The helmet debate rears its ugly head. Again

It’s usually bubbling away not far from the service. “They wear silly hats” and “they should wear helmets” are two of the favourite sticks with which to beat cyclists. It kicked off again on Twitter last week as Beverley Turner wrote an article entitled “It’s not just skiers who should wear helmets” and proceeded to berate cyclists for taking “unnecessary “ risks.

Turner is the wife of James Cracknell who, as she says herself in the article, was hit by a truck whilst cycling in America in 2010. Turner’s and Cracknell’s response is to campaign for cyclists to wear helmets which may on the face of it seem like a good and worthy thing. But think about it for a bit longer. Would you rather be hit by a truck whilst wearing a helmet, or just not be hit by a truck in the first place? And if you were charged with preventing injuries, would you provide people with lots of protective clothing, or find the cause of the injuries and try to stop them happening? Because there is a world of difference between saying “wear a helmet in case a truck hits you” and “let’s have separate infrastructure so you don’t get hit by a truck”. The first assumes that cycling is inherently dangerous and it’s entirely the cyclist’s responsibility to mitigate risks. The second examines the root cause of accidents and seeks to produce infrastructure that prevents those accidents.

I write this blog in a personal capacity but my day job entails examining data to improve its quality, and to ensure that it can bear the weight of the argument placed on it. Good quality data means that decisions can be made to help prevent incidents, whether that be by targeting the behaviour of at-risk groups or working out what type of infrastructure is most associated with collisions. I tend to start by asking questions which are deceptively simple but perhaps counterintuitive. Thus when examining the cycling and helmet debate I would actually disassociate head injuries from cycling and ask the following. What is your aim? Do you want to reduce incidents of head injuries? Or do you want to make cycling safer?

If your answer is that you want to reduce head injuries, then think about how and why they most commonly occur. To be fair to Turner, this information isn’t actually that readily available and does take some research to find. There is some data on head injuries here on the gov.uk website. Head injuries account for a little over 2% of A&E admissions in England. However, finding out how many of those are cyclists is more of an issue. There are stats for Canada and the US however. According to these, over the ten years between 1997 to 2007, 15% of deaths from TBI (traumatic brain injury) were motorists, 0.6% were cyclists. Now this does not mean that as an individual you are more or less likely to die of TBI when cycling than when driving, since it gives no indication of the extent to which either activity is carried out. However, it does mean that if you wanted to launch a public health campaign to reduce head injuries, you’d do well to target motorists, since out of every 20 deaths from TBI, 3 are motorists.

The Center for Disease Control in the US has done extensive research on TBI.  As they point out:

Data are critical to understand traumatic brain injury (TBI) as an important public health problem. This data can help inform TBI prevention strategies, identify research and education priorities, and support the need for services among those living with a TBI

If you dig around on the CDC’s website it becomes apparent that falls are one of the major causes of TBI and that it is the over 75s who are most at risk of death from them. However, nobody is suggesting that over 75s routinely wear helmets. Instead, they concentrate on falls prevention. This is because when an activity is seen as routine and normal we do not generally recommend protective clothing whereas when an activity is seen as risky we do recommend protective clothing, regardless of the objective degree of risk involved in either activity.

So, if you want to prevent head injuries, cyclists are not of major concern. But what if you want to keep cyclists safe? As this blog shows, cyclists are safer when separate from motorised traffic. A helmet only really comes into play after you collide with something. If I were trying to make things safer, I would be looking at reducing the collisions. If a truck turns left over the top of you, a piece of polystyrene on your head is not your best friend. Full body armour made out of something tougher than Kevlar might be of some assistance but better still, keep people on bikes separate from trucks.

Thus you can see that an argument that concentrates on head injuries in cyclists is not objectively the best way either to tackle head injuries, or to make cycling safer. Instead, it is based on subjective assumptions about risk. The problem with subjective risk is that it is by its nature based on society’s prejudices rather than facts. And where cyclists are concerned this is a particular problem because in the UK, so many people are determined to portray cyclists as a bit weird, different, awkward and, on the whole, determined law breakers and risk takers. Turner has (inadvertently?) picked up on this and unfortunately reinforced it. If cycling requires safety equipment then it isn’t a normal, everyday activity. If it isn’t a normal, everyday activity, then it requires safety equipment.

