Helmets, and James Cracknell’s brain

James Cracknell was struck by a petrol tanker travelling at high speed in July 2010, while he was cycling in Arizona. This incident has converted Cracknell into one of the most prominent advocates of cycle helmets in Britain, apparently on the basis that the helmet he was wearing at the time ‘saved his life’.

The following extract is from Cracknell’ autobiography, Touching Distance, recounting a ‘piece to camera’ he did for the Headway brain injury charity. The words are those he used in the video.

‘Last year when I was cycling across America, a truck’s wing mirror smashed into the back of my head at seventy miles an hour, knocking me off my bike and on to the road. My brain swung against the front of my skull as it hit, causing severe damage to the frontal lobes of my brain.

‘When I came out of intensive care, I wasn’t me any more. All of my friends and family told me that my entire personality had changed. My short-term memory was gone. I couldn’t make decisions. Had no motivation.

‘But I was lucky. I was wearing a helmet. If I hadn’t been, I’d be dead. Doctors say in time I should hopefully make a good recovery. I’m already back on my bike. Some cyclists will never ride again. I make the choice to wear a helmet. If you do too, please send this one to a friend.

‘I’m nearly James Cracknell. Use your head. Use your helmet.’

I hope it was a powerful message. I wanted to do everything I could to support such a worthwhile charity. It was designed to educate people into protecting their heads or influence others to persuade their friends and family to cycle with a helmet. I also wanted to do something positive to mark the anniversary of the accident.

From this account – his own – it is clear that the injury to Cracknell’s brain was the result of it rapidly accelerating within his skull, and hitting it.

What effect did the helmet he was wearing have in lessening the effects of this injury, and indeed preventing death? Well, we have information from Cracknell himself that the helmet he was wearing at the time he was struck by the wing mirror ‘was shorn in two’. (This description of what happened to the helmet is consistent with the many other accounts given by Cracknell and his wife). So it split on impact, and did not deform.

This means it did next to nothing to lessen the acceleration his brain received within his skull – which we have been told, again by Cracknell himself, caused his brain injury. Cycle helmets are designed to deform, and so lengthen the period over which deceleration occurs – much like the crumple zone of a car.

Polystyrene-based helmets protect by absorbing the energy of the impact through compressing the polystyrene. If the polystyrene has broken into pieces but not compressed, it has failed. Yet ironically we mistakenly believe that the broken helmet saved us.

So given the nature and cause of Cracknell’s injury, there does not appear to be any reasonable basis for his claim that his helmet ‘saved his life’. His helmet split, and failed, and did not protect his brain from the acceleration that damaged it. This is not the fault of the helmet. They are – quite reasonably – not designed to protect a human head from these kinds of impacts.

The question is why Cracknell is choosing to argue that it did – and indeed using his incident as a basis for arguing that we should persuade our friends and family to always ‘protect their heads’, rather than campaigning to keep fast heavy objects away from those heads.

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59 Responses to Helmets, and James Cracknell’s brain

  1. I think Kim Harding made the point well about his relationship with certain manufacturers having an influence on his opinions. http://www.kimharding.net/blog/?p=1693

  2. Barnie says:

    I’m not exactly pro-helmet myself, though I do usually wear one… but might the helmet have helped to prevent other potentially lethal injuries? ( e.g. more several skull fractures ).

    • fonant says:

      Skull fractures are rarely lethal, no worse than any other broken bone. The brain can also withstand quite severe direct impact damage too, as Mr Cracknell’s experience shows. A human can be unconscious for many minutes and still suffer no permanent brain damage. Impact brain damage is also localised to the impact location and the opposite side of the brain, so is unlikely to affect much of the brain.

      What is very damaging is sudden rotation of the skull, which causes the brain to shear like a jelly, damaging neurons throughout the brain (known as “diffuse brain injury”), rather than just in small localised areas. Sudden rotation of the head also has a high risk of breaking your neck, leading to serious possibility of permanent paralysis. Motorcycle helmets are designed to be smooth and slippery to minimise this problem. Cycle helmets are not, and they aren’t even tested for rotational impacts because they would certainly fail any sensible test. Since a cycle helmet increases my risk of a broken neck, and of diffuse brain injury, I will never wear one.

      • Barnie says:

        I meant specific to Mr Cracknell’s claims about his incident… Whilst I’m aware of the lack of statistical evidence supporting helmets – not many will get whacked from behind with a 50mph-ish speed difference… so maybe in the case there is a specific reason ( though I’m curious why I’ve never read of any such thing in the many reports of this incident ).

  3. i wonder if his stance has softened since his Alpina wages have now apparently stopped, he’s not listed on their website now..(even though at the time he was quoted as saying he was never paid and he was only saying that helmets should be compulsory for everyones best interest).

  4. paul gannon says:

    I agree that a better approach than helmets is to separate cyclist heads & wing-mirrors (what sort of road design madness must it be where trucks are travelling at 70mph directly adjacent to 20mph cyclists?). However I’m not so convinced by the ‘helmet broke thus it was useless’ line of reasoning. Assuming the helmet was not a dud, it would have undergone some plastic deformation before splitting, so (reiterating, assuming it was in good working condition) it would have absorbed some of the force generated by the collision (up to a point on a ‘force/time of application’ equation which exceeded the capacity for plastic deformation and transformed into brittle deformation). One needs to account for the pre-brittle deformation absorption capacity in assessing the role of the helmet in limiting, or not, the injuries suffered.

    • paul gannon says:

      PS – I don’t own & never have owned a cycle helmet & have never used one

    • fonant says:

      Cycle helmets fail the standards tests if they snap into pieces, as they are supposed to protect from multiple consecutive impacts (your head bouncing along the road) so they are certainly designed to stay in one piece. If the helmet broke then we can be pretty certain it was exposed to forces greater than it was designed for.

      What I’d like to see is helmet manufacturers submitting helmets that have been in crashes to laboratory analysis, to determine the energy that they absorbed. I don’t know if anyone does this, but it would provide excellent real-world performance data that could be fed back into the designs of helmets and the designs of the tests they have to pass.

      • KruidigMeisje says:

        I heard rumors of a helmet manufactor locating every helmet engaged in an collision for a year or so. Must be a year and a half ago. Never heard the results. So my rumor must be at fault, because the manufactor wouldn’t not release neutral or negative results would he?

        • Barnie says:

          Given how ineffective helmets seem to be, I’m all for research leading to more effective ones…
          Whether the risk really implies their need, and what should really be done to address that risk being separate issues…

      • Barnie says:

        I’ve searched for this in the past. Somewhere on t’internet there is a report from someone claiming to have been processing returned helmets, and claiming that all had failed ( IMO this might be biased though, as I suspect people are more likely to return a cracked/split helmet, than one with compressed polystyrene… ).

        I personally know of two people who’s helmet have deformed correctly ( and more than two who’ve failed… ). FWIW one of these does make the “helmet saved my life” claims,

        My helmet certainly saved my nose in December 2011 when I face-planted on the edge of a kerb :) ( I wear it because I need to for competition purposes, and to save myself from such minor injuries… not because it’s going to make me invincible when clobbered by a massive immovable object… )

  5. There is a considerable body of literature on the effectiveness of cycle helmets. If cycle helmets made a significant contribution to reducing the risk of head injury, then we would see this clearly in the literature, however, we do not.

