2011 June

Emotive & Irrational Experts Claim Victory

Have the safety experts finally come up with the smoking gun on MHLs?

Another article has appeared claiming to be the final say in the debate about repeal of mandatory bicycle helmet laws in Australia. The research paper, entitled “The impact of compulsory cycle helmet legislation on cyclist head injuries in New South Wales, Australia” has received some media coverage at the ABC, News Limited and Fairfax Media.

In this report* the authors claim to have identified evidence that compulsory helmet laws reduced head injuries by between 25% and 29% when they were introduced in NSW in 1991. In their conclusion, they state:

“Despite numerous data limitations, we identified evidence of a positive effect of compulsory cycle helmet legislation on cyclist head injuries at a population level such that repealing the law cannot be justified.”

Perhaps what is most telling about this statement is how quickly the authors are willing to jump from their findings about reductions in head injury rates in 1991 to an assertion that this piece of evidence alone is enough to justify mandatory helmet laws today.

What many advocates of MHLs seem unable or unwilling to comprehend is that head injury reduction (in the event of a crash) is just one of the many factors which is relevant to the debate surrounding whether our mandatory helmet laws are a good idea. Injury reduction is a necessary but far from sufficient condition for justifying compulsion. If reduction or elimination of injury was the only relevant consideration then the simplest and most effective thing to do this would be to ban bicycles altogether.

In reality numerous other things are relevant to the issue:

  • Do MHLs make riding a bike less appealing and hence reduce the number of cyclists?
  • Is it possible that MHLs actually increase the likelihood of having a crash (through risk compensation and reduced safety in numbers)?
  • Have MHLs and the accompanying government promotion of helmet use at all times created an exaggerated belief in the effectiveness of helmets in preventing injury or death in the minds of cyclists and motorists?
  • Perhaps most importantly; is the absolute level of risk to an individual riding helmetless great enough to warrant any sort of intervention from government in the first place?

None of these topics are addressed by the authors, but fortunately for us, some people are considering the questions that the safety experts refuse to.

Not only is the scope of the study just too narrow to support their sweeping conclusion that repeal of the law in unjustified, the evidence presented for the case that helmet laws have significantly reduced injury is far from compelling.

The study examined the ratio of head injuries to arm (and leg) injuries during a 3 year period around the time the law was enacted in NSW on the basis that if the law was effective a decline in the ratio of head injuries to other types of injuries should be evident, similar to the approach of the now discredited Rissel paper (2010) . However the study made no effort to control for any change in the number of cyclists following the introduction of the law, hence any observed improvement in the injury rate can only be interpreted as evidence for a reduction in head injuries relative to limb injuries and not as a outright reduction in the rate of head injury per cyclist.

Many researchers agree that cycling numbers declined meaningfully following implementation of helmet laws in Australia, something which the report’s authors acknowledge when they state in their introduction:

“A decrease in cyclist numbers among those aged under 16, predominantly among teenagers, was observed in the years immediately following the legislation in both Victoria and NSW.”

Other research has concluded this effect was not confined to younger riders and that the number of people (both adults and children) riding bikes declined by as much as 30% or 40% after the laws were introduced across the various Australian states and territories. Given reductions in cycling of this magnitude, it is entirely possible that the risk and incidence head injuries to each cyclist was in fact unchanged or even increased as a result of helmet legislation.

Aside from the fact that the study did not control for a change in cyclist numbers, there are two other important observations which draw its results into question.

Firstly, the authors have not provided evidence that the decline in the ratios of head injuries to limb injuries was actually due to the introduction of the helmet law. They state:

“We have assumed that the additional decrease in head injuries at the time of legislation was attributable to the legislation; however, it is not possible to infer causality with certainty without having helmet wearing data on all cyclists.”

It seems strange that a study intended to assess the effectiveness of the legislation would simply assume it be effective. And there is ample reason to at least question whether the reductions were not caused by other unrelated factors.

