The Bike Helmet Paradox

Recently a good friend told me over a pint in our local pub that he hadn't been able to sleep a wink for two nights. He'd been left traumatised by the sound of a skull cracking and the sight of brains spread over concrete. No, he hadn't just returned from fighting in Afghanistan, he'd witnessed one of the many cycling deaths that occur on the roads every year. We all have stories to tell about the wearing or not wearing of helmets and this is what makes the wearing of helmets such an emotive issue, which can blind us to the facts on both sides of the debate. I was subsequently intrigued to read a viral post on a friend's Facebook wall titled: "Why It Makes Sense To Bike Without A Helmet". The post currently has over 91,000 likes on Facebook, which I thought warranted it some investigation.


The author begins, like any good debater by outlining the very strong case for helmets:

"Let’s first get one thing out of the way: if you get into a serious accident, wearing a helmet will probably save your life. According to a 1989 study in the New England Journal of Medicine, riders with helmets had an 85% reduction in their risk of head injury and an 88% reduction in their risk of brain injury. That’s an overwhelming number that’s backed up study after study. Nearly every study of hospital admission rates, helmeted cyclists are far less likely to receive serious head and brain injuries. These studies confirm what we feel when we’re out for a spin on our bikes: We are exposed. Vulnerable. Needing of some level of protection."

After this good start, the author decides to take a "broader look at the statistics" by zoning in on one study of head injuries in San Diego in 1978. The author points out that only six percent of head injuries were amongst cyclists compared to 53% amongst drivers - seemingly oblivious to the fact that there would have been far more daily drivers than cyclists in San Diego in 1978, making the statistic more than a little misrepresentative. The author provides the pie chart on the left, which is considerably less impressive when placed alongside the pie chart on the right showing the rate at which American commuters actually cycle (the data on the right is from 2005 but the proportion of commuters cycling in the US has remained below 1% since the 70's).

Next the author points out that in the San Diego study and in another French study that was also not weighted for population: "more people were hospitalized after walking down the street than riding on a bicycle", a statistic that can likely be explained by the fact that while more or less everyone walks to some extent, relatively few people regularly cycle and old people tend to hurt themselves falling over a lot.

This is where things begin to get messy. The author cites a 1996 study which looks at injuries per hour travelled and suggests that motor vehicle occupants are actually slightly more likely to suffer head injury than cyclists. On the face of it, this is a shocking statistic, but considering the speed that cars travel, it is should perhaps not actually be surprising that cars may even be more dangerous to their occupants (and to others) than push bikes - and the suggestion that car drivers should wear helmets is certainly a compelling thought to say the least. Whether or not this is relevant information to whether cyclists should be singled out for wearing helmets is certainly an interesting topic for debate. In this respect, it is difficult to argue with the author who writes:

"In other words, if the reason we are supposed to wear helmets while biking is to prevent serious head injury on the off-chance we get into an accident, then why is it socially acceptable for pedestrians and drivers to go about bare-headed? Why has cycling been singled out as an activity in need of head protection?" 

Things become yet more interesting when we scratch further beneath the surface. The author of the blog post writes:

"There's an important caveat to the results of that 1989 New England medical study: Bike helmets may reduce the risk of head and brain injury by 85-88%—but only for those who get into accidents.

If we take a closer look at the article we see that both the experiment and the control groups studied are those who have already been hospitalized for bike injuries. If one were to examine the medical and epidemiological literature on bike helmet effectiveness, you'll find the exact same condition over and over: Studies show that helmeted cyclists who are hospitalized are far less likely to have serious head trauma than bare-headed cyclists that have been hospitalized.

But wouldn't this be true, regardless of the activity? Logically, helmeted drivers should also receive significantly fewer head injuries than bare-headed drivers. Similarly, helmeted pedestrians should be less likely to receive serious head trauma than bare-headed ones. But such studies don't exist because there aren't enough helmeted drivers or pedestrians to make a comparison. In other words, one of the reasons we think helmeted cyclists are safer than unhelmeted ones may be due to availability of information more than actual levels of head safety.

Maybe that explains why there's no comparable fear of driving or walking without a helmet."

So the evidence remains clear that cyclists who wear helmets who have accidents are less likely to suffer brain injuries than cyclists that don't wear helmets that have accidents - which in my mind is evidence enough to more than justify wearing a helmet. The obvious next question is - are cyclists who wear helmets somehow more likely to get into accidents than cyclists who do not wear helmets - this is a complicated and fascinating debate, which we'll come back to later in this post. But this is not the case the author makes. The author takes the cognitive leap to suggesting that helmets in and of themselves might actually be harmful.

The author cites a New York Times article which reports an increase in bicycle head injuries during a time when helmet use became widespread which coincided with an overall decrease in cycling. There is an obvious correlation ≠ causation issue here which we could talk about all day from a great many different angles, so we'll begin by looking at the author's arguments one by one.

First, the author argues that "wearing a helmet changes how drivers perceive the cyclist" citing a study that suggests drivers pass closer to a cyclist wearing a helmet. The naturalistic study involving only one participant (who was also the experimenter) is interesting, but obviously potentially vulnerable to the same kind of conscious or unconscious bias that might lead a driver to drive closer to a cyclist. On its own it is not compelling evidence for the argument that one should not wear a helmet.