    At best cycle helmets can reduce the risk of minor injury, cuts and grazes of the scalp, but there is no clear evidence that they reduce serious head injuries. Indeed, none of the helmet manufactures makes direct claims that their products can prevent serious head injuries (especially now that Bell Sports has been successful sued, in north America, for the failure of one of it helmets to prevent head injure).

    It is notable that the greatest of the claims about the supposed efficacy cycle helmets come from third parties and not the manufactures themselves, which of its self tells us something interesting.

  6. Paul M says:

    There are some rather difficult aspects to Cracknell’s narrative – what type of truck has wing mirrors set low enough to hit a cyclist, unless he is riding a penny-farthing? Where in the USA is a truck permitted to travel at 70mph, when general speed limits are 55?

    However, be that as it may, he is entitled to his views, and to his belief that the helmet afforded genuine protection. My wife believes this too, so I have to keep my lid on (until I am out of view of the house) to secure domestic harmony.

    What he is not entitled to do is bully and browbeat others into being forced to wear a helmet if they don’t want to wear one. By associating himself with that women Angela Lee and her ill-informed and over-emotional ravings that is what he has done.

    • charlie_lcc says:

      The American truck probably had a long body with the mirrors mounted on the front ‘wing’ not on the cab. The 70mph is conjecture, it may have been down hill. The driver and/or Cracknell may have been asleep. I have put more comments in long post below.

  7. I was about to chime in with a comment similar to Paul Gannon above, I think Mr Cracknell’s support would be much better lent to improving transport infrastructure so the chance of my head being clipped by a lorry at 70MPH is entirely removed as I’m in my own segregated lane.

  8. Pingback: Understanding Helmets | BIKE.IO ~ Dublin Cycling Blog ~ Urban and commuter biking

  9. hannahc says:

    Is there any evidence about helmets preventing injury for ‘single-vehicle collision’ (ie, a bike rider losing control and crashing) compared with car-vs-bike or other multivehicle collisions? My guess (based on several crashes with and without helmets) is that helmets might help to prevent injury in the first situation (where the rider is going at relatively low speeds, and an over-the-handbars-land-on-your-head type scenario is possible), whereas they might be less helpful in the latter where greater speeds/forces and crush injuries come into play.

    • As say above cycle helmets can reduce the risk of minor injury, cuts and grazes of the scalp, which is what you might expect in the sort of ‘single-vehicle collision’ you describe. It should also be noted that cycle helmet test are designed to simulate a crash at no more than 12 mph. That is about the running speed of a marathon runner, odd how none of them wear running helmets in case they trip. This is probably because the human skull has evolved to protect the brain against falls at sprinting speeds ~20mph.

      Personally I don’t wear a helmet, but if other people want to wear them, that should be their personal choice. What I object to is the misinformation and down right hysteria used to convince people that they should wear them.

  10. rdrf says:

    On “A Helmet Saved My Life” see http://www.cyclehelmets.org/1209.html .

    See also other points on http://www.cyclehelmets.org.

    Also to be considered is the adaptive behaviour (risk compensation) of the helmeted rider. I don’t tend to meet helmet advocates who think there is any possibility whatsoever that they may adapt their behaviour as a consequence of wearing one. Only a tiny change in alertness would be enough to absorb a benefit greater than that which a cycle helmet may actually offer. Somewhat contradictorily, these same folk tell me that they would never cycle without one…

    Of course, in my view being a little bit less careful when cycling is not that anti-social, so people should be allowed to wear them.

    Back to Cracknell: he has got involved in various “safety campaigns”, such as one with Surrey Police a couple of years back which rightly drew the ire of local cyclists. As with so many “road safety” types, he isn’t very good at telling the difference between cyclists breaking the rules/laws and motorists doing so.

    All of this relates to why some of us are worried about “Dangerising” cycling. When you go on about cyclists being hurt or killed, you don’t necessarily get someone talking about reducing danger at source (from motor traffic). In my experience you’re more likely to get the likes of Mr Cracknell.

    Another point: whatever his commercial connections, I think the guy is sincere. Sincere people are very often the most deluded and dangerous – the road to helmets is often paved with good intentions.

    • Barnie says:

      “you don’t necessarily get someone talking about reducing danger at source (from motor traffic)”
      Yeah I do love seeing the “cyclists need to be more careful/visible/wear protection” brigade go quiet when provided with statistics for motorised transport vs pedestrians too…

  11. Hannahc:
    There is no definitive evidence to answer your question. All we can say is that large changes in levels of helmet use among cyclists (e.g. in countries which have passed helmet laws) have never been associated with any overall improvement in cyclists’ safety.

    That doesn’t rule out the possibility that, as you and Kim both say, helmets might prevent some injuries, particularly more minor ones (i.e. the kind that generally wouldn’t cause the cyclist either to go to hospital or to report it to the police). And of course there are certain types of rider (e.g. children), or certain types of cycling (e.g. MTB), who might be particularly prone to more minor knocks and bumps (as distinct from collisions with motor vehicles).

    However, on the other side of the equation, there are also a variety of ways in which helmet-wearing may also increase the likelihood of other types of (potentially very serious) injury, e.g. neck injuries or rotational brain injuries (as Fonant has rightly noted). Helmets have been found to increase the likelihood of neck injuries. Bear in mind that a helmet effectively increases the diameter of your head by a few inches. Therefore a helmet could turn what might have otherwise have been an unpleasant graze, a glancing blow or even a complete ‘near miss’ (i.e. a non-impact) into a rotational ‘jolt’ around the hinge-point created by the neck, potentially causing very serious spinal or brain injuries. The number of such injuries would be so small as to be statistically undetectable. However, the internationally renowned road safety researcher Rune Elvik has found that helmet use is associated with an overall increase in the risk of neck injuries.

    Helmets may also increase the risk of cyclists having falls or collisions in the first place. Elvik has also estimated that cyclists who wear helmets have a 14% higher rate of injuries per mile travelled than non-wearers.

    Now, it is impossible to know whether that’s because more injury-prone cyclists are more likely to wear helmets, or because wearing a helmet makes you more injury-prone (e.g. through what is known as ‘risk-compensation’ – there is evidence that both cyclists and drivers may act less cautiously when a cyclist is wearing a helmet, presumably due to unwarranted faith in the protective power of helmets).

    What we do know though is that nobody has ever associated increased helmet use with reduced injury rates – not for children or for any other type of cycling or cyclist. The only known effect of efforts to encourage or (worse still) enforce the use of helmets is to deter cycle use. As well as undermining its health and other benefits, there is also some evidence that this may worsen the safety of the remaining cyclists, by undermining the ‘safety in numbers’ effect (SiN – see https://www.ctc.org.uk/campaign/safety-in-numbers).

    I’m sure we can all agree that we should instead focus on reducing the sources of road danger: traffic volumes and speeds, hostile roads and junctions*, bad driving, and lorries. These are the solutions that will give us more as well as safer cycling.