Cyclist rate ratios for 18 months prior and 18 months post helmet legislation. (A) Cyclists – head vs. arm injury rates. (C) Cyclists – head vs. leg injury rates. From Fig 4 p6, Walter, S.R., et al., The impact of compulsory cycle helmet legislation on cyclist head injuries in New South Wales, Australia. Accid. Anal. Prev. (2011)

Even a cursory examination of the above graphs showing the month to month evolution in head-to-arm and head-to-leg ratios over time does not reveal an obvious and significant break at the time of the change in the law. Any effect appears very subtle at best. The series are also volatile with large monthly variations common, not just over the period following the law change. In fact for the data on head-to-leg injury rates the largest decline evident does not even occur at the time of the change in law. On both the graphs of head-to-arm and head-to-leg, the declines in ratios at the time of the law change are both preceded by large increases in the ratios in the month just prior, something not explained by the authors.

Secondly, any downward effects (such as they are) are not even persistent. The ratios of head-to-arm and head-to-leg injuries are both actually higher at the end of the 36-month period than they were at the start. This is acknowledged in the report:

“Based on the original analysis there is some evidence that the initial improvement in head injury rates diminished over the 18 months following legislation as shown by the increasing post-law head to limb injury ratios in Fig. 4.”

While the authors’ main analysis and conclusions are certainly unconvincing to us at Helmet Freedom, they are to be commended for making some comments about the need to keep the usefulness of helmet laws in proper perspective:

“While helmet legislation appears to play an important role in the reduction of cyclist head injuries, further improvements in cyclist safety in general may be gained from a broader focus. Cyclist safety is a complex issue driven by a range of factors….increased volume and quality of cycling infrastructure could improve safety, particularly for cycling commuters, through reduced competition for road space with motor vehicles.”

We could not agree more. Cycling safety is a complex issue, as is the question of whether mandatory helmet laws are a good thing or not. And unfortunately for anyone looking for the “smoking gun” evidence on MHLs, this report is not it.

If you feel that the justification for our helmet laws should be based on more than just one very narrow part of picture, please write a letter to your state MP and state transport minister. If we don’t tell them what we think, nothing will change. Feel free to include our critiques of these various studies to help bolster your point – our work is independent, unpaid & copyright free.

* Which was largely government-funded, including “core funding provided by the NSW Health Department, the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority and the Motor Accidents Authority”.

Assuming the Worst

Remarkably, the streets of Paris are not littered with brain-injured Vélib users...

Yesterday, Queensland’s Courier Mail / Sunday Mail published an article on a recent report, produced by CARRS-Q & commissioned by the Queensland Government, on helmet use and the mandatory helmet law in Queensland:

“QUEENSLAND’S tough bicycle helmet laws are here to stay after a report found any relaxation could increase head injury rates by 50 per cent.

The Sunday Mail can reveal the State Government secretly commissioned a $34,000 study into potentially scrapping compulsory helmet laws ahead of the roll-out of Brisbane’s controversial CityCycle scheme and the release of a report questioning the effectiveness of helmets in preventing injury.”

Incidentally, it was the hard work of one of Brisbane’s most proactive Bicycle User Groups (BUG) that actually forced its release, not the paper’s.

While we have previously written about the CARRS-Q report here, it is worth addressing some of the points raised in the Sunday Mail article.

The CARRS-Q claim that “any relaxation (in the helmet law) could increase head injury rates by 50 per cent” is highly speculative, relying on incomplete data and a number of sketchy assumptions. The authors concede as much in section 7.3 which discusses the imagined effects of a number of possible changes to the helmet law (page 92):

“In this section, an attempt is made to estimate the potential effects of segmented legislation based on available data (which is often patchy) and a range of assumptions.”

In truth, the claim that head injury rates could increase by 50% relies almost entirely on two critical and highly controversial assumptions:

  • Helmet use reduces injuries in the event of a crash by 70%
  • Any change in legislation “would lead to zero use of helmets among the non-mandatory group”.

The first assumption regarding the effectiveness of helmets in preventing injury is still a topic of heated contention amongst academics. The quoted figure comes from here, however numerous other studies and reviews have found significantly lower rates of injury reduction, including one recent study which concluded that “no overall effect of bicycle helmets could be found when injuries to head, face or neck are considered as a whole”.

