They are familiar murmurings and they gather righteous crescendo as they seep into print, broadcast and online media platforms.
But to many of us, we have heard them all before and recognise the strategy for what it is - helmet promotion via medical media release.
The language is paternalistic as are the players so why do Australian mainstream media fall for this bait every single time; hook, line and sinker?
A growing group of critics is questioning why the media accept these helmet pronouncements as received opinion and is wondering whatever happened to scepticism and evaluation.
On May 6, the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) published a letter by Dr Michael Dinh, emergency physician and co director of trauma services at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, stating that the results of his report "[added] to the growing weight of observational data supporting the use of helmet which should therefore be considered at least as protective for pedal cyclists as they are for motorcyclists."
But what exactly attracted the media to his findings, if they were able to find them?
The report is not the stuff of rigorous peer review. A small sample set, observational studies rather than randomised controlled trials, no factoring in of confounders and variables, or hospital data bias.
Really, media, no questions?
But not all Australian medical practitioners hold the same views on helmet legislation.
Dr Paul Martin, MBBS, FANZCA, a specialist anaesthetist, Brisbane, despairs at both the state of cycling and the state of academic cycling research in Australia today.
"Essentially any barriers to cycling are regrettable," he says, "and it's most important to get rid of them.
"The numbers in Dinh's study are teeny tiny. Consequently, the study is biased and not looking at the big picture - it's irresponsible. Alcohol is one of the biggest confounding factors and yet Dinh doesn't correct for alcohol, drunk cycling or running red lights. How does he get away with writing a letter when that data is not published in a peer-reviewed journal? It's a sneaky way of getting a citation in a medical journal and it's irresponsible of the MJA not to make Dinh publish the study.
"As an anaesthetist I see how much the lifestyle diseases blow out the costs for the community. Hospital equipment has to be upgraded and there's a great risk of not even surviving theatre - its death by a thousand cuts. Doctors don't understand the chronic cost to the health budget and lifestyle diseases are killing the budget - ischaemic heart disease, osteoporosis, strokes, fractures, all take too long to recover afterwards.
"Forcing helmets on all riders no matter how fast or slow they go is ill-thought out.
"I wear a helmet when training and competing in triathlons because sport has a different profile but for transport and getting the groceries, I don't."
Michael Rubbo, Australian filmmaker and a former commissioning editor at ABC television, agrees that mainstream media have an ideological fixation about mandatory helmet laws (MHLs).
"Many self-identify as cyclists themselves, and consider MHLs to be proactive with an excellent safety record," he says, "and it is extremely frustrating. You get a sense that there is a locked-in mindset, a locked-in orthodoxy.
"When MHLs were passed, their club formed and they became members in an almost cult-like capacity. They geared up and took cycling seriously. Their identity was captured by MHLs. It was an affirmation of a badge of honour leading to resentment towards the other side of cycling.
"Utility cyclists, now unfavoured by law, did not feel that cycling was unsafe and have been demonised because they do not see cycling as helmet promoters do. Helmets are like school colours and if you're not wearing one you're somebody on the outer and you'll get a dressing down like you might from a prefect."
Observing the media in action it is not hard to think that Australian bicycle IQ is in decline - even our bicycle organisations 'cheer' on ambitious helmet promotion as it tries its hand further afield.
"The Netherlands,” he says, "can boast about having the highest cycle density, the highest cycle rate and the highest participation rate in the world...and...the lowest casualty rate (by a very wide margin) at the same time.
"Australia should stop chasing its tail, stop sustaining its confirmation bias, stop fighting symptoms, stop marginalising and (victim-)blaming people on bikes, start looking at the root causes and own up to it. It's definitely worth losing (political) face over...just ask any Dutch person...or child."
Definitely a highlight of Velo City 2013 was Dave Horton in one of the plenary sessions. Here at last was a clinical, expert look at the broad cycling picture without resiling from the fact that helmet promotion is a significant barrier to cycling.
The lack of helmet debate in the main arena of last year's Velo-City (Vancouver) had been one of my criticisms. It had been disappointing to see it sidelined to a niche workshop rather than addressed as the elephant in the room that it was, is and always will be.