Cycling then is something other than the norm. It is a feature of othering that the out group are seen as a homogenous mass, defined and linked by one particular feature or activity, in this case riding a bike. In order to see the problem here, ask yourself the following question. Do all these activities carry the same degree of risk:

A Sunday cycle at 8mph along a towpath with no motorised traffic
A commute along the same towpath, plus some minor roads and cycle paths, at an average of 15mph
Blasting downhill in the pitch black on an MTB at speeds of up to 25mph on purely off-road tracks riddled with rocks, tree roots, ditches and rabbit burrows
Training for a road race at an average speed of 20mph on fast, busy rural roads

If your answer to this is “yes” then I would politely suggest that you don’t embark on a career as an actuary. It’s rather like saying that popping out to the supermarket in the family estate car carries the same risks as off-road rallying or training to be a formula 1 driver.

Insisting that all cyclists, no matter what they are up to, wear a helmet makes all cycling seem equally dangerous when in fact, cycling is a hugely varied activity with varying risks. If I were riding a sportive in large groups with other riders I would wear a helmet. If I cycle in icy conditions I wear a helmet. If I’m nipping to the corner shop via a segregated bike path, I reserve the right to leave my helmet at home. People on bikes need to be humanised, not presented with a polystyrene lid as if it is a cure all.

The weakness of Turner’s argument carried through into her supporters’ tweets. Amongst others, we have this gem:

Cycling tweet

As a rhetorical device it is interesting. Take a successful, transport-related safety campaign, in this case seat belts. Seat belts used not to be popular, the government made them compulsory and enforced the law on this point. Now the majority of the population simply belt up and accept that seat belts save lives. Then link this with a much more contentious argument and claim that the two are the same in the hope that anyone arguing against the compulsory wearing of helmets feels like a numpty and suddenly agrees that yes, a helmet is just like a seat belt. Ignore the fact that seat belts are designed to stop you being propelled through a sheet of glass when the metal box you are travelling in is suddenly brought to a complete and sudden stop as it slams into something else, whereas helmets are designed to take a bit of impact as you skid along the ground having come off your bike.

Faced with arguments against the compulsory wearing of helmets, Turner and her allies opted for wilful misunderstanding, lumping their opponents together as ‘anti-helmet’. They didn’t acknowledge that very few people are anti-helmet whereas quite a few are against making it mandatory to wear a helmet whilst cycling. I’m not sure if this was just a lack of ability to grasp the difference between the two positions or a wilful attempt to discredit those who are against compulsion by making it appear as if they are also against helmets.

Turner then made personal comments about those who didn’t agree with her articles:

BevTurner2

The fact that Turner thinks people on bikes are genuinely worried about messing up their hair says rather more about her than about any cyclist. It’s not an argument I’ve ever heard against helmet use. Personally I’ve only ever seen it used as an imaginary argument against helmet use by those in favour of compulsion. The ‘were you bullied’ argument is a little more worrying. It smacks of high school. It’s almost as if Turner is displaying her own credentials thus: “I was popular at school, I believe this, I believe I’m right, and popular. I think you’re wrong, and you were bullied, and I’m going to remind you of this, and play on your insecurities because essentially I’m still at school, and I’m still a bit of a bully.” Turner needs to get her head around the fact that in the adult world, producing evidence counts for rather more than being the popular one.

This comment about having no pictures of loved ones is more of the same:

BevTurner

It’s as if Turner thinks those who are in favour of evidence and who use graphs are unpopular and unloved, in contrast with herself, with her happy family, as evidenced by her photograph with a smiling cherub. Another interpretation is that some people just prefer to keep their loved ones away from Twitter. There are rather unpleasant stalkers around so I’d rather keep personal photos off Twitter and stick to the facts. Play the ball, not the person. Otherwise people will rather assume you can’t play the ball.

Finally, Turner ended her article with a rather telling statement. She imagines what Schumacher’s wife is going through and remarks:

Even if she is angered by the fact that he may have ignored resort warnings to avoid off-piste runs due to obscured rocks, she can, for now, take heart in the fact that he wore a helmet.

Turner is nothing if not heteronormative. She doesn’t question Schumacher’s risky, off-piste skiing but says that instead ‘A good man does that for his family as much as for himself.’ Thus because a former racing car driver decides to go for an off-piste ski, Turner argues that good male cyclists will wear helmets, or they don’t love their families. And if they argue against this, oh look, they have graphs, not babies. Really, even Telegraph readers deserve better.

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1 Comment

Filed under Cycling, Uncategorized

One response to “The helmet debate rears its ugly head. Again

  1. Wow this is an impressively well researched and well argued post. It’s good to know we have logic and intelligence on our side. I tip my hat to you. Personally I couldn’t get past my initial reaction to the article and twitter war which was “Oh just piss off!!” I’m not thick, just intellectually challenged.

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