Next the author argues that "the design of the helmets themselves may increase the chance of some types of injuries when incidents do occur" linking to a meta-analysis but conveniently failing to mention what the meta-analysis actually found overall

"In conclusion, the evidence is clear that bicycle helmets prevent serious injury and even death"

The author also failed to mention that the meta-analysis concluded that the supposed increase in (neck) injuries was found in old data and may not be applicable to the lighter helmets now in use. So that argument is also null and void - and a textbook example of cherry-picked data amongst a sea of data showing the precise opposite.

The author ends their case for the argument that helmets may be harmful with a crucial point which is worth thinking long and hard about if you are a cyclist:

"Finally, wearing a helmet may create a false sense of security and induce risk-taking that cyclists without head protection might not make. Those wearing helmets may take risks that they wouldn't otherwise take without head protection."

Due to the ethical problems that prevent researchers asking cyclists to ride with or without a helmet, this is a difficult hypothesis to test - but it certainly seems likely that wearing a helmet might lead cyclists to overcompensate by taking greater risks. It is worth reminding yourself that a helmet only provides limited protection even though it might lead some people to behave like they are invincible. If helmets really do make cyclists take greater risks then making their use obligatory presents an interesting public health conundrum. Is it possible that helmets could make people safer if they have an accident whilst simultaneously making them behave even more dangerously? It is next to impossible for us to know for sure if this is occurring due to the immense amount of additional uncontrollable variables in the equation.

The author of the blog post makes a number of good points but seems to have overstated the case. These arguments highlight the fact that when it comes to human behaviour, epidemiological data gets incredibly messy and it is can be all too easy to intentionally or not, make whatever argument we want based on what data we look for. We've not even touched on the possibility that the type of casual cyclist who chooses not to wear a helmet may already behave very differently to the type of cyclist who does choose to wear a helmet. As Ben Goldacre explained in an editorial on bike helmets in the British Medical Journal, we are dealing with "confounding variables that are generally unmeasured and perhaps even unmeasurable."

What we are left with is a paradox. On an individual level it is clear that helmets can and do save cyclists from serious head injury and death provided that cyclists and the drivers around them don't overcompensate by taking greater risks. On a societal level, it seems that laws enforcing helmet use have done nothing to make cyclists safer and have driven a great many casual cyclists off the road - which as the author of the post rightly points out, indirectly increases the danger to cyclists in the long run, as cyclists are protected by strength in numbers. Furthermore, in places where helmet requirements have driven cyclists off the road it has been argued that the negative effects on public health outweigh any possible benefits in prevented injuries. In Australia, when a helmet law was introduced at a time when the popularity of cycling was on the rise, a 44% decrease in children cycling was observed, which was five times the size of the increase in children wearing helmets. According to a paper published in the BMJ, it would take "at least 8000 years of average cycling to produce one clinically severe head injury and 22,000 years for one death". It has also been estimated that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the life-years lost by a factor of twenty to one.

The whole argument reminded me of an anecdote regarding the introduction of helmets for soldiers in WW1 and the supposed consequent increase in recorded head injuries. As the story goes, generals nearly recalled the helmets before it was realised that the rise in head injuries could be explained by injuries that before the introduction of helmets would have been recorded as deaths. I've been unable to track down a bona fide citation for this anecdote amongst the many repetitions of it online (but I've not found any attempts to disconfirm it either). In any case, this has certainly not been true for bike helmets - where deaths still make up a tiny fraction of outcomes from bike accidents, but it is an interesting demonstration of how statistics can mislead - something that seems to be going on left, right and centre in the bike helmet debate.

After looking at the evidence, I'm happy to conclude that I'll choose to wear a helmet, but I'll not be beating the drum that cyclists should be forced to wear helmets - as the health benefits of cycling with or without a helmet are so great, that the risks of riding with or without a helmet pale in comparison. The evidence paradoxically seems to show that while wearing helmets does make cyclists safer, helmet laws don't make cyclists safer and actually harm public health in the long run.

References:

Attewell R.G., Glase K. & McFadden M. Bicycle helmet efficacy: a meta-analysis., Accident; analysis and prevention, PMID:

Goldacre B. & Spiegelhalter D. (2013). Bicycle helmets and the law., BMJ (Clinical research ed.), PMID:

Robinson D. (1996). Head injuries and bicycle helmet laws, Accident Analysis & Prevention, 28 (4) 463-475. (PDF)

Thompson R.S., Rivara F.P. & Thompson D.C. (1989). A case-control study of the effectiveness of bicycle safety helmets., The New England journal of medicine, PMID:

Walker I. (2006). Drivers overtaking bicyclists: objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender., Accident; analysis and prevention, PMID:

Wardlaw M.J. Three lessons for a better cycling future., BMJ (Clinical research ed.), PMID:

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence
to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.


Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like
violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students
do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones,
speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment
to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on
controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.

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