[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: The Wrong End of The Telescope
Why sedentary medical researchers and high-mileage cyclists come to vastly different interpretations as to the safety of cycling.
Questions What are the ranges of opinion in the helmet debate? Why do people come to such extreme differences of opinion about bicycle safety and helmet use? What is the lifestyle of the doctor doing bicycle safety research and how does his lifestyle influence his opinions? How is the doctor's sedentary behavior more dangerous than cycling? What is the lifestyle of an active cyclist? Why doesn't he view cycling as dangerous? What kind of cycling does he perceive to be dangerous? Why was he unable to learn about safety from the experts? Where does John Q. Public fit in this debate? How do our prejudices influence our perceptions?


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I have become more interested in the helmet issue from reading this newsgroup (rec.bicycles.soc). The free discussions here have guided me to look at other sources where the information is more one-sided. The BHSI, for instance, provides a one-sided synopsis of our discussions and suggests to readers to add a filter with the names of the offenders to avoid having to read anything else the offenders write -- whoops, I just got added to the list. (Note: since I first published this statement in 1997, the suggestion to use kill-filters has been replaced with one saying, "We don't reply to flames, but we don't use an automatic kill file to filter messages either.")

One problem that has concerned me is how people can come to such extremely different positions. I am not talking about members of this newsgroup. Even though everyone in this newsgroup thoroughly bashes each other, we do not find a great range. Most of the "anti-helmet" writers have no objection to any person's using a helmet and, at least some of them, use helmets themselves. Many of the "pro-helmet" writers don't always wear helmets themselves and believe (for adults at least) that the use of helmets should be a personal choice. And all of them consider the traffic laws to be more important that the helmets. No, but we do find a wider range elsewhere. People who would never use a helmet under any circumstance. People who would never ride without a helmet.

But even the last two groups, however, don't include the whole range. Most people who do or do not use helmets don't give a damn what anyone else does. However, other people feel strongly enough that they would impose laws to force others to obey. We also have the strange case that Frank Krygowski reported -- the woman with no cycling experience telling others how they must ride -- kind of like a nun giving a class in sex education.

We find when we read long articles advocating mandatory helmet use or opposed to mandatory helmet use that the authors have entirely different world views. In my opinion, the reason is that the two views are through the opposite ends of a telescope.

Let's imagine first a busy doctor. He learned to ride a bicycle when young but has not had time for such foolishness since high school (straight "A's"). He is not unaware of bicycles. As he drives to and from work, he sometimes has to swerve to avoid hitting some cyclist, and he sometimes notices his kids riding bikes on Sunday mornings before he leaves for the office. Since he has to drive over 50 miles each way to work, he would prefer the cyclists ride around their neighborhoods than on the road. He thinks they should recognize that their bikes offer no protection if he should hit them (his own Volvo offers excellent protection). There's talk of a cycle path, but he thinks his tax dollars would be better spent by changing his road to limited access. He's a little worried about his physical condition; even though still fairly young, he's already on heart medication. His father died in his fifties; however, they didn't have as good (or as expensive) medication in those days. Nor did they have double by-passes. He does not believe in jogging; he has heard too many cases of joggers suddenly dropping dead. He is a firm believer, however, in moderate exercise, such as walking from the parking deck to the elevator. In the hospital, he works with head trauma patients. In order to enhance his own career and income, he must continue with some research projects, so he writes about his patients. (Although both he and his wife have high income jobs, there is never enough to cover all their expenses.) Even though the cyclists are just a small part of his patients, he recognizes that a great deal of attention has been focused on their injuries, and he receives grants from Snell to fund his research. He thinks that cyclists are foolish individuals -- adults riding bicycles! Don't they have more useful things to do? Especially when cycling is an extremely dangerous activity. However, he knows that if the cyclists wear helmets that they improve their odds. His studies and others show that 2/3rds to 3/4ths of head injuries or deaths from head injuries could be avoided or lessened by the cyclists always using a helmet. He recognizes that if cyclists didn't ride at all, they wouldn't have any injuries, and he figures learning about the serious nature of head injuries will discourage many of them from riding. Because of his work, he is now highly regarded as a bicycle safety expert.

Next, let's imagine a cyclist; not the average cyclist, one who's kind of on the fringe. As a child, a bike was his favorite toy. As a college student, he used his bike on a daily basis, to go to class, to get groceries, to visit his parents on weekends, even to go on vacations. It's been that way ever since. He doesn't always pedal to work; if it's only a mile or so, he prefers to walk (he always lives within a few miles of his job). Cycling is so important to him that he has turned down job offers, quit jobs, and made career decisions based it. He has even sometimes gone a year or two without working, not a major problem for someone without a car to support. Of course, he's made less money that way, but he figures he has had a happier life. He has never married (remember the song about Daisy?) but still keeps hoping. Like the doctor, he believes in moderate exercise, but he never seems to find time for it; he's too busy riding his bike. His family is always after him to get a check up (he hasn't seen a doctor in years). If someone tells him that riding a bike is dangerous, he is very puzzled. He also doesn't understand the need for a helmet. He did fall down after hitting a hole many years ago, but his hands got skinned up, not his head. Maybe he should wear gloves? Nah, that was years ago. He sometimes finds motorists to be rude, but he doesn't rile easily, and his bike-handling skills are good enough to avoid any embarrassment. He sees motorists getting into accidents all the time because their cars just don't have the maneuverability and small size of a bike. He thinks if they could ride bikes, they would have fewer accidents. And they also might learn how to enjoy life instead of frantically racing everywhere. (Have you ever noticed that the motorist is always late, and the cyclist is always on time? Maybe bicycles are faster than cars.) He is aware that cycling accidents occur. No wonder. Kids are taught to ride on the wrong side, they never stop for lights or stop signs (how do you stop for a stop sign when you're on the wrong side?) or when entering the street, they weave in and out of traffic and onto the sidewalk, and they never have lights on at night. He also sees adults out cycling 1) who are fifty or more pounds overweight, 2) who demonstrate poor cycling skills, 3) who move at a walk-like speed, 4) who have their seats too low and their gears and handle bars too high, and 5) who break the same traffic rules as the kids. He feels that if the kids received better safety instruction, their accidents would fall to a tenth of what they are. For this reason, our cyclist attended the same bike safety meeting as our doctor. He listened to the doctor explain how to ride a bike, but he felt something was seriously wrong with a number of statements. When he tried to explain during the question period, the doctor was very rude and cut him off, "Young man (the cyclist was older than the doctor), how can you expect anyone to treat you seriously when you dress like that?" He discovered that the experts considered him to be some kind of fool. None of them provided any information that he considered useful.

