Monday, December 20, 2010

Why are mainstream media so wedded to bike helmet laws?

(Photos: Christmas card from Oxford, UK)

Something that has baffled me throughout my campaign to make bicycle helmets a matter for choice is the faith-based attitude our media have towards bicycle helmet laws and why they continue to barrack for them!

Can anyone explain to me why they take this position?

Why are they not intrigued by the continuous conflicting academic discussion (one that has lasted for 20 years no less)?

Why are they not concerned with the limited nature of actual helmet testing?

Why aren't they fascinated by the fact that other nation states are not tripping over themselves to embrace this protection programme (they did when we came up with our 80s HIV protection programme)?

Why don't they investigate who actually funds the main bicycle advocacy groups and why these bodies are so silent on the issue of advocacy?

Why aren't they shouting from the roof-tops that it's ridiculous that we have these laws when the evidence remains contradictory, flawed and largely unenforceable?

Clearly there are notable exceptions like Mike Pritchard from ABC Rural Radio, Jo Jones from Bike-Love, & Matthew Moore from the Sydney Morning Herald who no doubt have personal views on the subject but are capable of putting them aside for genuine 'reporting' purposes. Notwithstanding these individuals, the general timbre of our media has not been one of 'reporting', but one of opinion & unquestioning faith.

Basically it's been:

'Shock! horror! - you're bonkers! - you're totally out of your tree! - what planet are you from?!!!'

...pathetic & predictable - my disillusionment abounds (sigh).

Admittedly, it wasn't really a surprise to get the 'grilling' I received from the '7PM Project', and anyway, the live nature of the show offered me a chance to express my position whilst simultaneously protecting me from being misconstrued.

No, the big 'let-down' was Wendy Carlisle's report for 'Background Briefing' in September.

I have been a 'Background Briefing' tragic for years and I was so disappointed that my 'all-time-favourite-show' failed to deliver its usual balanced discussion on a particular topic. The premise that it had was disingenuous and shallow - any listener could spot the veil of pretense as it blatantly 'cheered-on' the promoters & supporters of helmet laws.

I have no problem with people choosing to wear a helmet, but I vehemently and actively object to being forced to partake in this risky behaviour and will continue to resist this emotional 'battery-of-me' at all costs.

To me, it is clearly evident that helmet spin is:

* inaccurate

* unspecific

* unsubstantiated

* misleading

* deceptive

* 'safe-washing'

In fact all things considered, there's a fine line between 'mandatory standards' & 'recalls' & 'bans', so I cannot understand for the life of me why my government forces me to wear a 'questionable' helmet, that has already sustained a blow, albeit a testing one, so is therefore no longer capable of sustaining another one, so therefore ought to be replaced immediately, whenever I hop onto my bike...

...can anyone?

...& if you can, can you explain it to me?



  1. Sue, look at the advertising, he who pays the piper calls the tune. Just count the number of car ads, then ask you self, why would a company which makes cars hands out free helmets? If you can frighten parents into stopping their kids from cycling, the parents are more likely to buy a car to ferry them about "in safety".

    So much of the media is funded by advertising, they are not going to push ideas which are a threat to their ad revenue. All those people riding bicycles instead of driving is a threat to the motor industry...

  2. Sue,

    Watching that clip, it was pretty clear that he thought you were suggesting helmets were bad and should be banned. That's the impression I constantly get; people think no helmet laws = no helmets.

    In fact, that's the impression I get when people talk about rotational injuries or I listen to Mikael C-A.

    To get over the 20 years of helmet brainwashing we've had in Aus, I think people need to be clear that helmets are good but helmet laws are bad.

  3. I think it has a lot to do with our general inability properly to assess risk and deal with probabilities. The risk involved in different activities, when properly measured, can be counter-intuitive. That can be seen by the tragic increase in motor vehicle accidents after 9/11 when many people switched to driving instead of flying, mistakenly thinking it was safer. A good book called "Dance with Chance" (highly recommended) refers to it as the "illusion of control". Donning a helmet potentially gives a similar feeling of control when in fact the real risk (large, fast-moving cars) comes from elsewhere and is not solved by MHLs.

