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