Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Fear of Cycling

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  • linger, in reply to BenWilson,

    Looking back at David’s original calculations, the important comparison is of overall health and wellbeing between a cycling population and a non-cycling population. The main components there are:
    * conditional probability of severe injury from an accident (significantly reduced for some classes of less severe event by helmet use – though not much in a collision with a high-speed vehicle, as that’s not what the helmet is designed to protect against);
    * probability of getting into an adverse event resulting in injury (which decreases on increasing the number of cyclists and decreasing the number of motor vehicles, through multiple mechanisms as already listed, including e.g. more positive attitudes of motorists to cyclists, resulting in more considerate driving around them; improved infrastructure for cycling; and lower traffic density);
    * population-level health benefits of exercise associated with cycling vs. transport not involving exercise (= far more than enough to outweigh the injury costs of cycling);
    * highly negative effect of mandatory helmet laws on taking up cycling (in NZ the absolute number of cyclists halved around the time the law was introduced).
    Thus the helmet law (but not helmet-wearing itself!) can be shown to have a highly negative effect on overall health and wellbeing of the population, even if, for an individual cyclist, wearing a helmet offers some benefit.

    But, yeah, humans are generally fairly useless at balancing up probability of an event with the severity of the outcome: we generally focus on the latter type of (anecdote-driven) story at the expense of the former (statistics-driven) evidence. In this regard the parallel with the other currently ongoing discussion (of drug regulation) is fairly striking.

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 1889 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Mikaere Curtis,

    I am still not sure how you prove that re the helmet law " it’s trivial to show that it raises the likelyhood of having a car v bike accident."

    There are multiple analyses that show this effect based on the data from NZ and Australia. With the helmet law the number of cyclists reduced as did the number of car v cycle accidents. But the rate of accidents per hour of cycling increased.

    In countries without a helmet law as the number of cyclists increases the rate of accidents per hour of cycling decreases.

    This really isn't complicated. As Ben says causation is always difficult however the correlation is clear
    helmet law decreases the number of cyclists
    number of cyclists is inversely proportional to the accident rate
    => helmet law increases accident rate

    That correlation is too compelling to ignore, essentially by retaining a helmet law we are causing cyclists to have accidents - even if we don't understand the mechanism*.

    However as Linger and multiple articles have pointed out there are so many other benefits from increasing the number of cyclists that any law change that does that is pretty much a slam dunk good thing.


    *There are of course several very plausible explanations for the mechanism most of them centered around driver expectations and behaviour, but also the fear tactics used to induce people to wear helmets were extremely successful at discouraging people from cycling at all.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Carol Stewart,

    It's interesting that it's now become commonplace for skiers and snowboarders to wear helmets, without any element of compulsion.

    In countries without a helmet law as the number of cyclists increases the rate of accidents per hour of cycling decreases.

    Does this account for the nature of the cycling infrastructure? There's quite a difference between countries where you can sail around on relatively flat spacious cycleways and the reality of New Zealand cities. In Wellington, for instance, between my house and my work there is approximately 100 vertical metres of altitude, nasty weather, and narrow congested busy roads with a poor surface. Journeys by bike involve girding one's loins.

    Wellington • Since Jul 2008 • 822 posts Report Reply

  • linger, in reply to Carol Stewart,

    The nature of the cycling infrastructure also is forced to change as the proportion of cyclists increases: roads cannot continue to be planned as car-only zones if more than a third of the traffic is going to be by bicycle. Admittedly Wellington does offer more challenges to a cyclist (and in general, to infrastructure development). David’s original comparison was between Christchurch and Copenhagen, which are in the main equivalently flat (as he pointed out, Chch actually has a climate somewhat more conducive to cycling than Copenhagen’s).
    In Copenhagen, of course, there was deliberate infrastructure planning to encourage cycling. In NZ, we’re playing catch-up, with the infrastructure in most areas lagging well behind what is needed now , let alone planning to encourage future expansion of cycling.

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 1889 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to Carol Stewart,

    It's interesting that it's now become commonplace for skiers and snowboarders to wear helmets, without any element of compulsion.

    Yes, but they're sports. If you visit cycle-friendly countries the great majority of cyclists don't dress up for the ride or even sweat, so the comparison only works for the "sport cyclists" or in Russell's case, MAMILs (middle aged men in lycra) I kid, I kid :D

    There is a lot of research on cycling, and one of the things that's been mentioned here before is the four types of cyclists. When cycling is difficult and dangerous, you mostly get the hard-core "ride or die" types for whom helmets are both a good idea and fairly widely used. But as you get more cyclists, and more cycle facilities, you move along that spectrum until eventually you get little old ladies writing letters to the council about lack of bicycle parking at the old folks home. For her 7.5kg full carbon granny bike, of course.

