Monday, September 9, 2013

Follow the money

(Off to Father's Day picnic, ignoring daft bicycle helmet laws)

The University of New South Wales (UNSW) has been a big backer of mandatory bicycle helmet laws for more than two decades.

In fact it could be said that by specifically pursuing this line in the helmet stakes, UNSW positioned themselves to receive a continuous flow of dollars through Australian Research Council (ARC) grants and in effect has subsequently become the governments' go-to rebuttals department.

Now a couple of new papers extolling the virtues of bicycle helmet law have been added into the bottomless-cup of our very own uniquely Australian academic bicycle helmet ping-pong competition.

(Traffic Injury Prevention Online)

(Journal of Australasian College of Road Safety pp11-20)

(Big sigh from me & oop-la... here we go again!)

Under funding set down for the years 2006 ($45,000), 2007 ($90,000), 2008 ($79,000) and 2009 ($34,000) by an ARC linkage grant LP0669480 (pps 7&8) involving partnerships with the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, NRMA Motoring & Services, the now Roads and Maritime Services, the Transport Accident Commission Victoria, and DVExperts International, UNSW administered the 'Pedal and motor cycle helmet performance study.'

To date LP0669480 has already provided us with this paper and that paper, and from recalling what used to be listed on the School of Risk and Safety Science website this one and that one too, along with research assistants guessing by ads placed on UNSW's website and even websites overseas (p8) with this mob just for starters (nice work if you can get it!).

So here I am, preparing to defend myself against the NSW State government in court next week for the crime of riding a bicycle without a helmet and I'm screaming from the roof tops because it looks like this perpetual quest to prove that bicycle helmets are more that just a Harry Potter mantle of safety is going to carry on forever despite the cost to Australia both publicly and individually...

(elected reps, why can't you see this?)

My mind has gone into overdrive!

I have long wanted to know, right down to the very last cent, the full extent of bicycle helmet research funding, how it is acquired and how it is spent. Given the Australian public purse has had bicycle helmet research foisted upon it for decades, in my view we have a right to see the breakdown of costs especially when you consider that we've been forced to pick up so many bills including the one covering law enforcement and punishment in a bid to ensure compliance.

... is our government nuts or is our government nuts?

And now with these new papers on the scene, I remember that I've been wanting to know for ages how far an Australian Research Council Linkage Project grant stretches and for how long?

... because the really big question here that needs to be answered is what exactly is the financial role the 'partners' play in this academic ping-pong exercise, you know those 'partners' which are so evidently drawn from the Oil-Using Bodies?

... and thinking of Oil-Using Bodies, that in turn has prompted me to think about the failed Melbourne bike share scheme and why the RACV put in a tender to operate it in the first place, and why that tender was ever granted to them?

... but my mind is revving out of countrol ... back to the issues at hand stirred up by the arrival of these new research papers ...

Why does the Australian Transport Safety Bureau care enough to be a partner in bicycle helmet research?

Why does the NRMA Motoring and Services care enough to be a partner in bicycle helmet research?

Why does the Roads and Maritime Services care enough to be a partner in bicycle helmet research?

Why does the Transport Accidenct Commission Victoria care enough to be a partner in bicycle helmet research?

Why does DVExperts International care enough to be a partner in bicycle helmet research?

And how much do they all put in?

And what's in it for them?


Anyhoo, notwithstanding all of that, according to acknowledgments in the new Traffic Injury Prevention article, work was conducted at the Biomechanics and Gait Laboratory, School of Risk and Safety Sciences.

But 'why is it so?' when we know that the Biomechanics and Gait Laboratory spectacularly went to custard several years ago after it was discovered that...

"...errors in the software that analysed the walking patterns of disabled children had gone uncorrected for a year, putting children at risk of undergoing the wrong operations and infuriating doctors"

... followed by the School of Risk and Safety Science also going to custard which in turn was then decommissioned in December 2010?

If this is the case as we were led to believe, where exactly have the authors been conducting their work since 2010 when the lab and school were reported to have closed? Or didn't they ever shut their doors?