The second assumption is clearly ridiculous. Even before the introduction of mandatory helmet laws in Australia the helmet wearing rate was estimated to be somewhere between 15% and 30%. It is completely implausible that after two decades of fear-based promotion of helmet use, a change in the law would result in helmet use immediately falling to anywhere near zero.

But not only are the figures produced by CARRS-Q little more than wild speculation, their entire criteria for evaluating any change in policy is flawed, given that it is solely based on whether or not the aggregate amount of injuries will increase. If this were a valid method of evaluation, then any policy which sought to increase the number of people riding bikes would have to be opposed because more people on bikes inevitably leads to more injuries in aggregate (even though the risk to each cyclist is reduced as more and more people ride).

A more reasonable way to evaluate any possible exemptions or amendments to the mandatory helmet law would have been to consider the absolute level of risk to the individual and society of allowing people to ride without helmets in certain situations and to weigh this risk up against the benefits of doing so. This would have lead the authors to some perhaps uncomfortable conclusions had they done so, because as they reluctantly conceded in a previous section:

“the combined evidence presented in these studies [from countries without universal helmet legislation] indicates that the health benefits of bicycling far exceed the health risks from traffic injuries”

Viewed in this light, an exemption from the helmet law for Brisbane’s bike share scheme, CityCycle, would seem perfectly reasonable, considering that compulsory helmets are the most likely reason for CityCycle’s extremely poor usage figures.

CARRS-Q did not even consider the possibility of this sort of exemption, which is surprising given that “concerns about how public bicycle hire schemes will function in the context of compulsory helmet wearing laws” was one of the primary motivations for the report. Had they done so they might have found that the rate of injury amongst users of public bike schemes is extremely low.  In London the public bike share scheme which has been in operation since July 2010 has recorded over 4.5 million trips without a single fatality or serious accident. That’s equivalent to about 50 years worth of CityCycle trips at current usage.

The question is, should we care? The answer is that we should. We should care a great deal. The failure of a bike share scheme like this is bad for all cyclists, whether you would use them or not, and there is only one thing you can do about it: write a letter. Feel free to add this page or anything else from this site to back up your arguments. Tell your friends. Spread the word on Twitter (@freecyclists) and FaceBook.

If we all do nothing, then that’s what we can expect of Government to offer us in return.

The Pitch

Here at Helmet Freedom we have often thought about suggesting to ABC Television’s ‘The Gruen Transfer‘ that they do an episode of ‘The Pitch’ – where two ad agencies are tasked with selling the unsellable – on the topic of mandatory helmets… for car occupants.

It shouldn’t be such a hard sell you would think, give that the evidence shows that they are more at risk of head injuries than bicyclists… and it wouldn’t be inconvenient at all to have a few helmets handy whenever you want to go for a drive to buy the milk.

Yesterday we blogged about an awful advertising campaign by the RTA to promote cyclists safety – by speaking to them as though they are all small children who can’t think for themselves… not to mention their faulty logic and lack of factual content.

Today, we have been made aware of an anti-bicycle-helmet-law campaigner in Western Australia who has created an advertisement in the spirit of the original RTA campaign. But this one is different. It contains facts and cost the taxpayer $0.

Listen to the RTA Helmet Advertisement Parody

(the original, expensive, taxpayer funded ad is here)

OK, helmets have been around since racing car drivers first wore them in 1900 AD. All car drivers should wear helmets so their skulls don’t get bashed in.

Today, helmets are not recommended for all kinds of sports … football, gymnastics, soccer, rugby … because they increase the risk of accidents and injuries. And you know, there’s no difference between their injury risk and yours.

So why do they think bike riding is so special?  Don’t think that little bike ride to the shops is warranted because the helmet is uncomfortable and inconvenient, and you don’t want to get done by the cops? Well I’ve got news for you. Even avoiding those short bike rides can mean you don’t get regular exercise, so you could have a big fall in your overall health and suffer a major heart attack.

So if you want to have fun improving your health and lowering injury risk for all road users, write to your local MP and demand repeal of the mandatory bike helmet laws!

Authorised by Australians who don’t want to be punished for exercising.