    I'm in the "ride or die" group, but one thing I do is respond to council requests for feedback on proposed bike plans, and give unsolicited feedback when I feel the need. It works surprisingly well in many cases, because councils generally figure that if one person is motivated to ask for something obviously useful, probably 100 people want it. We have pram ramps at the top of our street now because of that :) I expect that later this year we will get them at the entrance to a nearby park, with planter beds or something to stop people parking over them... council person rang me to ask for clarification and mostly to explain that it would take a few months because they have to do actual engineering. Sending a truck round to re-lay bits of footpath is easy, though.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1198 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Carol Stewart,

    Does this account for the nature of the cycling infrastructure?

    As Linger said this is kind of moot since infrastructure changes as the number of cyclists increases. There really is no reasonable reason to have laws in place that deter people from cycling and every restriction makes it more dangerous for the cyclists that do persist.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Carol Stewart, in reply to Moz,

    Yeah fair enough. It's a reasonable distinction between cycling as a sport and as transport.

    Wellington • Since Jul 2008 • 822 posts Report Reply

  • Carol Stewart,

    There's a parallel discussion going on over at Sciblogs.

    Wellington • Since Jul 2008 • 822 posts Report Reply

  • Kevin McCready,

    Bart, on the one hand you rightly point out that any link between helmet laws and cycling participation is correlation only, then you say we shouldn't have helmet laws deterring people. You can't have it both ways.

    In my experience the anti-helmet brigade (not necessarily you) are like climate change deniers - leaping on any slight "evidence" and spinning the story to push their barrow. I'm particularly dubious of the appalling methodology of tickbox surveys asking if compulsory helmets deter you from riding.

    The Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario completed a cycling death review for the period 1 January 2006 to 31 December 2010. "Those cyclists whose cause of death included a head injury were three times less likely to be wearing a helmet" And 75% of cycling deaths are caused by head injuries.

    As someone said on another forum - It will be interesting to see whether alleged helmet aversion disappears in the next generation, with children having brought up to consider them “normal”.

    Auckland • Since Jun 2013 • 119 posts Report Reply

  • linger, in reply to Kevin McCready,

    Except that those same children will have been brought up to consider cars more “normal” than bicycles, and to consider bicycle helmets a “normal” indicator of a perceived high risk associated with cycling. The problem is not helmet aversion as much as cycling aversion. (See title of this thread.)

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 1889 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Kevin McCready,

    In my experience the anti-helmet brigade (not necessarily you) are like climate change deniers

    Funny you should say that because I find the opposition to getting rid of the law is exactly like CC deniers. It really doesn't matter what data we show you. It really doesn't matter how many scientists who are expert in risk analysis do studies that show helmet laws are bad. Someone will always come back with some anecdote or better yet some irrelevant mechanistic argument about why their view is right.

    Quite simply the data is in. Helmet laws result is less safe cycling and poorer health outcomes.

    It doesn't matter whether helmets protect your head or not. It doesn't matter if accidents occur at intersections. It doesn't matter if cyclists wear reflective clothing or whether infrastructure is better in one place or another. It doesn't matter if cycling deaths are caused by head injuries or massive whole body trauma - as horrific as those statements might be. None of those things are relevant to the question of the helmet law.

    That's like arguing about whether tree rings are an accurate measure of climate when the discussion is actually about climate change.

    I'm sorry if this causes offense it really isn't meant that way. I'm NOT a risk analysis scientist - but I'm a good enough scientist to accept when an expert in that field says the helmet law is counterproductive to sit back and listen.

    Quite simply our helmet law is causing harm, that's what the experts in risk analysis say, defending that law is wrong.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Rich of Observationz,

    it's now become commonplace for skiers and snowboarders to wear helmets, without any element of compulsion

    A lot of skiers and snowboarders disagree with that. Recreational skiers (and even instructors) aren't at a particularly high risk of head injury. Wearing a helmet reduces your peripheral vision (which is more important when making turns downhill than it would be travelling straight on a road), it makes you a more solid danger to other skiers and it tends to encourage more reckless skiing.

