chances of a serious head injury by nearly 70 per cent…”

The article promotes claims favoring helmets, without mentioning that helmets increase accidents. There were many similar articles in the Australian media. They claimed the “study” proves helmets efficacy, and thus justifies the helmet law. Australia’s high injury rate was not mentioned. 

If helmets truly reduced serious head injury by 70%, Australia’s serious injury rate wouldn’t be 22 TIMES higher than best practice:

Most of the Australian media stills defend the helmet law based on theoretical benefits, ignoring actual results.

Trying to rewrite history

The academics who presented in Finland also claim that the helmet law did not reduce cycling.
They claim that data showing a decline in cycling participation suffers from

“convenience sampling”

The inconvenient data includes the national census from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

According to the academics to who presented in Finland, the national census from the Australian Bureau of Statistics suffers from “convenience sampling”. Inconvenient data can be dismissed.

The academics claim that they have

“better quality data”

When pressed for evidence, their “better quality data” turned out to be hospital data. 

Hospitalisation data is quoted as the “better” data to measure cycling levels. That is incredibly naive. The academics own study does show a strong increase in injuries after the helmet law was introduced. Yet rising cycling injuries do not imply that there are more cyclists. The rise in injuries can be due risk compensation, the tendency for people tend to take more risks when wearing safety equipment. The evidence that the risk of injury has increased after the helmet law has been ignored.

Shooting the messenger

The government-funded academics presenting in Finland have been defending the helmet law for years. Their latest attempt is a meta-analysis, making bold claims favoring helmets. It suffers from publication bias: selecting studies favorable to the desired conclusion. This meta-analysis was re-analysed in 2017 by Colin Clarke, who concluded:

“When examined in detail, all (claims) were found to be unreliable claims due to weaknesses of the supporting evidence and methodology”

The Australian government commissioned a similar meta-analysis in 2001. It claimed polystyrene-based bicycle helmets are effective in preventing deaths. In 2011, an independent researcher, Elvik, re-analysed this meta-analysis. He concluded it:

“was influenced by publication bias and time-trend bias that was not controlled for. As a result, the analysis reported inflated estimates of the effects of bicycle helmets”

elvik-p1aBrave researchers who have the courage to expose government funded propaganda face the wrath of those who feed on government funding.

The government-funded academics presenting in Finland have aggressively attacked Elvik.

Hidden conflicts of interests

The academics who presented in Finland were from the University of New South Wales (UNSW). UNSW has earned generous funding for “studies” defending the helmet law for years.

Between 2006 & 2009, It earned at least $248,000 in funding for bicycle helmets. Government funding was channeled through the Australian Research Council.

The underlying University department is primarily funded by government agencies.
This is rarely disclosed as a conflict of interest in their bicycle helmet “studies”.
Yet that doesn’t fool independent reporters:

Aussie government funds scientists: find helmets great after all

the government of NSW has commissioned research which (surprise!) finds the effect of their helmet law is massive and sustained. The authors …  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).”

The cost of letting governments get away with deceit

Government propaganda is not new.
It is rarely exposed on an international stage though.

Should we we let governments get away with deceit?

There is more at stake than it seems. The consequences of failing to act against government deceit can be dire. Consider the deceit behind the invasion of Iraq. This has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Millions of people are still suffering from the consequences.

Governments can do a lot of damage. When we let governments get away with deceit, the damage can be much worse.
We end up paying the bill.

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How to escape bicycle helmet fines in Australia

Nerendra Jeet Singh, a Sikh, went to court in New South Wales (NSW), Australia over a bicycle helmet fine. He escaped the fine, arguing that his identity and religion are of prime importance.

In Queensland, Jasdeep Atwal challenged a helmet fine in court. The Sikh community has led Queensland to reform the helmet law to add a religious exemption.

Sikhs have helmet exemptions in South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria.

In Victoria, Alan Todd challenged a helmet fine in court, avoiding the fine.

People who challenge a helmet fine in court often escape it. In NSW, the defence of necessity allows people to break a law to avoid more dire consequences. Bicycle helmets increase the risk of accident and injury. To avoid a higher risk of accident, cyclists can choose not to wear a helmet.

This might explain why the police rarely book cyclists for helmets in NSW. It is pointless harassment: most people give up cycling, those who prefer to keep riding can challenge the fine in court.

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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. The inquiry released its interim report in 2016.

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 don’t know whether it works.

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.

Wearing a helmet can make people feel safer.
However feeling safe is different than being safe.
Helmet fanatics seem unable to understand the difference.
bl

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 pressed for evidence.

Hospitalisation data is quoted as the “better” data to measure cycling levels. That is incredibly naive. Helmet fanatics own study does show a strong increase in injuries after the helmet law was introduced. Yet rising cycling injuries do not imply that there are more cyclists. The rise in injuries can be due risk compensation, the tendency for people tend to take more risks when wearing safety equipment.

Another way to denigrate inconvenient evidence 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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Another attempt to introduce a helmet law defeated

A proposal to introduce a helmet law is California was withdrawn following opposition from cycling groups. A petition from the California Bicycle Coalition mentioned:

“there are proven ways to make our streets safer while encouraging bicycling — reducing speed limits on key streets, building protected bike lanes and bike paths, and educating motorists and bicyclists on how to drive or ride safely, to name a few. A mandatory helmet law is not one of them.”