So back to Velo-City 2013...rhetorically asking why most people don't cycle, Dave listed the following points as potential barriers that those of us who cycle tend to take for granted and don't notice:
- fear of looking silly
- worry about falling off
- fear of becoming a cyclist and being different
- motorised traffic
He acknowledged that cycling on roads has become more dangerous in most places of the world and that there are many more cars which in turn has led to a sense of automobile road entitlement, and that increased traffic has meant fewer cyclists resulting in less money for cycling, making it a lot harder to develop a political voice for cycling
Interestingly he pointed out to the 1,300 of us Velo-City participants that the fear of cycling is not wrong, and needs to be "understood" in order to realistically encourage as many people as possible to cycle. So what we need to do is to change people's perceptions, change people's realities without dismissing them, and change the current processes. It is essential to examine how the fear of cycling is produced.
He pointed out to us that despite the fact that we have never been so safe, we have never been so fearful. The broader culture of fear has been culturally constructed to a level that to the general public, cyclists appear to ignore common sense leading in turn to cyclists being perceived as deviant and irresponsible. The fear of Cycling is inevitable and produced by this constant construction of the notion that cycling is dangerous (check out Dave's excellent blog for further info).
Yet according to Dave, cycling has got more dangerous by various attempts to make it safe:
1. Road safety education largely responsible for sense of entitlement cars (parked or otherwise) have about the streets belonging to them.
- resulting in onus put on cyclists to provide their own safety
- in addition to general feeling that cyclists ought to keep out of way which in turn has ended up making cycling 2nd rate
2. Helmets as part of established road safety programme
- issues of equity; why cycling? why not other modes of road transport?
- helmets play on and magnify fear of cycling
- helmets put obligation onto the innocent
And furthermore, Dave was quite adamant that helmet promotion is not about the promotion of cycling at all but about the repression of cycling via a process working insidiously in completely the other direction of safety
So what can we do?
Dave urged us to...
1. Resist temptation to do counter-productive things such as helmet promotion
2. Stop teaching cyclists to be frightned; rather teach motorists to be civil
3. Install considerate and reflective separate cycling infrastructure
Easy...if you're not an Australian politician (sigh)
Anyhoo, at the end of the plenary, we were invited to ask questions from the floor so I thought why not! I introduced myself and where I was from and then mentioned that as a result of eschewing helmet law promotion, I'd received a criminal conviction, had lost my driver's licence and had 2 bicycles impounded and was wondering whether Dave had any tips to help with my mission to repeal mandatory helmet laws in Australia.
From the stage he mentioned that he had heard of my plight and basically advised me to carry on with my 'civil disobedience' - done!!!!
Following that and in my Velo-City media capacity, I was lucky enough to score an interview with Dave the following day. Brilliant...an opportunity to ask my 'helmet question,' and once again I listened in awe to good sense from someone passionate about cycling, the planet, our children and their future, and once again I groaned to myself that we have no-one in Australia prepared to stop listening to the safety nannies in order to listen to someone like Dave Horton:
After chatting about the Australian government's own goal with regards to helmet legislation, Dave mused upon the embarrassment looming for the government at next year's Velo-City 2014 conference in Adelaide.
Dave Horton (DH): the Australian government got it wrong, and velo city next year in Adelaide is going to be interesting and provide an opportunity to increase the discomfort the South Australian government feels, and build from there. How can you have the foremost global conference around cycling coming to your city with helmet legislation?
The conference will be full of Dutch and Danes and people who wouldn't think about putting a helmet on their heads to go for an ordinary bike ride to the shops or to work or to school and then they're going to come and they're going to be encouraged to get on a bike like we always are at these Velo City conferences..."get on a bike and go and explore the town!" and then people are going to go out and you (he means us Australians) are going to shout "hey come back you haven't got you helmet on" (hilarious laughter from Dave)
Sue Abbott (SA): a few of us are planning to come and make a statement in some way or another
DH: great...why don't you have a 'helmet-free' critical mass bike ride in Adelaide!...and raise the issue, important issues which are fundamental to the future of cycling! For me cycling is the future of the planet and if you're going to start with the broad picture we need to get people moving by bike instead of by car.
And getting people to Velo City and getting the debates aired at places like Velo City is part of that and 'helmets' is a big debate and a big terror to cycling. Anyone who has thought about it, knows that, and the problem is, or partly so I think, is it has kind of got monopolised by the medical profession and the trauma specialists and the A&E specialists and they've got a very specific and particular viewpoint, and one which personally I think is based on prejudiced a lot of the time and there are broader issues around sustainability, planetary health, community health, cities, what cities are for, what we want our kids to be like in the future, how they're going to move around, what kind of citizens they're going to become.