    Back in Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 5550 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to Kevin McCready,

    "Those cyclists whose cause of death included a head injury were three times less likely to be wearing a helmet"

    As you say, leaping on any slightly relevant fact to buttress an argument. That fact is not, as far as I know, in dispute. I mean, it's different in some overseas countries because the risk profile is different (people wear helmets because they're cycling dangerously), but that also doesn't contradict your point.

    any link between helmet laws and cycling participation is correlation only

    Will you at least concede the time ordering? First helmets are made mandatory, then later cycling numbers drop? If you dispute that I'd really like to see some numbers, because the ones I can find suggest the time ordering. Contrary to your claim, though, it seems fairly widely accepted that that relationship is causal (wikipedia summary) and of course the media have no problem reporting that.

    I'm also curious about your contra-case rationale - why would a drop in cycling numbers cause the imposition of helmet laws? I suppose if there was a rash of cyclists being killed we could have a "something must be done, this is something" fallacy committed but that doesn't seem to be supported by the evidence. Especially in NZ, where the fallacy was followed by the drop rather than the other way round.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1198 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to linger,

    those same children will have been brought up to consider cars more “normal” than bicycles, and to consider bicycle helmets a “normal” indicator of a perceived high risk associated with cycling

    They're right, but the causal link is apparently non-intuitive - cycling to school is now significantly more dangerous than it was for two main reasons:

    * hardly any kids do it, so no-one looks for them
    * the crush of cars outside schools and the time pressure leading to appalling driving makes school zones extremely dangerous to ride through, even for experienced adults.

    It's a tragedy of the commons as well: each single child is less likely to be killed by a motorist if they're driven to and from school, but the the crowd of such children makes all children less safe. Both immediately, as they travel from car to school, and long-term, as the fat morons (air pollution is worse inside cars and the particular pollution negatively affects intelligence, as does lack of exercise) make everyone else more likely to die as well (both through localised air pollution and by funding terrorists to prevent action to mitigate global warming. Did I say terrorists? I meant "the mass murdering sociopaths who own and operate oil and vehicle companies". My bad).

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1198 posts Report Reply

  • Geoff Lealand,

    I have come to love my e-bike (Trek Conduit) but it does pose new potential risks, even on a daily trip from Claudelands to the uni. Because of the possibility to ride fast and at a sustained pace (I regularly exceed the 25km limit) and because the bike travels so quietly, there is a greater need to look ahead and prepare to slow or stop, especially on shared routes. A bell helps but not necessarily for those gazing down, engrossed in their mobiles.

    Screen & Media Studies, U… • Since Oct 2007 • 2539 posts Report Reply

  • Ian Dalziel, in reply to Geoff Lealand,

    ....for those gazing down, engrossed in their mobiles.

    some kind of proximity alert app?

    Christchurch • Since Dec 2006 • 7892 posts Report Reply

  • linger, in reply to Moz,

    Here’s the thing. I’m convinced that enacting the helmet law had immense negative effects on culture and attitudes around cycling in NZ, with long-term impact on infrastructure, and that after the event it can be seen as an appallingly bad decision; but I’m not convinced that repealing the law now would undo the damage anywhere near as quickly. There’s causation – but there’s also path-dependence.

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 1889 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to linger,

    I'm not convinced that repealing the law now would undo the damage anywhere near as quickly. There's causation as well as correlation -- but there's also path-dependence.

    Actually I agree.

    But, if you view the law as an experiment designed to reduce harm, then it didn't work. Quite spectacularly.

    If you view all such laws as experiments, then it really is time to try something different that might work better.

    Ideally you'd state what you were aiming to achieve with your new experiment and you'd set in place objective measures that could be used to assess the success or otherwise of any such experiment ...

    But that would be like, evidence based policy.

    To circle back to the OP one thing you could try would be a campaign to try and encourage more people to cycle and emphasize just how safe and good cycling really is. With the aim of increasing the percentage of cyclists and reducing the rate of accidents (by increasing the number of cyclists). Those are two fairly easy things to measure to test the value of the campaign.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to linger,

    I’m not convinced that repealing the law now would undo the damage anywhere near as quickly.

    Me too. But "the effects will take a while to show up" is no reason not to do it. Just look at trade treaties and tax cuts for the wealthy, where an arguable 1% payoff starting in 20 years time is seen as perfectly normal. I think we'd get more than 1% improvement in cycling numbers and a lot sooner than 20 years. I reckon if jonky was a cyclist it would have already happened.

    The flip side is the argument from harm: we have solid evidence of harm from the law and contested evidence that the net effect is harmful. So every day this law exists it is doing harm. The sooner it is repealed the better off we all are.

