As a society we place a certain amount of trust into those who have earned the letters “Dr.” in front of their name. These letters suggest that an individual is exceptionally knowledgeable in their chosen field. However, there comes a danger with these two letters; a tendency to believe oneself an expert in other fields, fields which may be at best only tangentially related to the area of expertise lies.
When I first read the Daily Echo piece, I was interested to see if your call for compulsory cycle helmets was due to the publication of a new piece of research from a research group you head. It had been a few months since I had checked the latest research into the effectiveness of cycle helmets and the wider impact of making them mandatory, I found myself wondering if a number of new, ground-breaking articles had been published which had tipped the consensus in this area. The previous consensus I had garnered from a wide reading of the research in this area had been that, at best, under some limited circumstances, cycle helmets may provide marginal protection to the individual in the event of a road traffic collision. On a country-wide level, when cycle helmets are made mandatory, the criminalising of cycling without a helmet costs many, many more lives through inactivity than could ever be saved by cycle helmets. A quick check of your name on Pubmed didn’t show up any research into effectiveness of cycle helmets, nor the public health costs associated with helmet compulsion laws.
There are people out there who are doing this research, people with PhDs, or who are working towards them in exactly this area. I have no doubt that you are good at what you do, and should I sustain a major trauma I trust you would do an excellent job of the repair work. However, you simply do not appear to have the necessary credentials to call for a mandatory cycle helmet law. Your position allows you to project your opinion on the matter to a wide audience, but in the process you are drowning out the voices of the real experts in this field. Of course the general public will not necessarily appreciate this distinction, but I find it hard to believe someone such as yourself could not.
I appreciate that in your line of work you are uniquely privy to the damage which poorly-driven motor vehicles can do the bodies of cyclists. I also appreciate that anecdotally it may seem to you that the frequency and/or severity of injuries sustained by cyclists are related to whether or not they were wearing helmets. However, I trust that you can appreciate that “I reckon,” is not a suitable basis for policy, even if it comes from someone with those two little letters in front of their name.
I am not a physician, but I do know that “do no harm” forms the very core of medical ethics. Whenever someone in your position ignores the body of evidence in this area and calls for mandatory cycle helmets they do a great deal of harm indeed. Mandatory helmet laws are a disaster for cycling rates, whilst providing no meaningful benefit to those cyclists who remain. Many more are harmed through inactivity than could be saved by even the most generous estimates of cycle helmet efficacy, whilst those who wish merely to get around on a bike are needlessly criminalised.
If you are genuinely interested in improving cyclists’ safety, I urge you to publicly retract your call for a mandatory cycle helmet law. Instead of ineffective ‘more padding’ approaches to road safety, put your efforts and influence behind campaigns aiming to reconfigure our road network to make cycling (and walking) safer, more pleasant and more convenient. By fixing our road network we can gain both a reduction in injury rates for vulnerable road users and a reduction in all of the costly medical conditions which are exacerbated by our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, through an increase in cycling rates. If you want to make a positive difference for cyclists, reject helmet laws and support the work of organisations such as the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain.
Note to reader: I am happy for this letter to be edited and re-used by anyone, anywhere in the world where a physician starts to think their expertise extends into areas it clearly does not.