    [* And yes, quality infrastructure IS part of the solution to the danger and intimidation created by hostile roads and junctions. Contrary to whatever else you might read in the blogosphere, CTC has NEVER claimed or believed that SiN is an argument against quality infrastructure. As far as CTC is concerned, SiN is (and always was):
    - an argument in favour of anything that reduces the various sources of danger and fear that deter people from cycling (as above - hence the solutions would include infrastructure that reduces those dangers/fears);
    - an argument in favour of sensible ways to measure road danger reduction (e.g. through rate-based or perception-based targets, not simple casualty numbers or rates per head of population - these merely make places with high or increasing cycle use look more "dangerous" than places where cycle use is low or falling); and
    * an argument against "dangerising" cycling (e.g. through helmet campaigns which scare people into not cycling).
    CTC has always agreed that using SiN as an argument against quality infrastructure is completely nonsensical. Dutch and Danish cycling experts rightly cite SiN as an argument IN FAVOUR of quality infrastructure. The suggestion that CTC ever took the opposite stance is like being accused of believing that 2 + 2 = 5, when in fact we've never said anything of the sort!
    But hey, I digress...]

    For more evidence on helmets, including references for several of the points made above, see:
    * CTC’s campaigns briefing on helmets (setting out our policy stance, and briefly outlining the reason for it): https://www.ctc.org.uk/campaigning/views-and-briefings/cycle-helmets;
    * CTC’s (more comprehensive) evidence summary on helmets: https://www.ctc.org.uk/article/cycling-guide/cycle-helmets-overview-evidence; and
    * The website of the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation (a really comprehensive resource): http://www.cyclehelmets.org.

    Hope this helps!

    • Barnie says:

      Nice summary, thanks!

    • paul gannon says:

      The cycling lobby is on to a loser if it continues to push the ‘no evidence’ argument about helmets and safety. The simple fact of the matter is that no one, except the converted, is listening to such arguments.

      The best approach for the cycling lobby is to concentrate on one point only – helmet use leads to reduced cycling levels – and to ignore everything else. One message repeated and repeated without dubious distractions about helmets making cyclists 14% more likely to have accidents (the dubiousness lies in the absurdly precise 14% figure).

      This isn’t because there is sound evidence in favour of helmets (the evidence is unclear because there are methodological problems which make all data questionable). It is because no one is listening to the statistical argument. All they hear is that the cycling lobby argues obvious nonsense.

      The same applies to the way cycling lobby insists (often using inappropriate statistics) that ‘cycling is not dangerous’. Most people probably don’t spot the statistical sleight of hand, but they are aware that there the subject is being spun by zealots.

      I can think of no way to make the cycling lobby less effective than it already is than to argue that cycling is not dangerous – because the danger is that few people will listen to ANY of the cycling lobby’s arguments if it is seen to insist on something that is so obvious to so many people.

      The cycling lobby is the hostage of its past through its insistence on ideas (opposition to segregation in particular) that are contrary to what ordinary people can understand. This is the campaigning equivalent of self-harm.

      • Fred says:

        I suspect you’re right in your analysis of the situation. However cycling advocates have a difficult path to walk saying that helmets are a good idea, but actually aren’t very effective in terms of overall safety, shouldn’t be mandatory and not wearing one does not mean a cyclists is at fault for an accident they did not cause. All of these things seem to come up again and again.

        Where I am in London most people seem to wear helmets anyway, so in reality it isn’t the big issue it’s made out to be. Helmets tend to be bought up as part of a line of thought which puts the onus on cyclists for their own safety and gives motorists a false sense of security.

        Personally I think helmets are a good idea but their benefit is overstated and segregated lanes are the solution to safety.

      • Barnie says:

        Surely most of the arguments coming from the “cycling lobby” are actually counter arguments?

        If no one points out the flaws in the pro-helmet arguments, then even more people will be susceptible to believing that a few mm of polystyrene will protect them against 70mph 7ton+ lorries…

        If someone is trying to legislate to make helmets compulsory on safety grounds, then it’s perfectly reasonably, sensible, appropriate and even I’d say morally required to point out that the amount of protection from the little bit of polystyrene is minimal.

        • paul gannon says:

          I think you’ve missed my point about no one listening because no one will believe the spin put on the statistics. I’m anti-helmet & I don’t believe the claims that helmets are wholly ineffective or even counter-productive. So I’m saying stop wasting time and making the cycle lobby look foolish and stick with repeating over and over again the simple, clear and to most people understandable argument that compulsory helmet use reduces cycling levels. Keep all the research spin for arguments in front of judges & insurance companies for sure, but for public debate it’s foolish to make yourself look like a fanatic.

          Barnie says ‘if no one points out the flaws … then even more people will believe’ in the effectiveness of helmets. Not true I suggest because no one will believe the arguments about the flaws. The only consequence of arguing the alleged flaws will be to ridicule and diminish the effectiveness of the cycling lobby. That is my argument.

          • Barnie says:

            I’ve not missed your point. I think your point is wrong.

            If you have researched and understood the facts all on your own, without first coming across a comment or link, then you’re about the only one.
            Pretty much everyone else who understands the flaws and facts, do so because they’ve seen or heard someone else make a common or a link which they’ve chosen to follow up.

            I know because of someone in my speed skating club, others of my friends know because I’ve discussed it with them, I find it impossible to imagine that anything less than a few of those have then told at least a few others…

  12. Peter Clinch says:

    “The question is why Cracknell is choosing to argue that it did”

    I would suggest because “everybody knows” helmets save lives, ergo his helmet saved his life. It’s a very powerful (if dubious) argument that if you’re wearing a crash helmet and you get a whack on the head you /must/ be considerably better off, and if you came out pretty badly then considerably better off seems like the difference between alive and dead.

    It’s bollocks when you look at the fine print, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an emotive argument that sways many people, especially those who’ve been in accidents.

  13. charlie_lcc says:

    I have long taken an interest in James Cracknell’s career as I used to be a rower and an endurance cyclist. His assertion that the helmet saved his life needs examination.

    From his own and other press accounts we have heard that he was hit from behind at speed by the wing mirror of a fuel tanker truck. His helmet split in two and he suffered a fracture to the base of his skull. The serious and permanently disabling brain injury however was caused by the ‘contre coup’ bash of the front of his brain to the inside of his skull. Such an injury can happen with or without a helmet. It may also have included rotational diffuse injury as noted above.

    Strangely the failure of the helmet to stop a skull fracture may have helped ‘save’ his life. Severe internal injury leads to bleeding inside the skull, as reported in Cracknell’s case. A skull fracture allows for some swelling of the brain and reduced pressure. In some cases protected, unfractured skulls lead to worse outcomes where there is internal bleeding and high pressure.

    There are many other factors which contributed to the ‘saving’ of his life. The crash happened on an Arizona interstate highway close to Winslow where there is a small hospital with 24 hr A+E experienced in road crash victims. The doctors recognized the serious nature of the injuries, correctly stabilised him and immediately arranged for a helicopter transfer to the neurosurgical expert unit at Phoenix. Presumably they checked his health insurance would pay for all that. If the crash had happened further down the road he may have died before getting the expert care that minimised the injury outcomes.