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1198 posts Report Reply

  • Zach Bagnall,

    Is the council offering any subsidised "cycle training" for beginning (and experienced/feral) cyclists like they do in London and other cities?

    Colorado • Since Nov 2006 • 120 posts Report Reply

  • jo Clendon, in reply to Bob Williams,

    Hi Bob. Check out www.bikeswelcome.org. We are all about encouraging local authorities and businesses to provide bike parking and recognise that 'bikes mean business'.

    Lower Hutt • Since Mar 2017 • 1 posts Report Reply

  • Kevin McCready,

    Moz you seem to be misquoting the wikipedia article. It states: "Research on the helmet law's effects in New Zealand has produced mixed outcomes." Bart and Moz my mind is still open on the issue and I'm happy to read the one study you claim clinches your case. Which study do you think I should read?

    Auckland • Since Jun 2013 • 119 posts Report Reply

  • Bart Janssen, in reply to Kevin McCready,

    Which study do you think I should read?

    Read de jong 2012

    It's Australian so very similar to NZ and relatively straightforward analysis. If you want to go further you can dig through papers that it cites and papers that cite it but you'd probably need some academic access.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 4451 posts Report Reply

  • Moz, in reply to Kevin McCready,

    Moz you seem to be misquoting the wikipedia article. It states: "Research on the helmet law's effects in New Zealand has produced mixed outcomes."

    I thought that's what I said. What it does say, and what I actually said, was that the time ordering of mandating helmets followed by a drop in number of cyclists is widely accepted. It's worth noting that even the most pro-helmet researchers don't say "MHLs don't discourage cycling", they avoid the question or just take it as read and focus on net benefits.

    So, to quote:

    Australian journalist Chris Gillham [20] compiled an analysis of data from Otago University and the Ministry of Transport, showing a marked decline in cycling participation immediately following the helmet law introduction in 1994.

    You seem to think that fewer cyclists can be a beneficial outcome, and I'd like to know why.

    At the same time as the number of cyclists aged over 5 years approximately halved, the injury rate approximately doubled.

    That sounds bad to me. Half as many cyclists, getting injured almost twice as often. But at least there's a slight drop in the total number of injuries... but that was happening before the helmet laws came in.

    my mind is still open on the issue and I'm happy to read the one study you claim clinches your case.

    You keep saying "I think you're wrong", which doesn't sound very open minded. "prove it" is only open minded before the evidence is offered. Say, by reading the links from the wikipedia article. After that it sounds like "lalalala I can't hear you".

    We all agree that helmets perform their designed function.

    But at a societal level (which is where laws operate), turning "dies immediately" into "dies of a debilitating illness after a long period of suffering" does not sound like a win to me. Both in the general sense, and personally. I'd rather die from being run over than die of gangrene brought on by obesity-induced diabetes, thanks.

    But the latter is what helmet laws produce. The question being asked by other people is "do more people die of being unfit than are saved by helmet laws" and the answers are at best discouraging. The "at worst" answers are conclusive, but you don't seem to accept them. Why not?

    Note that no-one is stopping you from wearing a helmet, or even suggesting that you should be prevented from wearing one. We're not even suggesting that any of us would stop doing so. But...

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1198 posts Report Reply

  • Moz,

    Let me say: I would fail to wear a helmet quite often if I had that option. But the fine here is now $500 and there is active enforcement as part of an anti-cycling push by the state government. It gets really expensive, really quickly.

    I often ride a four wheeled recumbent, and there's very little a helmet can do for me on that bike. The helmet has all the disadvantages experienced by wedgie riders but none of the benefits. Why should I suffer so that 5-15 year olds can arguably benefit from seeing my good example? The epidemiological justifications of mandating helmets work really well for that age group, but the soft social argument that "if adults have to do it too..." is much weaker.

    Likewise, as suggested by many people above, if I'm riding on an off-road shared path at a nice slow 10kph-ish speed, the helmet doesn't help me any more than it would help a jogger travelling the same speed. Why should only the cyclist be discouraged by law? "administrative convenience" is a perfectly adequate reason, but it needs to be balanced against the cost. And just as we don't execute criminals to save the cost of imprisoning them, we shouldn't make people sick as unto death so cops don't have to ask for ID before issuing a ticket. Wait, does that even make sense? Maybe administrative convenience doesn't work. Hmm. What is the reason, then?

    Sydney, West Island • Since Nov 2006 • 1198 posts Report Reply

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