And helmets don't fit into that picture in any way at all.
SA: helmet promotion is scary as you were saying - in the helmet debate workshop, I was handed a pad of post it note tags with a picture on front showing a water melon smashed to smitherins which apparently is supposed to represent our heads but it's nothing like a head and this was from a trauma specialist...a trauma specialist gave it to me!
DH: it's outrageous but it's inevitable because how can you promote helmets without drawing upon a danger of cycling and you have to construct that danger because it's not apparent and we don't do this for car drivers and we don't continuously remind car drivers how dangerous it is to drive a vehicle yet we do this we cyclists and we do it mostly with kids who are most susceptible and who are the future, the mobile citizens of the future and we're putting them off cycling before they've even got a chance to cycle independently for the first time.
What kind of injustise is that? What kind of society sends the completely opposite messages to the ones we should be sending?
SA: a powerful industry backed one - certainly in Australia, cyclists are seen as weird - we're seen as wacky, and I've had so many people tell me that there should be a law allowing motorists to run cyclists over
DH: it's like prejudice against cycling, and the prejudice against cyclists has become culturally embedded, supporting an ideology that reinforces automobility, the car, as ordinary, as everyday and as normal and that requires the simultaneous reproduction of cycling and the cyclist as abnormal, as out of place as irritating as weird and it's something we don't touch on in debate at Velo City very much and to me it's always a slight shame really because there are ideologies at work
So back to your question for campaigning tips, grassroots disobedience - that’s certainly a strategy and non-compliance has worked in other political movements...mass civil disobedience - sod your law, we don’t believe in it - we believe it’s antithetical to cycling
Maybe velo-city next year is the opportunity to broaden the debate out - something like..."Velo City - time to ride without your helmet, show the world what an Australian city could be like!"
SA: sounds good to me!
So that's Velo City 2013 done and dusted for another year; it's been utterly illuminating and depressing all mixed in together - yes the speakers were wonderful and clearly experts in their own right but it is all so far removed from our Australian reality where sane rational expression on cycling is never given a guernsey. Hysteria and OH&S rule here and woe betide any academic or medical practitioner who tries to rock the helmet boat - god only knows some of them have tried, but our 'Crucible' tendencies kick in and we beat these sages back under their rocks.
Notwithstanding this stifling mix, I have to admit it's all tinged with excitement too, because maybe Velo City 2014 will turn out to be the nemesis for mandatory helmet laws - it certainly offers us a platform or a canvas or whatever you will and we certainly have every intention to be standing on it or painting it or whatever we come up with...
So...so long, Vienna, now I'm off to climb every mountain and find some living hills...Salzburg are you ready for Family Von Abbott???
(Monika Jones, master of ceremony, with Philippe Crist at Velo-City 2013)
"Cycling equals a pure unadulterated and enduring sense of freedom" - well Philippe Crist sure got that right!
As he did with his statement that "it is inconceivable that one mode of transport alone can do all the heavy lifting" and that "cars dominate the traffic scene so much today that most cities no longer see them."
That's right we don't see them at all - we don't see the pollution they churn out, the inconvenience they cause, the congestion they manufacture, and we don't notice the entire city space no longer available to the rest of us because cars have gobbled it all up.
It was refreshing to hear Philippe Crist state that "the return of urban space is better supported by cycling" and that "health improving benefits associated with cycling ought to be factored in because for too long transport authorities have only looked at the disadvantages of cycling." As far as Philippe is concerned, it just isn't good enough any longer that we only look at crash statistics.
Far more useful in his opinion is speed management, the most essential safety strategy employed, and he gave New York as an example with their 14 x 30km zones. Apparently with the right infrastructure, cycling can act as the city regenerator only it needs political will and community support...
...oh dear 2 great big hurdles for Australia that currently from here seem almost unsurpassable!
Also really interesting was hearing him ponder why the health argument associated with cycling isn't more successful when the monetised health benefits of cycling come out ahead against the monetised health costs.
Putting my 'helmet question' to him after his plenary session, Philippe reiterated that there should be an increased focus on the positive benefits of cycling rather than the current over-emphasis on the negative aspects.
He also mentioned to me that The Lancet and most doctors in the UK believe that it is far better to have increased cycling numbers without helmets than reduced cycling with helmets, and that current safety for cycling does not involve helmet laws.