  4. I've been following the debate for a very long time and one thing I've learned is that it is cyclists themselves who seem to be the biggest advocates of helmet laws. Sure, the legislators, health experts and the media all follow the mantra, but just look at the comments section of any helmet debate on the net and you will see extraordinary passion and anger coming from riders who strongly believe in maintaining these laws.

    On the other hand, I think the anti-MHL side is playing into the hands of these people by fighting them with the same kind of dodgy statistics and science. I think what we need to do is start accentuating the postives. My number one reason for having the law repealed is that it is a failed public policy that discourages cycling as a dangerous activity, and I am stridently against anything that discourages cycling. We need to convince supporters of the law that as long as cycling remains a peripheral activity then we will never get the serious kind of investment in infrastructure that has occurred in other cities around the world. In other words, they need to understand that having these laws to protect them may in fact be having the totally opposite effect in terms of less numbers on bikes and less protection from motorists; the law of unintended consequences, I belive it's called. We also need to stress that repealing the laws does not mean throwing away helmets. I've no doubt whatsoever that the overwhelming majority of cyclists would still wear helmets even if there was no legal requirement to do so.

    Anyway, these are just my thoughts. I'm as guilty as anyone as getting quite passionate in this debate, but then I guess I love cycling so much that it depresses me to see how much time we waste with this divisive debate in this country.

  5. We run cycling holidays in the south of France and have quite a few aussie guests. They start off wearing helmets but on seeing that the locals don't - stop on their second day.
    The majority of our guests from around the world do not wear helmets.
    It's their choice and long may it be so.
    Keep up the good work....

  6. Dave said...

    "I think people need to be clear that helmets are good but helmet laws are bad."

    The question is: Do you wear a pedestrian helmet or a driving helmet?

    There is evidence that wearing a cycle helmet may increase the cyclist's likelihood of being involved in an accident. Because motorists apparently drive closer to a helmeted cyclist than one who is unadorned. AFAICT, it's a single study, so there needs to be confirmation.

    However, it is absolutely certain that cyclists' and pedestrians' primary cause of death and serious injury derives from collisions with motor-vehicles, so legislators and highway engineers need to find means of separating motorists adequately from cyclists and pedestrians, or slowing motorists down or both.

    The solution is very obvious, it doesn't involve any kind of helmet. It also has been proven to work.

    Look at the Netherlands.

    I recommend you start here:

  7. I'm not not sure why you would consider the Background Briefing story a biased piece. My impression was that it was a balanced, if not very slightly favourable to the anti-helmet side.

    The way I see it, when the laws were introduced, the country was in a phase of progressive reform. It was genuinely an attempt to create a safer environment for cyclists. Things have changed somewhat since then. We ended up being a conservative society with an unreasonable desire to not put one's neck out. Politicians who might advocate a repealing of the laws may just be concerned over the implications of the first child who dies whilst not wearing a helmet. Not surprising considering the tendency of our media and political counterparts to rabidly clamp on any opportunity regardless of context or reason.

    No offense, but I get the impression that your passion does not really help with altering mainstream perceptions. "Passionately detesting" stuff implies that your boiling blood impairs your ability to see reason. The passion is good for those who have already arrived to your conclusions, but dispassionate moderate voices are necessary here. Though they tend to not be the ones picked up by the 7pm project.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Condalitar!

    With regards to your take on politicians being 'concerned over the implications of the first child who dies whilst not wearing a helmet' it never ceases to amaze me that they are not concerned by children who die now wearing them.

    Sadly, you are probably correct in your summation that politicians could be implicated unfavourably - we, as a society may very well hold them to account - but why don't we now?

    Why do we let 'corporate-land' get away with their verision of events?

    With regards to your 'passion' comments we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. Passion is a good antidote to antipathy which is all too common in Australia and utterly destructive. Sadly I've found to date that 'dispassionate moderate voices' often lean towards pragmatism and relativism, and we all know that sitting on the fence will never get anything done. Our politicians love our apathy - they know we'll grumble but they also know that for the most part we'll do nothing about the cause of our grumbles - it's a national tragedy.

    Thanks for dropping by - I really appreciate the time you've taken to share your views with us.