    Not much has been written about the reasons for the crash or how it might have been avoided. Cracknell has commented that he was well prepared with the best possible helmet and was “lit up like a Christmas tree”. He was, however, riding eastwards just after sunrise on an open road shared with a few overnight truck drivers. I don’t know if the sun was in the driver’s or cyclist’s eyes at the time of the crash but it is likely that travelling into the sunrise may have been a distraction in the 20mins or so before the crash.

    My personal risk assessment for endurance cycling led to advice from Audax Australia that it was best take a long break around sunrise. This is based on research into fatigue in truck drivers, not only is the sun a factor but at this time of day your body is expecting to be asleep. The hour or so around sunrise is when both the cyclist and every other road user are likely to be least attentive and possibly be distracted by sunrise ahead or reflected in mirrors.

    I can’t help thinking that Cracknell’s permanent brain injury is due to a failure of risk assessment. He and his team thought that a helmet and christmas tree lights were the way to go rather than a detailed examination of the likely risks and how they might be minimised.

    • Fred says:

      I’m interested to hear about the sunrise and your approach to managing the danger. It follows the ‘ERIC’ approach recommended by the (much maligned) HSE. Eliminating or reducing the danger to an acceptable level must be undertaken first (avoiding a dangerous time of day), and control measures applied to any residual risks (control measures being things like lights and especially helmets which only work if you’ve failed to prevent an accident). The missing ‘I’ is for inform, as it is meant for when when you’re taking responsibility for the safety of others or working in a team.

  14. Fred says:

    Clearly the problem is getting hit by anything at that speed. Basic safety considerations suggest we should be looking to eliminate or reduce the opportunities for this kind of incident to occur before we worry about how to deal with it when it happens.

    Anyone who survives a collision with a fast moving HGV is very lucky, most will die with or without helmets. It also would seem that the tanker was driven extremely dangerously to get that close and was lucky not to cause a death.

    While the helmet may have marginally improved his brain’s impact, it is probably not designed for that kind of speed and did not function effectively. Maybe the helmet saved him, in which case I am glad he wore it, but that is not the main message that we should take from the story.

  15. rdrf says:

    I’m in interested in Paul Gannon’s argument here.

    Why is it “obvious nonsense” that people tend adapt to their reduced perception of risk when wearing a helmet, and that it won’t offer that much help in a typical incident anyway? Lots of people who are not “the converted” understand that argument very well.

    Now, I take the point about the “14%” as a specific number – but showing evidence indicating a tendency to be more likely to crash is perfectly reasonable. And the “absence of sound evidence” showing benefits is NOT just down to methodological problems.

    Actually, the CTC and some others do tend to do what you suggest – namely concentrate on the link between mandatory helmets and less cycling. But, in my experience, that tends to have limited benefits and anyway, what is wrong with telling people the truth?

    “It is because no one is listening to the statistical argument”. Or, to put it another way, lots of people – but by no means all – don’t want to deal with the facts. That is no justification for not telling them what the evidence is.

    • Barnie says:

      I’d go further and suggest that there’s a moral obligation to point out the truth. When there is pressure to legislate, or even just the current social pressure, to force people to spend their money on safety equipment, it’s absolutely correct and necessary to ensure the safety equipment’s efficacy is appropriate.

      If the pros and cons of helmets aren’t understood, how can the correct decisions be made, either at a personal or national level?
      Will helmet technology improve more quickly or slowly if their failings are known, understood and investigated, or if they’re ignored?

      Was it the Freakonomics guy who showed that you’re more likely to have an accident when wearing a helmet, by showing that the number of non head injuries increases?

    • paul gannon says:

      Barnie says: ‘If the pros and cons of helmets aren’t understood, how can the correct decisions be made, either at a personal or national level?’
      But, the Dutch (who famously don’t use cycle helmets) have no more understanding of the pros and cons of helmets than any other nation, but the seem collectively to be making the right decision, so I suggest Barnie’s argument fails when tested against to reality.

      • Barnie says:

        Rubbish. It’s a totally different situation, they’re under zero social pressure to wear helmets. They need no counter arguments because the arguments themselves aren’t made ( to the same degree of publicity ).

      • Fred Smith says:

        I suspect there’s a time and a place for both types of arguments, depending on the amount of detail the discussion goes in to, the audience, whether it is necessary to counter silly suggestions from people who know little about helmets.

        There’s obvious disagreement here about which is best generally, but I think this is a matter of opinion rather than fact. Perhaps agree to disagree with each other about this and try to convince people who haven’t made up their minds yet rather than people with more fixed opinions?

    • paul gannon says:

      It’s obvious nonsense because of the impossibility of constructing a convincing methodology of showing conclusively that helmet wearers are more likely to have a crash. The best that could be done is to suggest a possible indication that this is the case, but no more.
      When we claim that ‘possible indications’ are ‘facts’ or, even more absurdly, ‘the truth’ we undermine our credibility.
      What we need to do is suppress the urgent desire to seek hard statistics (and thus seemingly unchallengeable facts or truth) that back up our points of view and acknowledge that virtually all road traffic stats are wonky and unreliable; metastudies which look at lots of wonky, unreliable statistical studies are more often than not mega-unreliable.

      • Barnie says:

        Rubbish again. It’s already been done. Non head injuries have been shown to increase. ( I think it was the statistician who did the freakonimics, but it could be someone else… ).

        • paul gannon says:

          As Fred says, we’ll have to agree to disagree, though in view of your comments above about your speed-skating club, I will modify my original assertion that ‘no one is listening’ to ‘no one but a tiny handful of people is likely to listen and an even tinier number go on to believe it’.

          • Barnie says:

            What is your evidence that no-one is listening? Your personal experience, or something more formal?
            This whole article and it’s responses essentially stem from someone making yet another dubious “bike helmet saved my life” claim, and you’re suggesting that letting them do so, repeatedly and uncontested, will somehow improve the situation?

            A famous and respected Olympian says “my helmet saved my life”, the highway code states that we “should” wear helmets, the population gets lots of explicit and implicit messages that helmets significantly improve safety.
            Mr Paul Gannon ignores all this, and simply states that helmets put people off cycling.

            You think that’s going to make the point and lead to the correct outcome?

            Isn’t people thinking cycling is dangerous one of the biggest things that stop people cycling? ( even though it’s not true, compared to other sports / everyday things ).
            By not proving counter arguments to the danger and helmet issues won’t it seem like you’re accepting, even agreeing, with them, and are simply arguing that people should be encouraged to cycle anyway, regardless, and therefore dangerously?

            • paul gannon says:

              Hi Barnie, you ask ‘Isn’t people thinking cycling is dangerous one of the biggest things that stop people cycling?’. Yes it is. But I suspect that I draw different conclusions to you from that.
              It is quite clear to the vast majority of people that cycling on British roads is an unattractive activity and is more dangerous than it need be (with provision of high-quality cycle networks).
              People do not think that cycling is more dangerous than it need be because of propaganda about helmets and so on. They make a sensible, realistic risk assessment of cycling in Britain. This is why it is pointless to expend effort trying to convince people that cycling is safe (and that helmets are unsafe).

              • Barnie says:

                You’re repeatedly stating that it’s counter intuitive that a few mm of polystyrene has limited protection capabilities.
                It’s ENTIRELY intuitive that a few mm of polystyrene won’t help against even 1 ton car, let alone a 7ton+ lorry.