And what can we take from these new findings? Are they actually new or conveniently re-purposed to fit the government position in the face of growing opposition to helmet law?

After last month's drug trial suspension and the recent collapse of UNSW's ethics committee throwing the future of critical projects into flux, I couldn't help but be reminded of concerns that I'd had in 2010, and others had had in 2011 and 2012.

At the time I had written to the Minister for Roads and Transport about the then widely-acknowledged academic unrest at UNSW’s School of Risk & Safety Science and the impact that may have had on sponsored policy studies that government relied upon to uphold bicycle helmet law, namely this one.

I was also concerned about one of the author's involvement in that study (and I note with interest that same author, Associate Professor McIntosh, is one of the authors listed in the new articles above) because of a perceived conflict of interest that I felt ought to have been disclosed at the time.

Back then Associate Professor McIntosh was a staff member of Delta-V Experts (a partner company and a company dealing in crash-investigation, biomechanics, injury & ergonomics, engineering consulting and workplace safety) and a member of the Standards Australia committees for pedal cycle helmets, equestrian helmets and the helmet test methods.

I felt that in these roles it was questionable whether the interests of the general public stood to be served in an independent manner juxtaposed against the interests of Delta-V Experts and Standards Australia which could have been said to have been served by finding in favour of bicycle helmets and further crash investigation studies.

The impact of bicycle helmet research has had far reaching consequences for Australia and it is not lost on me that this research has ensured that many of us remain criminals at large whenever we ride bicycles without helmets. Consequently as the major stakeholders that we are we have every right to inquire whether the research has been suitably independent.

I broached these concerns along with others that I had in a submission to the chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) in September 2011 because I felt they raised questions that warranted answers ... and they still do.

At one point in time following the money seemed a logical course of action to find some answers but a freedom of information request to the Australian Research Council for information on all bicycle helmet studies conducted in the last 25 year period took two months before I even got a response...

...and that response left a lot to be desired.

Given the resources at their fingertips it was beyond belief that they could only find one project title amongst their data. I had already discovered considerably more than 'one' on their very own ARC website - I just wanted to know the full extent of public money forked out by us ever since helmet promoters thought it would be a good idea to introduce helmet legislation using academic cheerleaders to facilitate it.

But back to these recently published papers and my looming court case and Australia's questionable oil culture, the money angle behind it all continues to intrigue me...

... so putting aside the public funding, what finanical arrangements are entered into with the aforementioned partners in the ARC Linkage Projects?

And how much is spent by one and all on trotting academics around the globe to do their paper rounds?

And why is it so important that Australia has helmet legislation when the evidence has never stacked up, and still doesn't?

And why should we listen to academics sitting in oil-sponsored chairs, funded by oil-sponsored departments?

And one more question, why is it always so hard getting access to these purportedly 'publicly' funded studies - shouldn't they be 'publicly' filed somewhere really obvious so we can get to them easily whenever we want?

Follow the money and it doesn't take much to elucidate that the 'bicycle is a real and immediate threat to the car industry' ...

(YouTube, TEDxCopenhagen - Why We Shouldn't Bike with a Helmet)

...and oil lovers are having none of it.


  1. Hi Sue,
    Whilst you're on the question of bias I think that you negelected to mention Chris Rissell, Dorothy Robinson and Bill Curnow all of whom are either editorial board members of anti-cycling websites or known for anti-helmet views or activity as well as widely publishing research. Even St Mikael profits from his anti-helmet activities. But they wouldn't be biased, would they Sue...

    regards, Seamus

    1. Seamus, mandatory bicycle helmet law is maintained as a consequence of UNSW's research. Notwithstanding, it is widely acknowledged in the broader global academic community that the merits of helmet legislation remain in scientific dispute. Consequently I am of the opinion that I ought not to be compelled by law to wear one.

    2. Hi Seamus which "anti-cycling" websites are you referring to? I thought the people you cite were trying to promote cycling much in the vein of this guy:-

    3. A Freudian slip, anonymous... it seems I'm subliminally equating anti-helmet with anti-cycling.

      On reflection, equating anti-helmet and ideology; or, in the case of Mikael C-A, business interests might be closer to the mark.