So go on, write to your local MPs. Use one of our pre-formatted letters and feel free to edit it and add your own thoughts. While you’re at it, send this page to your friends so they can hear the ad campaign as it is unlikely to be played on the radio anytime soon…

Loud & Clear

The hidden dangers of headspinning without a helmet. Won't someone THINK OF THE CHILDREN!!?

If you wanted to improve cycling safety with a radio advertisement, how would you approach it? Would you target the source of the trauma or blame the victim?
The RTA recently commissioned a radio advertisement aimed squarely at cyclist safety. An advertising company called Loud won the tender and, given they’ve done good work before, it all looked promising… until we heard it (Audio Link)

Firstly, a few comments about the content of the advertisement:
  • They make the fallacious jump from medieval battledress to ‘all kinds of cool stuff’ requiring helmets (I don’t think polystyrene is quite up to battle standards, only AS/NZS2063:2008)
  • Skateboarders & horse riders aren’t forced by law to wear helmets (most don’t wear them; as a horse rider neck injuries are more concerning and a helmet does nothing for this)
  • Breakdancers wear a helmet to reduce friction for headspins, not to reduce head injuries (although some might classify inadvertent balding as a serious head injury)!
  • The patronising, thick Australian accented male, follows with “…what makes your head so special?” and a warning that you’re likely to end up with a severe head injury if you ride a bicycle to the shops (but not if you walk?)

Classic fear campaign aimed at the victim and not the perpetrator.

Oddly, the one thing that is responsible for the most head injuries in this country is not mentioned at all – motor vehicles. This includes head injuries of the occupants and people the vehicles hit! If wearing a helmet is common for ‘all kinds of cool stuff’ then surely it would make sense to force all car occupants to wear helmets too?

On this site there is some further startling information, presumably straight from the RTA’s brief to the advertising agency:

“In the five years to 2009, 17 cyclists without helmets were killed on NSW roads”

This is a fact. It is also a fact that in the 5 years to 2009 the average annual death rate of cyclists in NSW was 11.7 (approx 58 cyclists killed). This means that 41 cyclists died with helmets over the same period. Oddly enough the percentage of cyclists killed without helmets is roughly the same percentage that choose to not wear helmets while riding a bicycle…

They then state this little piece of propaganda:

“And over the 2010 period alone, this figure jumped to 12 cyclists who died while they were not wearing a helmet.”

This is most definitely not true. This is the total number of cyclists who have died, most of whom were wearing bicycle helmets. But why let facts get in the way of a terrible advertisement. We don’t want to confuse the ‘target’ audience with facts!

Why this required an advertising agency at all is a mystery, but it helps shift the focus from the one-sided RTA to someone else I suppose, although the agency was happy to add their ‘uneducated opinion‘ on the topic:

“We’re excited that the RTA chose a different creative approach to address a serious issue,” said Joe Van Trump, executive creative director at Loud. We’re confident it will reverberate with our audience, which is our aim with every campaign we create.”

It certainly will reverberate with their audience: non-cyclists. I doubt that any person who regularly uses a bicycle will be listening to this as they travel to work. They need their ears to listen out for distracted drivers…

This is how other agencies around the world make advertisements for cyclist safety:

More here.

Is it really that hard to produce a constructive advertisement here in Australia? Why are our tax dollars being spent on such initiatives (and the people that dream them up) instead of say… I don’t know… some protection for cyclists at intersections in NSW?

(Image from MoreThanAStance.com)

We Weren’t Born Yesterday

The public bicycle hire scheme in Brisbane is doing poorly yet the politicians keep assuring us (themselves) that everything is fine and that it is in fact growing. Of course if you add more bikes it will technically ‘grow’, that is true, but it is the usage rate which is of importance and we all know that is flatlining. This is not a good image for bicycle use in Queensland and may have implications for future funding.

One of the most common publicly raised concerns about the bike hire bikes (CityCycle in Brisbane & Melbourne Bike Share) is the requirement to wear a bicycle helmet. In an effort to address this issue the Queensland Government commissioned a study in early September 2011, undertaken by CARRS-Q.