                If asking people how much protection they think a few mm of polystyrene will provide against a 1ton car isn’t an easy win, I don’t know what is.

                Why does it seem counter intuitive? While people are being indoctrinated by uncontested media stories, the highway code, etc., then there’s only one assumption that they’re being led towards. The vast majority have no need to think beyond that, so won’t. However if they read some responses then they’re forced to. More powerfully so are reporters and editors.

                The myriad of inconclusive studies / meta studies is a fact, and an easy to understand one. It’s a mass of evidence that can’t find any significant effect therefore helmets fall in to the same ball park as woolly hats, or no hats… ( OK, I’m getting poetic, I’ve not seen any analysis for woolly hats ).

              • Barnie says:

                It’s not just about people thinking cycling is more dangerous that it need be.
                It’s also about people thinking cycling is a lot more dangerous that it actually is.

                Assuming we’re thinking of the same situation on this, then there is no slight of hand in statistics that show this.
                It simply is just difficult to know what is a more appropriate comparison to other transport… incidents per journey, or incidents per mile, in my opinion while neither give a great comparison, they do help putting things in perspective.

                It’s just fighting against the media who report every single of the 15-ish cyclists deaths every year in London, while pretty much ignoring all of the 70 to 80 pedestrian deaths (2011 approx figures).

                If people are allowed to incorrectly think that it’s cycling that’s dangerous then cycling will be lucky to ever get more than minority support to be made safer ( as is the current norm. / expectation ). Most people just don’t care.
                If we educate people to know that it’s the cars and lorries that are dangerous, to cyclists and pedestrians… then it becomes a much easier issue to address and fund.

                This is starting to happen in London.
                The Mayor is making some of the right noises.
                Some of these noises are resulting in improvements.
                New road/junction designs are getting a lot of attention in the design phase for cyclists and pedestrians, with prioritisation of motorised traffic being publicly questioned.
                When this attention is still ignored to “prioritise traffic flow”, it is being thrown back at TfL and the Mayor as soon as there is an issue.
                Highlighting these issues, and the ignored foresight, is getting some junctions improved, and is making it harder and harder to ignore the noises for future designs.

                But yeah, let’s ditch all the progress and momentum driven from the interconnecting arguments, let’s not bother to try to make anyone understand the picture as a whole, let’s just cry over the 5% fewer kids who will cycle if helmets are made a legal requirement.

  16. Cottenham Cyclist (@cotnm) says:

    I agree with charlie_lcc’s sentiments regarding risk assessment. The biggest factor affecting James Cracknell’s safety was not the helmet but the choice to cycle interstate roads shared with traffic going at a high speed and not expecting hazards such as cyclists. Any collision was likely to end in death.

    A safer route could have been chosen but that longer route would make the record attempt fruitless. With hindsight, the risk was not mitigated well enough by helmets or lights, or he was blind to the risks in pursuit of the challenge.

  17. michael says:

    I don’t know that I consider the arguments about effectiveness to be the central issue.

    To me, the main point of a helmet law is political and ideological, not practical (‘practical’ arguments always have ideological underpinnings and assumptions).

    The main ‘danger’ that cyclists are subject to is NOT the danger inherent to cycling, its the danger inherent to motoring. The fact that the risks of motoring are exported onto people other than the motorist doesn’t mean that the risk ceases to be a risk of motoring and can be magically re-ascribed to the activity of the people the risk has been imposed on. There is a moral principle at stake, one that I don’t think even ‘democracy’ can over-ride. Right and wrong are not decided by vote.

    In that light, a compulsory helmet law is an ideological statement of dominance by the motorist. Its saying that they don’t need to take responsibility for their own behaviour, they have the power to transfer that responsibility to others. Its a symbolic act, and a deeply offensive one.

    Having said that, I don’t know about US interstate freeways – maybe you could make helmets compulsory on routes that are probably always going to be overwhelmingly for fast motor traffic. Assuming its not cost-justifiable to put cycle tracks parallel to them.

    Any more than I’m bothered about UK motorways. But how many cyclists travel such routes anyway?

  18. rdrf says:

    I think Paul Gannon is wrong to say – if I have this correct – that we should pay no regard to road traffic collision statistics. I should make it clear that I say this as someone who has written one book, one Ph.D. and spent a career rubbishing the interpretation of such statistics by the “road safety” lobby. Of course, it is very difficult to get “hard” evidence from such statistics, and the meta-analyses are particularly dire.

    Despite the need to be circumspect, I think it is quite legitimate to analyse what we have before us. If there is an absence of evidence for benefits of cycle helmets –as I think there is – then we should point this out and demand to know why official bodies concerned with safety on the road are operating without an evidence base when they claim to have one. If there is evidence for risk compensation we should say so. This doesn’t mean that people should not be allowed to wear them – my view is that they are unlikely to hurt others in the first place, so any slight increase in risk taking from wearing a helmet is not significantly anti-social. But we should, nevertheless, point out the truth.

    This is also relevant in terms of the relentless pressure to wear helmets. I think this is a crucial point: many of us feel quite intimidated by this pressure. I have personally been yelled at in the street for not wearing one, and know of others who have had the same abuse. The political and ideological elements of helmet laws that michael refers to applies with helmet advocacy as well. It links in with a view that cycling is inherently hazardous.

    It needs to be said that there is a great deal of pressure to wear helmets, however subtle it may be. I think there is a case for standing up it, and saying that the Dutch don’t wear them won’t, in my view, work. There is enough “you’re asking for trouble” victim-blaming for cyclists going on without this as well.

    Re-the Dutch, various helmet advocates like Tam Dalyell (then an MP) have argued that they are foolish not to wear helmets, and that there low casualty rates would be even lower if they did what the liddites want. I see nothing wrong with arguing that there is no evidence to suggest this would happen. Besides, saying that the Dutch don’t has no bearing with regard to whether people feel pressured to wear helmets here.

    (On a minor point: Mikael Colville-Andersen has argued for some time that there is considerable pressure to wear helmets in Denmark, which is not the Netherlands but closer to it than the UK. I think he has showed negative elements of this process)

    So I’m with barnie on this – although I try not to say that other people’s arguments are “rubbish”.
    Do take a look at the Bicycle Helmets Research Foundation web site, as well as the evidence Roger Geffen refers to. Of course, mentioning risk compensation (just one of the points in the discussion) does open up some areas which many would rather not see discussed. But bring it on, I say!

    • Barnie says:

      “It’s obvious nonsense because of the impossibility of constructing a convincing methodology of showing conclusively that helmet wearers are more likely to have a crash. “.
      He called it “obvious nonsense”, and justified this with a fallacy. It’s quite simple to look for a rise in non head related cycling injuries to prove the point, and I believe it’s already been done ( can’t get at my book at the moment… ).
      One man’s “obvious nonsense” is another man’s “rubbish”.

      • Barnie says:

        He can’t counter claim that the Dutch are collectively making the right decision, when they’re not even being asked the same question, if any question at all.
        Well he can, but I don’t see why people can’t point out that it’s rubbish! ( and, perhaps importantly, why it’s rubbish… )
        To be honest I initially thought his claim was so obviously flawed that he must be trolling – but acknowledging to myself that I might be jumping the gun there, and liking to give people a few chances, I downgraded that personal targeted statement to one targeting his argument.