      The bikeradar link that you present is very close to my position.

      regards, seamus

  2. Well, it is the "pro-helmet" (or rather, pro helmet obligation) types that are discouraging everyday cycling, and hence objectively "anti-cycling". Usually they are also not making much of an effort to tackle road dangers at the source - a hell of a lot more money is involved in giving the motor vehicle and petroleum industry a pass, than in bloggers who manage to make money from their cycling advocacy efforts.

    And there is no reason to sanctify or canonise anyone.

    1. Hi lagatta,
      You make an interesting point: Do 'pro-helmet obligation types' discourage everyday cycling?

      First you would have to define what 'everyday cycling' is. If you mean non-sports cycling, ie. trips to the shops, riding to school, commuting to work etc. the evidence is that, in Australia, most people are deterred from 'everyday riding' by factors other than helmet mandation. The biggest deterrents to cycling are not helmet related but are related to urban infrastructure and, quite frankly, sharing the roads with cars and the perceived risk of injury from being struck by a car.
      There is one study that I have read which was a telephone questionnaire to (urban) residents to which 20% responded that helmets were are a factor for them not riding. This does not mean that if MHLs were lifted we would see a 20% increase in 'everyday cycling' but I think it is worth further study as most claims about MHLs suppressing cycling are founded on ideology not evidence (as are most claims that MHLs make no difference - the data is not hard enough to draw firm conclusions either way).

      My concern is thta most research and most conclusions related to this matter are very inner-city centric. Unfortunately, australian citizens are burdened by urban design problems that limit the applicability of euro -style urban modification to those fortunates living in the affluent inner city or to urban centres in rural cities.



    2. >Do 'pro-helmet obligation types' discourage everyday cycling?

      Well the one who felt fit to shout at my brother "WHERE'S YA F'IN HELMET YA IDIOT?" certainly discouraged him from riding. He is in Australia for the first time in many years and I suggested he get one of my old bikes out of my mother's shed and ride along the bike path near the river. I said not to worry about MHLs as he doesn't have any Australian ID and if he encountered the police, plead ignorance and they would simply warn him. This sort of attitude to a middle aged gent just trying to get some exercise riding a bicycle on a quiet path highlights the lunacy which is MHLs.

    3. Anonymous 11:23, obviously MHLs aren't the only factor. There are many places in Canada with equally criminally bad planning, which discourages both cycling and walking and promotes a sedentary, unhealthy lifestyle as well as excess use of motor vehicles.

      I live in Montréal, which is not only an old city by "New World" standards, but also located on an island, so that has greatly limited sprawl. However, outside the older adjacent suburbs that can be retrofitted for more environmentally-friendly transport, it is ringed by a "third crown" (troisième couronne) of cancerous sprawl. I never go there. No way I could get there (I have never owned a car, and am not about to start now) and for the moment no reason to.

      There is some very shitty road planning even in more densely populated countries. Britain comes to mind of course, and many parts of Belgium, in particular Brussels, are very far from the standards found in the adjacent Netherlands, and now even on the other side, in France.

      The question is how to undo all the deadly harm not only to the environment but also to human health and social interaction by carcentric planning since the Second World War. And repealing MHLs, or not enacting them in the first place, are a low-cost ingredient in what must be done.

  3. Hi Sue!

    This has nothing specifically to do with cycling advocacy - I'm involved in a lot of other stuff as well, as are you and yours! Every 4th of October, there are vigils across Canada and beyond to honour the lives of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls, and I noted that this year, an Australian group is taking part, and of course this is a form of violence and oppression that affects many First Peoples, North and South.

    By the way, I hope you all had a lovely Father's Day.

  4. Great stuff Sue!

    You have digged up a lot of interesting info there.

    About the UNSW study that claims that bicycle helmets reduce brain injury, it has an interesting history of setting up unrealistic conditions, leading to deceitful claims about helmets effectiveness.

    It is a disgrace that taxpayers money is spent on such propaganda. They are treating us like fools.