This is not the first attempt to introduce a helmet law. They usually fizzle out once people mention the likely consequences:

“Countries that have penalised people for normal cycling (without helmets), have failed to reduce head injury rates despite increased helmet wearing rates. See an E​CF factsheet on the case of Australia​ and its helmet laws”

A politician in Northern Ireland attempted to introduce a helmet law. He had been lobbied by Headway. He claimed in parliament that helmet laws introduced in other countries have been a success. The debate was fierce. Helmet fanatics used emotive arguments. Rationalists focused on the consequences of imposing a helmet law:

“The one thing proponents of helmet legislation seem to ignore is that the fact that helmets do nothing to improve road safety, say the CTC.
What Helmets have done for cycling’s image, however, is to create the perception that cycling is inherently dangerous, which it was never considered to be before the arrival of the ubiquitous shiny hard hat.”

Helmet fanatics assume a helmet law can only improve safety. They ignore the likely consequences: a decrease in cycling and an increased risk of accident. They seem unaware that helmets are useless in major accidents.

The Cyclists Touring Club launched  a petition against the proposed law:

“This bill may be well-intentioned, but it will deter vast numbers of people from cycling, while increasing the risk for those who remain.”

The main political parties woke up to the negative consequences of the proposal. The law was not enacted:

“this would be legislation intruding into areas of life where it doesn’t need to go especially as they accepted that cycling is not a particularly dangerous activity.”

Never underestimate the tactics used by helmet fanatics. They appear sincere and well-meaning. Their emotive arguments appeal to the uninformed, particularly non-cyclists. Their smokescreen fizzle out once more informed opinions are brought to the limelight. People realise that the negative consequences outweigh the potential benefits.

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German study concludes that a bicycle helmet law is a waste of resource

Bicycle helmet laws are motivated by a desire to improve safety. Yet when they have been implemented, the main result has been to reduce cycling. This imposes healths costs by reducing the health benefits of cycling. Are the benefits worth the costs? An Australian study concluded a helmet law may provide a small benefit under extreme assumptions.

A new study attempts to answer this question for Germany. It concludes that a bicycle helmet law is a waste of resource. This is despite optimistic assumptions favoring helmets, notably:

  1. It ignores the increased risk of accidents from risk compensation, a well-known safety factor.
  2. It assumes a helmet law only reduces cycling by 4%. This is inconsistent with evidence from countries with a helmet law, where cycling dropped by half.
  3. It assumes polystyrene helmets prevents fatalities. This is despite acknowledging in the discussion section that this is not true.
  4. It assumes a 100% compliance rate.
  5. It ignores enforcement costs.
  6. It assumes helmets reduce 50% of head injuries. The most recent research summary concludes helmets reduce 15% of head injuries, while increasing neck injuries.
  7. It ignores that helmets increase neck injuries.

Many of these assumptions are at odds with the available evidence.
The results from countries that have experimented with a bicycle helmet law are consistent:

  • Cycling reduced by half
  • The injury rate increased significantly

With such a track record, a bicycle helmet law has little to offer.
Even optimistic assumptions cannot make it viable.

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Parliamentary inquiry calls for helmet law reform

A parliamentary inquiry into cycling issues in Queensland, Australia, recommends reforms to wind back the controversial helmet law that has harmed cycling for 20 years.

The report makes two key recommendations in regards to the helmet law:

Recommendation 15
The Committee recommends that the Minister for Transport and Main Roads:

  • introduce a 24 month trial which exempts cyclists aged 16 years and over from the mandatory helmet road rule when riding in parks, on footpaths and shared/cycle paths and on roads with a speed limit of 60 km/hr or less and
  • develop an evaluation strategy for the trial which includes baseline measurements and data collection (for example through the CityCycle Scheme) so that an assessment can be made which measures the effect and proves any benefits.

Recommendation 16
The Committee recommends that the Minister for Transport and Main Roads introduce an
exemption from Queensland road rule 256 for all cyclists age 16 years and over using a bicycle from a public or commercial bicycle hire scheme.

Recommendation 16 might save Brisbane’s  bike share scheme from being an embarrassing failure. Few people are using it, leading to calls for it to be wound back to stop the financial drain.

The recommendations have been well received in the media, with The Courier editorial writing:

The proposed changes should be cautiously welcomed

The report is entitled “A new direction for cycling in Queensland “. It is a new direction, new thinking to make cycling viable. It includes a wide range of measures that would help restore cycling as a mode of transport, including:

  • develop a “vulnerable road user strategy” policy to protect cyclists
  • road rules to treat cyclists as first class citizens on the roads
  • set a minimum passing distance of 1 meter to provide a safety buffer for cyclists
  • Allow cyclists to treat red lights as stop signs.

These are small and cautious steps towards winding back the disastrous experiment of the helmet law. It is a sign that legislators are finally willing to admit that it is time to reverse a policy that has reduced cycling while making it more dangerous.

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