    • paul gannon says:

      A reasonable set of points from rdrf, but still missing my point, so I need to repeat that I see no advantage in the cycle lobby insistently arguing a counter-intuitive statistical case, even if it were a pretty certain case. In the case of helmets, I’m afraid, the stats are not certain; they are at best unclear.

      Both sides comb the studies for crumbs of support for their predetermined views. Both sides present their crumbs as if it were a freshly-baked loaf (‘well respected researcher’, ‘proven’, ‘The Truth’).

      But the cycle lobby is at a disadvantage because its case is counter–intuitive – and therefore automatically suspect.

      On the other hand, anyone with a reasonably working brain can get their head around the concept that forcing people to wear helmets is likely to lead to reduced cycling levels.

      My argument is pick fights you can win, not ones you are guaranteed to lose.

  19. rdrf says:

    Paul Gannon: Thanks for saying that (some of) my points are “reasonable”. Actually, I do think I understand yours. Just to explicate some issues:

    1. (a) I don’t think risk compensation is “counter-intuitive”. It is easily understandable and has a lot of evidence behind it, as well as “intuition”.
    (b) It is also highly intuitive and evidence based to suggest that a lid won’t make much difference to many important injuries in a collision.

    2. Saying that helmet compulsion puts people off cycling make sense to people like you and me, as well as having some evidence behind it. But that may not have any purchase on others, particularly those who are not sympathetic to cycling.

    3. On statistics.
    (a) An absence of “hard” evidence – whatever that may be – is, in my view, a reason for confronting helmet advocates. If they haven’t got anything hard after nearly forty years of mass use in various localities, including compulsion in some countries, they have a big case to answer.
    (b) There is actually a lot of evidence pointing towards adaptive behaviour/risk compensation. (Collected in my book: “Death on the Streets: Cars and the mythology of road safety”). It raises issues about safety on the road in general which are relevant to cycling. These arguments will upset some people, but that alone is not a reason for stating them. This brings me to:

    4. Picking fights. People will pick fights with you for not advocating helmets, and also not wearing one. I think a lot of people want to know that there are reasons for why it may be OK to not wear one. Supplying arguments for them seems reasonable to me. And in terms of winning fights, saying that they don’t wear them in the Netherlands doesn’t cut it.

  20. Let me firstly agree wholeheartedly with one of Paul Gannon’s points, namely that our strongest argument in the helmet debate is to emphasise the lost health benefits from cycling that results from helmet laws. As RDRF has noted, this is invariably CTC’s preferred first line of argument in any debate on the subject.

    However, that argument isn’t sufficient on its own. As Barnie has rightly said, all sorts of pro-helmet arguments get thrown at us by those who would advocate helmet laws etc – and we absolutely have to be able to respond to them. Otherwise, as both Barnie and RDRF have said, we are seen to be tacitly accepting their arguments.

    Let’s not kid ourselves either that there is a single ‘magic bullet’ argument for winning the helmet debate. Different arguments work with different people. In that respect, Paul is partly right to question the value of arguing that “cycling isn’t anywhere near as hazardous as is widely believed”. Some people do indeed respond as Paul suggests, i.e. by dismissing it as bit of statistical jiggery-pokery. Others ARE impressed by it though – hence I don’t buy Paul G’s attempts to dismiss it as a valueless argument. In any case, as Barnie has quite rightly noted, if an argument is both true and important, then you need to win people over to it, not censor yourself because (some) people won’t believe you. Think Galileo!

    After all, every other helmet argument in our repertoire suffers from exactly the same problem. And yes, that also includes Paul’s (and CTC’s) preferred argument about the way helmet laws / promotion campaigns undermine efforts to maximise cycling’s health benefits. In my experience (which may be unscientific, but it’s based on having waged far more helmet debates than is good for me, including an awful lot of media interviews!), the argument about the loss of cycling’s health benefits is indeed the one that seems most likely to impress people. However there are also a lot of people who remain wholly unmoved by it.

    For some people, the idea that “cycling is really dangerous” is so deeply ingrained, that they cannot comprehend that the deterrent effect of helmet promotion or laws is a far bigger deal in public health terms than any possible injury-reduction benefits that helmets might have (i.e. the increase in deaths / ill health due to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity etc would be many times greater than the TOTAL number of cyclists’ deaths, let alone those that might be preventable through helmet wearing). They still tend to come back with arguments such as, “Yes, but wouldn’t it be worth it if it saved just a single life?” Or, “OK, but it’s still deeply irresponsible to cycle without a helmet – if people aren’t prepared to wear a helmet when cycling, they shouldn’t be cycling at all”. Or, “But what about children – surely it must be better for them at least to be made to wear helmets?” Readers of this blog will doubtless figure out the counter-arguments to each of these points, so I’ll not rehearse them here. However, my point stands: some people have deeply ingrained pro-helmet convictions, and even the health argument isn’t a ‘magic bullet’ for weaning people off those beliefs.

    Please though, let’s not conflate attempts to argue that “cycling isn’t actually that hazardous” with an attack on segregated cycle facilities. This argument, and the ‘Safety in Numbers’ argument (i.e. that “more and safety cycling can, and should, go hand in hand”) have a lot in common. Both of them are arguments in favour of action to remove the deterrents to cycling. Neither of them are arguments against segregation – indeed I regularly hear Dutch and Danish cycling experts advancing both these arguments.

    Both arguments are aimed primarily at countering the actions and beliefs of the many road safety officers (RSOs) and others whose instinctive beliefs are (1) that cycling is really ‘dangerous’, hence (2) it would be professionally irresponsible to actually encourage it, and (3) that arguments about cycling’s health / environmental / other benefits are mere red herrings, to be brushed aside in the interests of promoting public safety. These beliefs, common among RSOs, lead them to believe it is their professional duty to scare cyclists / would-be cyclists into either wearing a helmet, or else not cycling at all. They’d far rather hang on to the comforting belief that cyclists’ injuries are mostly cyclists’ fault, instead of having to contemplate the idea that maybe drivers and/or road safety officers really ought to be taking rather greater responsibility for cyclists’ safety (let alone that it might be a good idea if they sometimes cycled themselves!) As for the suggestion that they are causing far more ham than good by advocating helmet-promotion or helmet-laws (i.e. by increasing the massive burden on society attributable to heart disease / stroke / etc), that simply leaves them stone cold.

    Road safety officers have spent the last 50+ years spreading the idea that “cycling is dangerous”. This belief that is far more ingrained in countries like Britain and the USA than in places like Denmark and the Netherlands (although helmet promotion in DK is now measurably worsening the situation). As such, it is a major obstacle to the promotion of cycling in the UK, and hence to strengthen the “cyclists’ vote” to the point where we finally secure the political backing needed to deliver high-quality cycling conditions thoughout the UK. We absolutely need to counter this “cycling is dangerous” nonsense, not pander to it.

    In summary, I’d absolutely agree with Paul that our No.1 headline argument is that helmet laws and promotion campaigns undermines efforts to maximise cycling’s health (and other) benefits. However, if we wish to maximse the health and other benefits of cycling, that in turn calls for action to reduce the deterrents to cycling. It also requires us to counter the actions of RSOs and others who would rather ADD to the deterrents to cycling (e.g. by telling people they really had better be wearing a helmet if they want to go anywhere near a bicycle!), instead of doing useful things to reducing those deterrents (e.g. providing quality infrastructure).

