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Effectiveness of helmets and the culture of fear

Posted Dec 10 2010 10:09am

Last weeks, Copenhagenize author Mikael Colville-Andersen gave a brilliant speech at the TEDx Copenhagen conference about the effect our culture of fear has on reducing bicycle use. He takes on several assumptions about the protective quality of helmets and our curious exemption of automobiles, the leading cause of accidental death in the Western world, from the societal fear machine.

Colville-Andersen relays some shocking details about how little an impact helmets are designed to protect us from and the negative effect requiring helmet use has on bicycle usage. Helmets are tested at an impact equivalent to pedestrians yet we have seen no campaign to helmet all those walking down our streets. ( Others have found an interesting statistical increase in likelihood of crashes with helmet use. ) In the second half of the speech, Colville-Andersen does a great job of pointing out how dangerous cars are compared to bike yet there seems to be an obsession with pointing out all the dangers of cycling while ignoring the culprit of so much more carnage. In places where the campaign to “improve safety” with helmets is strongest, bicycle usage went down. This was true even in Copenhagen when they attempted a similar campaign.

Most in the bike industry embrace bike helmets if for no other reason than it’s another high margin accessory to sell with the relatively low margin bicycle. Certainly accessories and service are what keep your local bike shop in business, but one wonders if all the focus on helmets isn’t helping the profits on a smaller and smaller pie while losing sight of the potential for growth of the market overall.

The bikes companies themselves haven’t helped either by letting their lawyers run wild with warnings. I don’t know if you have looked at a new production bike lately, but it has more warnings than a pack of cigarettes. This is for a product that is statistically less dangerous than automobiles, and if used properly will extend your life. How often would you want to use your car if you had to look at a warning label every day that said: “Automobile accidents are the leading cause of accidental injury and death. Use of this vehicle increases your likelihood of severe injuries, long term disability, and immediate death”? I don’t see any auto industry advocacy groups lobbying for such labels on their product, yet the industry seems to be shooting itself in the foot.

The safety labels and bike advocacy reinforce the predominate barrier most non-bicycle riders have to taking up cycling: fear about safety. These things remind people that cycling is dangerous, extreme, and requires special equipment. Not the sort of thing you want to communicate if you are trying to get people to use the bike to ride to the corner store, around the park with the kids, or to neighborhood coffee shop.

In a bizarre twist, the bike industry and many advocates are actively campaigning for something that’s net effect reduces use. How much longer will we send mixed messages about bicycles?

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