CARRS-Q is an organisation that was formed as a joint effort between the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) and the Motor Accident Insurance Commission (MAIC), a branch of the Queensland Government responsible for Compulsory Third Party (CTP) Insurance for motor vehicle drivers.

‘Behind-the-scenes’ documents obtained by a large Bicycle User Group in Brisbane (via an RTI request) show that this study was only commenced in early September, that CARRS-Q were only given 13 days to produce the document and that they were paid almost $35,000 to do the ‘research’. It was solely commissioned to counter the paper published by Prof Rissel in 2010, which has since been withdrawn due to errors, and to silence the groundswell of opposition to the bicycle helmet law as applied to CityCycle.

The study itself is rather poor and does not address two key questions:

  • Have mandatory bicycle helmet laws in Australia made cycling safer?, and
  • Would an exemption for public bike hire bikes be a reasonable suggestion (even if for a trial period)?

The first question has not been addressed because there is no evidence that the law has made cycling safer.

The second question was completely ignored, as if the bicycle hire scheme was not even topical. Meanwhile other ‘segmented exemptions’ were discussed & dismissed in Chapter 7 with very poor evidence indeed.

There are many interesting statements made throughout the document but also some concerning dialogue behind-the-scenes:

From page 10:

“Pucher, Dill and Handy (2010) conclude that “the combined evidence presented in these studies [from countries without universal helmet legislation] indicates that the health benefits of bicycling far exceed the health risks from traffic injuries, contradicting the widespread misperception that bicycling is a dangerous activity” (p.S106). Our conclusion differs somewhat: cycling does have significant health benefits and therefore should be encouraged in ways that reduce the risk of the most serious of injuries.”

You can’t eat your cake and have it too.

It is clear from Pucher (2010) that the health benefits of cycling far exceed the health risks without mandatory helmets, yet CARRS-Q just decide to completely ignore this information and come to their own conclusion! There is also an interesting email from Damian Mellifont (Transport & Main Roads – ie. Queensland Government) to Narelle Haworth (CARRS-Q Lead Researcher) on 21 September 2010.

Damian Mellifont States (his emphasis):

“…I assume that the cited quote from Pucher et al assumes the benefits of cycling outweigh the risk of injury, given the current requirements to wear a helmet and not if the requirement was repealed? If so, it might be a good idea to mention that or at lest (sic) clarify whether or not that was assumed by the authors?”

The origin of the nonsensical sentence where their ‘…conclusion differs somewhat…’ now becomes clear.

Another interesting email is contained on page 46 from Vicky Wilson (TMR Principal Policy Advisor) to Robyn Davies (TMR Program Manager for Pedestrians & Cyclists). In it Ben Wilson of Bicycle Queensland (an independent advocacy group for cyclists in Queensland) is reported to be giving the State Government a ‘heads-up’ that a member of the public is requesting a copy of this report and its findings.

That member of the public is me and I’m not too thrilled with this representation by Bicycle Queensland.

Another ridiculous paragraph in the final report is this one (my emphasis):

“While there is evidence that helmets reduced cycling rates 20 years ago, it isn’t the case today. For most people the reason they don’t cycle is because it doesn’t fit in with their lifestyle.

This is patronising to the good people of Australia. They are simply making up these unqualified opinions. We know why people don’t cycle thanks to the good folk at the Cycling Promotion Fund who thought to actually ask them (Table 5):

Reasons for not riding a bike for transport more frequently

  • Unsafe road conditions – 67.1%
  • Speed/Volume of traffic – 52.5%
  • Lack of bicycle lanes/trails – 48.1%
  • Don’t like wearing a helmet – 16.5%

What is interesting is that people don’t feel safe despite being told that a helmet will make you safe. I don’t think people are as stupid as some would have us believe. It is also interesting to note that despite it being illegal to not wear a helmet, 16.5% of people thought this was a significant impediment to transport riding.

CARRS-Q was asked in numerous letters to comment on the content of the report but we have not received any replies. We welcome comments here from them or anyone else.

If you are disappointed with this behaviour – and the way your taxes are being spent – write a letter to the Transport Minister in Queensland about an exemption for bike share bikes and add your complaint.

Take action today and start enjoying the ride! Read more