Is There Such A Thing As Safe Cyclists?

Helmet-less Cyclists

A reader recently drew my attention to a “research” paper purporting to explain why mandatory helmet laws don’t reduce injuries. Of the anti-helmet research papers I’ve read to date, this one presents the most convoluted arguments against mandatory helmet laws that I’ve ever seen.

The authors are from Norway, and work for an organization called the Institute of Transport Economics. What type of work they did was not obvious at first glance. Fortunately, an organization called the European Road Safety Observatory wrote a summary about them.

“The Institute of Transport Economics (TOI) is the national institute for transport research and development in Norway, established in 1958. The main objectives of the Institute are to carry out applied research on issues related to transport and to promote the application of research results by advising authorities, the transport industry and the public at large. Its sphere of activity includes most current issues in road, rail, sea, and air transport, as well as urban transport and environmental issues. Key areas of activity are transport economics, public transport, institutional development and reform, transport and economic and social development, travel behaviour surveys, transport models, road safety research, and transport environmental studies.”

After reading this synopsis, I visited the TOI’s website to further investigate their work. What I found was perplexing.

Although they have researched a broad range of topics related to transportation, the bulk of their efforts are related to road safety and public transportation. They have done very little research into bicycle use.

Other than the research mentioned above about mandatory helmet laws, they seem to have conducted only two other studies related to bicycles, One was done to compare the “recommendations in the Norwegian handbooks 017 (road design) and 233 (bicycle handbook) to the handbooks of 10 other countries.” The other was about traffic safety in urban areas where, interestingly, they concluded that “more than two-thirds of fatalities in urban areas are pedestrians or bicyclists. About one-half of pedestrian fatalities occur at marked pedestrian crossings.” Further, they say:

“A review of both conventional and some innovative countermeasures showed that a considerable reduction of ‘vision zero’ accidents can be achieved by more extensive use of conventional measures like speed management, enhanced visibility and improved design of crossing facilities for vulnerable road users.”

This conclusion is interesting because their main argument against mandatory helmet use is that “[such laws] disproportionately discourage the safest cyclists.” After reading this paper’s abstract (I only read the abstract because the full text of the paper is not free — and not worth the price they were asking for it), I posed the following question to myself: “Is there such a thing as a ‘safe cyclist?’”

The authors of this paper divided Norwegian cyclists into two groups and defined them accordingly: “The results show that the cyclist population in Norway can be divided into two sub-populations: one speed-happy group that cycle fast and have lots of cycle equipment including helmets, and one traditional kind of cyclist without much equipment, cycling slowly.“

Translation aside (after all, the original was probably written in Norwegian), the language in this description is telling. Helmet wearing cyclists are referred to as “speed-happy,” with lots of cycling equipment. Non-helmet wearing cyclists are referred to as “traditional,” without much equipment, and riding slowly.

Does anyone else detect some bias here? According to this “research” paper, people who don’t wear helmets or use equipment are traditional and those who have adopted cycling equipment are not.

If we were truly taking a scientific approach to this problem, wouldn’t we have to agree that all of the cyclists started out as traditional, i.e., that at one time no one used cycling equipment? At some point, an undisclosed number of cyclists chose to adopt cycling equipment and another group chose not to. There was a fork in the road. And, we cannot make assumptions about the people who chose one direction over the other simply based on whether they decided to use helmets or not. Further investigation is required.

We will have to rely on the highlights of this paper to analyze its methods and conclusions.

Highlights (as stated in the abstract):

1. Helmet users are of two types: speed-happy cyclists or traditional slow cyclists.

2. Speed happy cyclists have more accidents.

3. Poor effect of helmet laws are due to decreased cycling among the low-risk cyclists.

4. Helmets are not subject to risk compensation, but part of an equipment package.

Labeling “speed-happy” cyclists as having more accidents is sheer bias. A cyclist can ride very fast, and due to increased experience, can avoid accidents that a slower, less experienced cyclist would be unable to avoid. What these authors are doing here is confusing speed with recklessness. Conflating these two concepts is essential to their argument because they are trying to prove that slower cyclists are “safer.”

By looking at their publicly available data it looks as if they are basing their conclusions on total injuries, not head injuries. This is a common ploy among anti-helmet proponents. No one ever said that wearing a helmet prevents all injuries. A helmet prevents head injuries, not a broken arm.

To properly assess the value of helmets, one must review data on helmet use and head injuries. This study completely fails on that score. Instead, the authors primarily assessed the role of helmet use on speed and risk perception and the relationship of these factors to traffic violations.

In this manner, they arrived at the conclusion that speed-happy cyclists have most of the accidents, while the traditional slow moving cyclists do not. Therefore, the latter can be deemed as “safe cyclists.” In short: slow with no equipment = safe.

Is this supposed to be science? It’s particularly baffling when you consider their conclusions about road safety. In the other research paper mentioned above, they admit that “more than two-thirds of fatalities in urban areas are pedestrians or bicyclists.” There is no mention of speed as a factor in these fatalities. And, they refer to both groups as “vulnerable road users,” So, which is it: are cyclists speed-happy maniacs who cause their own accidents or are they “vulnerable road users?”

A further flaw in their argument is the assumption that mandatory helmet laws disproportionately discourage safe cyclists, who presumable feel less safe when they are told they need a helmet. It is equally possible that speed-happy cyclists would give up cycling because reckless people are also disinclined to wear helmets — perhaps even more so than their slow, traditional counterparts. Thrill seekers don’t like safety equipment.

Clearly, some Norwegians don’t want to wear helmets, even though many other countries are passing mandatory helmet laws. So, they hired an independent research agency to conduct “research” supposedly proving that helmet laws discourage the safest cyclists.

Now, we Americans don’t want Norway to be overrun by speed-happy equipment using cyclists, do we? Of course not. But, let’s be honest, this “research study” is bogus. It is not science. It is a blatant manipulation of statistics and a weak rationalization for what Norwegians would prefer to do.

Rather than publishing pseudoscience, why don’t they just admit to a preference for riding without helmets? The rest of the world will accept this decision, particularly if Norway focuses on creating bicycle specific infrastructure which will help to keep the helmet-less cyclists safe.

I am not in favor of mandatory helmet laws. In my opinion, they cause more problems than they’re worth. They do discourage some cyclists from engaging in a healthy, environmentally friendly form of transportation and they create an enforcement problem.

I don’t have any crime statistics for Norway, but here in the U.S., crime is a problem. As both a cyclist and a citizen, I would prefer to have our police focusing their efforts on catching serial killers and other violent criminals, rather than chasing down and ticketing cyclists for not wearing helmets.

However, I think it is important for all cyclists to understand the risks associated with not wearing a helmet when riding a bicycle. There is no such thing as a “safe cyclist.” No matter how slowly a cyclist is riding, a car can veer off of the road and strike him — or, he can hit a pothole or other road debris and crash. Even a slow speed crash can result in a significant head injury.

One blow to your head can change your life forever.

We all take risks in life. Any cyclist who wishes to take this risk is free to do so, but please, don’t pretend that you are immune from serious injury because you don’t use cycling equipment or because you ride slowly.

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