Once again he stressed that bicycle safety comes back to speed management, high quality infrastructure and a return to urban space for everyone. He said that whilst helmets may reduce negative health outcomes with regards to crashes, they do not reduce crashes and therefore do not make cycling safer.
So now apart from my helmet question, I have a new one - I want to know why can't all these sensible experts be Australian and/or live in Australia and/or organise Australia?
(Stephen Yarwood, Lord Mayor of Adelaide [front left], Manfred Neun, President of European Cyclists' Federation [front middle] & Maria Vassilakou, Deputy-Mayor of Vienna [front right])
Front row interviews with my one question - the helmet question
Maria Vassilakou, Deputy-Mayor of Vienna was not in favour of imposing mandatory helmet laws for bicycles just as she wasn't for skiing either. Basically when asked she felt that bicycle helmet laws were just artifacts or objects that tend to boost certain markets, and that overall they were counter-productive. She felt on the whole they provided a 'false-safety' for people, and maybe there were times when they could be good to wear but whenever cyclists or potential cyclists expressed that they didn't want to wear them, they should be left in peace.
Manfred Neun, President of European Cyclists' Federation (ECF) felt that it all boiled down to people deciding what they actually want. He told me that the central message from ECF charter is the 'safety in numbers' one - basically the more cyclists there are, the safer cycling is. Whenever and wherever governments have enacted MHLs, cycling has decreased rapidly - not a good thing.
Naturally, the safety issue of cycling is one that governments have seen as a serious problem, and naturally governments have looked for solutions - only some governments looked for solutions fast if it was possible. MHLs presented themselves as a cheap solution and one that would cost governments zero cents. On top of that governments realised they would be able to hold quick press conferences to publicly announce "look at us aren't we wonderful - problem fixed?!"
In Manfred Neun's opinion, the MHL approach never looked at the big picture or the consequences that would inevitably flow. Manfred said that history has shown once countries enacted MHLs they have been far harder to cancel than they were to establish in the first place. He stressed that governments need to take into account all the facts and figures and change to better solutions - and new solutions need to be positive ones, not negative ones (such as our useless MHLs).
Stephen Yarwood, Lord Mayor of Adelaide (oh you got to feel sorry for this guy!) said that it was imperative that we work towards removing MHLs one day but (the big Australian BUT!) the really critical point is to work towards making cycling safer so that it is not even a logical debate but a logical outcome.
He went on to say that he wanted to see the time where everybody felt they were everything rather than today's distinct groups of cyclists feeling they were cyclists pitted against motorists who felt they were motorists. He expressed that somewhere along the line he wants everyone to feel they're everything. This was the logic rather than a mandatory helmet requirement.
So basically he spun on a sixpence and said all the right things without really saying anything to cause angst for any particular group. Granted, it's hard for our more enlightened politicians in Australia, and accordingly they are terrified. They know what's necessary to do, and probably deep down would love to do what it would actually take to get cycling growing...
...but hey this is Australia, and we love our helmet laws, and we love not using our bicycles for our urban transport problems even though we're told over and over again that the bicycle has an important to role to play...
...and you know, I'm sure Adelaide will do a great job for Velo-City 2014 because it's Adelaide and it's gorgeous and it's funky...but the helmet question will be the big elephant in the figurative room, and it will envelope the whole Velo-City conference...needlessly.
REPEAL MANDATORY HELMET LAWS TODAY AND MAKE STEPHEN YARWOOD'S LIFE EASIER
June 17, 2013
Over the week at the Rathaus, we heard some fabulous plenary speakers with lots to share and lots to cause inspiration.
...from Mikael, we heard that design can outgun price and performance and that 80% of Copenhageners cycle all year round in all weathers (think I got that right - that 80% figure sounds enormous!). Basically good design can improve behaviours and good design is a way forward.
I caught up with Mikael on a one to one just prior to his Vienna Cycle Chic Street Photography Workshop and asked him my one question that I had for all my inteviewees - the Helmet Question!!!!!
I had hoped to get the audio up earlier onto this blog but internet connections have been hit and miss to put it mildly and to compound things even further, I have no idea how to transfer the interview audio from my iphone onto my laptop. Somewhat reassuringly I'm not the first person to encounter such iphone glitches as evidenced by my google search "how the fuck do you transfer fucking italk files to fucking laptop" which was actually already a google search term!!!!!!