It might be nice to include a third party, John Q. Public. John Q. is in between these two parties. He likes to ride a bike, he doesn't wobble around much, and he rides on the edge of the road when a sidewalk isn't handy (if there is more space on the left side, he will ride there). He also has a big car and home and high payments on each, but somehow he manages to find time to ride a few times each month. He understands why cyclists use the road; he doesn't understand why they would want to ride that far to work. He supports a new bike path and limited access on the road, even though he would have to drive a few miles to use the bike paths on weekends. His doctor says he has his heart problem under control, but "he should try to get a little more exercise." He is a strong believer in helmets because he has been scared to death many times when cars would suddenly swerve towards him. He has also gotten tangled up with other riders when they were riding together. Still, he is not strong about getting a law passed to mandate helmets. He thinks it would be OK to require them for kids.

With most of us, our opinions are colored or controlled by our life experiences. In fact, whenever we meet someone whose opinions don't match his behavior, we always break out into a huge grin and feel like saying something funny. For example, I once knew an ultra-conservative, umbrella-toting, tiny little professor with Coke-bottle glasses who advocated the selective breeding of humans (he was even quoted by Shockley in Playboy). When talking to him, I just wanted to ask -- so, so, badly -- whether his genes would be suitable or not. It was hard to keep a straight face. One time in the late 60's, my class wanted to have a panel discussion on the legalization of drugs. I learned more from looking at the people on the two panels than from anything they said. So, although I have never been to a bike safety meeting (in Alabama? ), I can guess what the two sides must look like.

However, our decisions should be based on more than our prejudices.


Is Cycling Dangerous?  Looks in greater detail at the risks involved in cycling and comes to the conclusion that cycling is much less risky than sedentary behavior.

How to Ride in Traffic  Shows how one can safely bicycle from one place to another.

How to Avoid Cycling Accidents  Shows that most collisions with motor vehicles can be easily be avoided by being more careful. Evidence comes from a bicycle crash study and from personal experiences.

Why I Am Opposed to Mandatory Helmet Laws   An analysis of the arguments in favor of mandatory helmet laws which points out the weaknesses of the arguments.

Elsewhere The Helmet Wars  De Clarke looks at the issues involved from a cyclist's perspective.

Circumstances and Severity of Bicycle Injuries  Thompson, Rivara, and Thompson's view of the issue.

The British Medical Association  speaks out against mandatory helmet laws. The responses are very interesting as well.

The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute  Randy Swarts' website, a cyclist who argues in favor of mandatory helmet laws.

Is There Any Reliable Evidence That Australian Helmet Legislation Works?  by Bruce Robinson. Shows trends before and after legislation introduced, including pedestrian/cyclist comparisons that establish that the helmet laws had no effect.

Cycle Helmet Laws - Facts, Figures and Consequences by Dorothy L Robinson. Excellent graphs and clear demonstrations, including head injury vs. other injury comparisons, that the Australian helmet laws had no beneficial effects in spite of 80% helmet use.

The Bicycle Helmet FAQ  A thorough discussion of the myths about bicycle helmets by Avery Burdett; discusses some of my points in greater detail and includes other arguments. On the same site is Thomas H. Kunich's report and graphs on the Latest CPSC Helmet Standard and US Fatality Trends and Avery Burdett's Cyclist Fatalities in Canada 1975 to 1997 both of which show little difference between cyclist and pedestrian fatalities (helmet use, however, was much lower than in Australia). The Ontario Coalition for Better Cycling website has excellent information on Canadian helmet laws and bicycling conditions.

Improving Bicycle Safety without making helmet-use compulsory by The European Cyclists Federation. A very readable and to-the-point discussion with facts drawn from Europe.

The Effectiveness of Cycle Helmets: An Investigative Paper by John Franklin. A very objective look at the controversy by a British bicycling expert and author.

Here's to No. 75616   by John S. Allen. A personal testimonial to the effect that helmets work, by a US cycling expert and author.

A Cyclists Rights Action Group (CRAG) CRAG was organized to fight mandatory helmet laws in Australia. Information and links about helmets and safety research plus links to other sites.

Compulsory Helmet Laws Endanger Public Health  A site from Western Australia by Chris Gillham opposed to mandatory helmet laws.

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