    So please, let’s not get distracted by misplaced beliefs that arguments AGAINST attempts to “dangerise” cycling, or IN FAVOUR of action to boost the “safety in numbers” (SiN) effect, are in some way undermining the pro-segregation cause. They are nothing of the sort – indeed Dutch/ Danish cycling experts are perfectly happy using the SiN argument IN FAVOUR of segregation (and rightly so). Conversely, the vastly exaggerated belief that “cycling is dangerous” (fostered by RSOs through activities such as helmet campaigns) is a serious obstacle to what we are all trying to achieve, i.e. a lot more people cycling in far safer cycling conditions. So let’s get on with tackling this mis-conception, rather than pandering to it!

  21. Bill says:

    Helmets are to cycle safety what filter tips are to cigarettes.

  22. paul gannon says:

    My thanks to rdrf & Roger Geffen for thoughtful and well-argued points. Roger’s case is well made but I think contains two (related) misconceptions. First, it is a fundamental misconception to think that people in general consider cycling to be dangerous because of ‘propaganda’ (or whatever one wants to call it) rather than from self-assessment. Second, it is also a fundamental misconception to think that we (CTC, LCC, other cyclists’ groups & cyclists in general) are capable of changing that assessment by argument. In other words I think Roger (and others) are overestimating very substantially the power of ‘propaganda’ (or whatever one wants to call it) by ‘safety officers’ & by cyclists’ organisations to influence thinking in in this matter. I think Barnie’s contributions illustrate this quite well. Although he argues passionately against helmets, he also tells us that he normally wears one. Presumably he doesn’t do this to look cool or some such reason, but because, despite following the ‘party line’, he really thinks they do have some safety effect! If even Barnie doesn’t really accept the ‘helmets are dangerous’ line, then who else is likely to?
    rdrf’s comments require a slightly more detailed response & this will follow.

  23. paul gannon says:

    In response to rdrf, the first point I must address is one that I sidestepped previously in order to comment only on the nub of the matter and to keep my comment as short as possible (something I’ve not found possible in this comment & for which I apologise).

    The point I didn’t respond to is whether my characterization of all road traffic stats are rubbish means that we should ignore all stats. Incidentally I am in fact quoting an academic from Sheffield addressing a cycling conference some 15-20 years ago. What I’m saying is not new, only not widely appreciated.

    But, I agree with rdrf when he says ‘I think it is quite legitimate to analyse what we have before us’.

    However, we must carry out that analysis in the light of the problems with such stats. However this requires two aspects of that analysis. First we must understand the limitations, especially in creating useful ‘before/after’ comparisons in real life. Second, what we must not do is sweep through studies in order to find crumbs of comfort for a pre-existing point of view.

    I have had innumerable opportunities to study how often the ‘crumbs of comfort’ strategy is used in assessing arguments to the effect that ‘segregation is dangerous’. In dozens of cases I have probed the ‘findings’ of cited studies (or more usually ‘links’ to John Franklin’s website) and in every single case I have found either that the person citing the study has misread, misunderstood, mis-cited, misrepresented or selectively quoted the study. In not a single case have I found the actual study to give any sustenance to the assertion of segregation being dangerous. I will cite just two examples of those dozens: 1 – Cycling Plus magazine some years ago headlined a report exclaiming that cycle paths were 14 more dangerous than road cycling, however looking at the actual study showed that the stats referred to mountain biking paths, not cycle tracks, and actually the stats for tracks showed safety benefits; 2 – recently on Camden CC list a member claimed that a Danish study showed a massive increase in what he called ‘cyclist/cyclist’ collisions as well as increases in overall accidents following the installation of tracks, however, looking at the study showed clearly that the stats involved cyclists & mopeds and were thus useless for cycle comparisons, also the study author’s comments were supportive of the case for cycle tracks.

    From what I’ve seen of helmet stats and their use by cyclist activists they also suffer from partial citations and interpretations.

    Another area of interest to me is climate change & the way in which ‘sceptics’ misrepresent facts and figures. I saw a recent discussion in the FT where someone claimed that glaciers in the Alps were advancing not retreating. I had just been in the Alps and seen clear evidence of prolonged & ongoing retreat in all the major glacier systems (Aletsch, Gorner &, in 2012, Mont Blanc) plus minor glaciers, yet you will repeatedly see such false claims about objective reality.

    The problem is the same one – people will believe anything that appears to back their case & will repeat it endlessly & with assumed authority, even when it’s not true. This is a recognized problem & is called ‘confirmation bias’ & in handling stats one needs to work hard to avoid indulging in it.

    However, even more problematic than confirmation bias is the ‘we must make this argument or dreadful consequences will occur’ type of argument (as deployed by both Roger G & Barnie in this discussion).

    A couple of years ago I read an overlong but nonetheless fascinating book called ‘Flat Earth’, a history of ‘planoterrestrialism’ in the Anglophone world. Interestingly, the once-massive flat earth movement was deflated by the photos of the earth taken from space and it is now a dead movement (if that’s not an oxymoron). For me, interested in how to cope with ‘climate change sceptical’ (& also ‘young earth’ & creationist) ideas, it was highly instructive to see how the flat earth idea was long run despite loads of scientific evidence to the contrary. Only when it was shown to be nonsense in unchallengeable evidence obvious to non-specialists did this nonsense die away (cf my argument about the ‘helmets are dangerous’ argument being counter-intuitive to ‘ordinary’ people).

    The relevant point for this discussion of this book, however, involved one of the leaders of the flat earth movement who, after the photos had been published and taken as serious evidence, justified his previous stance by saying that it was essential to counter globe earth arguments for the ‘sake of the children’, meaning that he felt the flat earth argument was essential to maintain certain religious beliefs, morals, etc. This is the ‘we must make this argument or dreadful consequences will occur’ type of argument and which we must in fact make every effort to avoid.

    So: 1) when Roger G says, ‘we absolutely have to be able to respond to them’ or when Barnie says ‘If people are allowed to incorrectly think that it’s cycling that’s dangerous then cycling will be lucky to ever get more than minority support to be made safer’, they are both deploying this dreadful misunderstanding of how to construct evidence-based arguments.

    So I accept that, when I say ‘all road traffic stats are nonsense’, I am indeed using shorthand to say ‘nearly all road traffic stats are badly used’.

    I want to make one point regarding rdrf’s arguments which illustrate another danger to be avoided in using the helmet stats.

    I claimed to be sceptical about the ‘helmets lead to an increase in accidents’ claim (and amused by the absurdly precise 14% figure). In challenging me rdrf has referred to ‘risk compensation’, which he rightly claims is a fairly well-established phenomenon. I think this is a neat but unjustified sidestep.

    The validity of the claim depends on both the stats & the assessed causation. However, one cannot say ‘here is a well-established causation’ and apply it automatically to justify the interpretation of the stats. This is getting the process the wrong way round. The existence of the risk compensation phenomenon is not a validation of a dubious statistical claim. One must first establish the validity of the stats.

