For safety, facts need to win over beliefs

For safety, facts need to win over beliefs
April 2009
The College View
By Cian Ginty

Apparent common sense in this country now dictates cycling helmets are reasonably useful. But there’s little evidence to back this, and other academic research points to the idea that motorists drive closer to helmeted cyclists.
Across ‘Road Safety Week’ in DCU recently Dublin City Council helped push high-vis vests, while a helmet was given away as a prize for a quiz.

The council has a bizarre fascination with these two bits of gear. At the last annual Dublin City Cycle it wanted everybody to wear both. But the roads were closed off with a garda escort to the front and rear. So, where was the need for high-vis?

For visibility, promoting the use of front and rear lights – a legal requirement – would be far more beneficial. A reasonable set of bicycle lights (ie not the cheapest in the shop) are more effective in warning motorists, pedestrians and other cyclists.

If cyclists only wore reflective gear there would be nothing to light it up in cases of potential accidents with pedestrians or other cyclists.

Just to be clear: This is not comparable to safety belts. Research which backs cycle helmet use is not only highly controversial, and contradicted by other research, it is very limited. You don’t need to take this writer’s word for it, the pro-helmet research notes its limited scope and methodology.

The pro-helmet research is also flawed due to making no differentiation between accidents from racing and extreme-sport mountain biking, and those by commuters and leisure cyclists. Cycling helmets were first pushed by the cycling manufacturers. In recent decades, these same companies promoted mountain bikes for road use in Ireland, the UK and the US. The move, which pre-dates SUVs in towns and cities, was purely commercially driven. As was their promotion of helmets.

Mountain bikes aren’t needed in urban areas, and helmets are not needed for normal cycling speeds comparable to running, fast or slow.

“But isn’t it better to be safe rather than sorry?” is the typical response to the above. If you’re in agreement with this you may want to note the research which says pedestrians and motorists would benefit just as much, if not more, from helmets.

However, asking pedestrians and motorists to wear helmets is unreasonable. So, why is it reasonable to ask cyclists to do the same? Perception is the likely answer.

The people – cyclists or not – who promote so-called safety gear are normally those who think it is a dangerous mode of transport. It is not. This is backed by research, which is not in dispute. The British Medical Association says health benefits of regular cycling significantly outweigh any increased risk of injury, other research says the benefits outweigh the risks by 20 to 1. So, the perceived dangers of cycling have no solid bases in fact.

Education, training, and enforcement for all road users – pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, and motorists – is the key to road safety. Not only is this based in theory, but this is also the experience in Europe – cycling helmets and yellow reflective vests are only used by a tiny minority of people in countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, or France.

It is not normal or natural for cyclists to wear such gear. In most of the world, people have cycled for over a century without helmets, and are continuing to do so. It has not been a major issue and it still is not one now. In a minority of countries, however, something done in the name of ‘safety’ is often unquestionable. Parts of the media and some politicians are all too willing to lap up anything pushed in the name of ‘safety.’

Often the story will be “helmets save lives.” Science, research, and evidence, all go out the window and emotion takes over. That’s fine if it’s a case of one person’s beliefs or choice. But it is nonsense when emotion is taken above facts when it comes to taxpayer’s money, in general, and the backing of an academic institute in way of DCU’s Road Safety Week.

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