Anyhoo, all that aside I'm hoping once BN3 joins us all in Europe all that will be rectified, but in the meantime, here's the rough transcript of interview audio with Mikael in Vienna late one morning in one amazing take:
"The Helmet Question from Sue Abbott" (answered by Mikael)
"We’re getting to the point where it’s really tedious this whole debate - we’re getting to the point where it’s a stalemate; the science, anybody who actually cares about it knows that the science is 50:50; if you don’t have any conclusive scientific proof for something you don’t legislate for it - it’s that simple - the clarity is right there in front of you.
You hear a lot of people talking about this subject and fortunately you can see when there’s some article online or in online newspapers, you can see in the comments that the people are realising that there are two side to the coin. They’re pulling the wool off their eyes, and it’s really encouraging to see there is a debate and an informed debate from people.
But the fact that we’re even having to talk about this shit is incredibly dull.
Basically the people doing the talking - doctors for example, they know how to be a doctor, that’s what they’re trained for. Learning to be a doctor is a lot of memorisation so you just learn a lot of stuff and then you practice it. You know these people just repeat stuff that they’ve heard ad nauseum without really getting into the subject matter about actual industrial design of helmets and all the different studies.
They just repeat stuff because when you’re trained to be a doctor, you’re incredibly specialised and probably and hopefully incredibly good at what you do because you’ve just learned and memorised things but you don’t actually have a tradition in the medical profession of thinking freely of thinking for yourself. So doctors tell you to wear a helmet because of the stuff they’ve seen.
I don’t give a dam what they’ve seen - you look at the science...boom.
And these doctors who talk in the press all round the world I often invite them to go down the other wards of the hospital which they rarely do because they’re so specialised they just sit in the same office all the time. And they ought to go down to the lifestyle dieseases ward and see all the people suffering from obesity and diabetes and heart disease because of inactivity in our societies.
It’s not as sexy as "ooh it’s your head, you only have one head" and all that emotional propaganda they spit out, but still people are dying from inactivity.
There’s a lot of the people who do the talking, the safety nannies, the worried mothers, the doctors, these people are completely uninteresting to listen to now. They sound more and more wacky for every day that passes, and it’s just getting really boring.
For me the core of it is, if these people promote bicycle helmets but they do not at the same time promote motorist helmets then they shouldn’t be taken seriously; we should completely ignore them because if you promote bicycle helmets you have to promote all the rational helmets as well; motoring helmets.
Somebody who says wear a bike helmet and doesn’t say to wear a motoring helmet, get out of my face you’re not interesting, you should be removed from the debate forcibly, taken out the back and having your nipples twisted or I don’t know what we can find to deal with these people.
Seriously you can’t just promote bicycle helmets - if you’re into that thing, that’s your funky thing and you don’t promote the other forms of head protection equipment, then get out of the debate, nobody wants to listen to you.
In our Copenhagenize index of bicycle friendly cities around the world, one of the parameters was perception of safety. It was a very academic index we made, but one interesting point is perception of safety. What are the helmet wearing rates in these cities? A city with a high helmet-wearing rate, you score low, if you have a low helmet-wearing rate you score high.
This is not to be controversial but it’s because I believe that the only perception of safety that is applicable in our world is that personal perception of that person riding a bicycle. If you see a city where people are not wearing a helmet it’s simply because those individuals make a choice themselves, hopefully they were given the opportunity to make a balanced decision by presenting them with both sides of the coin. But that personal choice, that personal perception is the only thing that matters. All the safety nannies are completely irrelevant because it’s that individual that matters.
So it’s up to the individual...present them with both sides of the coin and they’ll make the decision that fits them and off they go. I always say, if wearing a helmet keeps you on a bike, great; if not wearing a helmet keeps you on bike, great, I don’t give a shit...as long as you’re on a bike.
But the whole emotional propaganda from all these safety freaks and people who know nothing about it, the fascinating thing is that the people doing all the talking about helmets know nothing about helmets - they repeat ad nauseum statistics that they read in a brochure or from lobby groups that are funded by the bicycle helmet industry - I mean c’mon it’s not wikileaks but it’s pretty basic money tactics of the entire industry...so you know, shut up."
- pure 100% Mikael, and if Australian governments just listened to him, maybe we too could have a slice of his Copenhaginising paradise and perhaps one day for once feature positively on his liveable cities index...maybe...