    By chance I had to kill 1.5 hours in central London one day last week. As it was a nice afternoon I spent the time sitting in Hyde Park watching cyclists. It was a very instructive use of my time. Relevant to this discussion is my observation that helmet use by passing cyclists was closely correlated with speedier cyclists (with these often having dropped handlebars, lycra, mudguard-less wheels, carrier-less bikes, etc). Other types of cyclist were less likely to sport helmets, but of course many did. (Boris bikes were in a category of their own, with no helmet users, but lots of risky cycling styles!)

    Far from there being a case for risk compensation from my observed sample, it was clear that riskier cyclists were more likely to adopt helmets & I see no reason not to assume that their cycling would have been as risky pre-helmet use (for example I’m not aware of any evidence that cycling speeds have increased since the wider use of helmets). Risk compensation is a tough cookie to apply in such a situation.

    Thus rdrf is wrong in my opinion to assert the association of the two claims, ie 1) the 14% increase in accidents being associated with helmet use, and 2) the applicability or not or risk compensation to any discussion of causation in this area.

    Once again apologies for the excessively long comment. Please anyone who responds, remember that I am against cycle helmet use & personally never use one for cycling (though I do own & use a helmet for climbing). I am just doubting some of the arguments used against helmets and suggesting that it is counter-productive to use them.

  24. rdrf says:

    Interesting that this thread continues. Probably because of frequent postings comments seem to stop after a couple of days – so hopefully this reveals a lot of interest in the subject!
    Firstly I’d like to respond to Paul Gannon’s response to Roger Geffen. In the next set of comments I’ll reply to his response to me.
    A warning: Paul Gannon says: “Once again apologies for the excessively long comment.” Not at all – but I am going to spend a bit of time as well…
    1. Paul Gannon writes;
    “…it is a fundamental misconception to think that people in general consider cycling to be dangerous because of ‘propaganda’ (or whatever one wants to call it) rather than from self-assessment.”
    People conceptualise the safety of cycling through a range of cultural and ideological filters. They are influenced by images presented to them (such as Tour de France racing cyclists frequently hitting the deck), messages in the media (such as cyclists being crushed by lorries, again frequently), as well as the kind of clothing worn by the cyclists going past them in the street. On top of this “road safety” personnel will lecture them on the need to get out of the way of cars, wear protective clothing etc. when they are impressionable children.
    Then the wider “road safety” ideology has filtered through into our culture in ways such as is revealed by the comments of the bereaved sister of a woman killed after being crushed by a lorry in London. Her recent comments were to the effect that: cyclists should take a test before being allowed to ride on the road and should wear helmets (her sister had been crushed under the wheels of a lorry, remember).
    I’m interested in saying: how does this happen? Partly it is the psychological need to deal with grief as easily as possible – and criticizing the status quo is difficult. But the “answers” she comes up with are interesting – and not just because they would be ineffective. They are interesting because there is a myth that you become responsible by “taking a test” as a motorist, a now deeply rooted myth associated with becoming “a real man” or “an independent woman”. Similarly, the wearing of a cycle helmet is associated with ideas about assuming responsibility, being “a proper cyclist” etc. I think these myths need to be criticised.

    Doing so gives us an understanding about how safety on the road is socially constructed. Most importantly, it shows that cyclist safety is not just “self-assessed”.
    2 Paul Gannon writes:
    Second, it is also a fundamental misconception to think that we (CTC, LCC, other cyclists’ groups & cyclists in general) are capable of changing that assessment by argument.
    Actually, the “assessment” CAN be changed. I have been involved in providing confidence building on-road cycle training for some years now (as opposed to telling people they have to wear hi-viz, lids, get out of the way of their masters “training”). Although trainees have at least some interest in cycling to start off with, they have had fears which are reduced due to their training experience. When you are a complete beginner (as some of these people are) riding a bike at all seems impossible – but as you proceed the fears are reduced.
    There are all kinds of ideologically freighted “assessments” that people have about cycling: “not paying a tax”, “most obvious type of law breaker”, “don’t take a test” etc. etc. I think challenging them is important, not least for cyclists who want to protect themselves against accusations that they are asking for trouble because they don’t wear a helmet and welcome evidence which backs up what they had already guessed. Or “assessed”.

  25. rdrf says:

    The points addressed to me:
    Paul Gannon says the following: “The point I didn’t respond to is whether my characterization of all road traffic stats are rubbish means that we should ignore all stats…But, I agree with rdrf when he says ‘I think it is quite legitimate to analyse what we have before us’. …what we must not do is sweep through studies in order to find crumbs of comfort for a pre-existing point of view. “

    Agreed. (That didn’t take long!)

    There is certainly plenty of “confirmation bias”, cherry-picking of stats going on. I don’t know about the cases (cycle paths) quoted, but my experience is of various zombie arguments (so-called because you take them apart and they just come back from the dead a bit later). With helmets we have spent some years laying to rest arguments put in a frequently quoted paper by Thomson, Rivara and Thomson.

    I would also give the argument that John Adams has made in his books about seat belts, referred to in posts on the Road Danger Reduction Forum web site) and my book “Death on the Streets: Cars and the mythology of road safety”. Some of these arguments are actually “won” – insofar as you ever win anything – by your opponents at least partly conceding, as some did eventually after 26 years.

    That is therefore a basis for sticking to your argument if you think it is robust.

    Re: the “sidestep”. Adaptive behaviour or risk compensation is something I have written about at length, and I urge people to read what I, John Adams and Gerrard Wilde have written about it. It is a persistent and continuous feature of human behaviour, including when moving about.

    If we take the case of someone sitting in the park and making impressionistic observations – which is a very good thing to do – you have to be more specific about exactly what you are doing. So: there is some evidence that Barclays Bike users are LESS likely to be involved in collisions than other cyclists. I discuss this hypothesis in the penultimate of my posts arguing with Bradley Wiggins on the RDRF web site. In fact the data on the numbers of hire bike trips is very good (although the trips tend to be shorter) – but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that I have argued from the evidence, rather than making a set of observations (a lot of hire bike users appear to be using “lots of risky cycling styles”) and assuming that they are more likely to end up as casualties. Maybe they stay off-road. Maybe motorists are more wary of them. Whatever it is, you have to argue through what you have seen, what you surmise and bring in the available evidence.

    And actually, on cycle helmets there are a lot of good arguments using evidence which you don’t refer to: do take a look at the Bicycle Helmets Research Foundation web site. So, with regard to :

    “Thus rdrf is wrong in my opinion to assert the association of the two claims, ie 1) the 14% increase in accidents being associated with helmet use, and 2) the applicability or not or risk compensation to any discussion of causation in this area”

    I would never base my understanding of the effects of cycle helmet use on one figure. There are other pieces of evidence which indicate a lack of effect of cycle helmets, some of which is attributable to changes in behaviour by helmet wearers and (to a lesser extent) other road users to the wearing of a helmet. That seems to be a reasonable conclusion, particularly when there is so much evidence from the cases of motorcycle helmets, car seat belts and other “safety aids” used when moving about.

    Dr. Robert Davis, Chair, Road Danger Reduction Forum

  26. Pingback: Big wheel, big challenge | Sykose Extreme Sports News

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