Helmets on Heads

I found a new campaign via Twitter; Helmets on Heads. It is run by helmet and bicycle manufacturer Schwinn and an organisation called Think First (think a US Headway) which advertises itself as the US’s “National Injury Prevention Foundation.”

“The ThinkFirst National Injury Prevention Foundation’s award-winning, evidence-based programs are aimed at helping people learn to reduce their risk for injury.”

Despite this quote from the Think First website, this particular campaign aims to promote greater helmet use. From the campaign’s “The Facts” page:

  1. In 2009, there were an estimated 418,700 emergency room visits and nearly 28,000 inpatient hospital stays for bicycle-related injuries.
  2. Over the past several years, roughly 1 in 10 bicyclists killed were not wearing helmets.
  3. Nearly 70% of all fatal bicycle crashes involve head injuries.
  4. Bicycle helmets have been estimated to reduce the risk for head injuries by 85%.
  5. Despite these facts, only 20-25% of all bicyclists wear bicycle helmets.

Fact number one doesn’t really tell the reader much because it is not put into any kind of context. 418,700 sounds like a lot, but it would be nice to see how this number compares to the number of pedestrian-related injuries or trouser-related injuries.

Fact three sounds believable enough and although this statistic has little to do with cycle helmets, the context is is placed in cleverly makes it appear to support the argument for greater use of cycle helmets.

Fact four seems oddly familiar, but it is at odds with more rigorous meta analyses such as Rune Elvik’s efficacy review, which places the benefit of helmet wearing around ‘net zero,’ with earlier similar studies placing the benefit of helmet wearing around the ‘negligible’ mark. This appears to be the only fact on the list which is outright dishonest.

Facts two and five are best taken together; the 20-25% of US cyclists who wear cycle helmets appear to account for 90% of the cycling fatalities in the USA.

This list is one of the most interesting uses of facts I have seen in a long time. Other than fact four, which is outright bogus, the other facts presented seem likely to be sound. However, these facts are not used to make an argument in the conventional sense (Ie: by supporting a claim) they appear instead to be used as window-dressing; largely unrelated to the cause but when taken at face value and presented in the right way, they appear to support it. Let’s take another look at that window-dressing, but with a different slant:

  1. In 2009, there were an estimated 418,700 emergency room visits and nearly 28,000 inpatient hospital stays for bicycle-related injuries.
  2. Over the past several years, roughly 9 out of 10 bicyclists killed were wearing helmets.
  3. Nearly 70% of all fatal bicycle crashes involve head injuries.
  4. On average, bicycle helmets have been estimated to provide no overall benefit to their wearers in the event of a crash.
  5. Despite these facts, 20-25% of bicyclists still wear bicycle helmets.

Ok, so I changed fact four because of the bogus nature of the original #4. More or less the same list of facts now look like an argument against cycle helmets and I didn’t even have to lie.

The campaign also provides support materials for teachers:

Q. What is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself when riding a bike?
A. Wear a helmet! The impact of a crash is absorbed by the helmet, rather than your head and brain. Talk about the brain, how easily it can become injured, and how recovering from a brain injury can be difficult or impossible, depending on the extent of the injury. Protecting your brain is important!

I agree entirely that protecting one’s brain is indeed important. This is why, especially when forced to share space with motorised traffic, I would suggest that the most important thing to do to protect yourself when riding a bike would be to ensure your bike (especially the brakes) is in a good state of repair and that you are aware of the hazards in your surroundings so that you can take appropriate action. However, it looks like I was wrong, all that is needed is to slap on one of Schwinn’s fine cycle helmets and all will be well.

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6 thoughts on “Helmets on Heads

  1. It’s even worse than you have put – “fact” 5 says that 75-80% of cyclists *aren’t* wearing a helmet – so considering that this massive majority of cyclists only accounts for 10% of deaths is pretty amazing! Surely it suggests that cyclists who wear a helmet are far more likely to die in an accident? (I.e. the 20-25% who do wear a helmet account for 90% of the deaths.)

  2. love the four alternate stats! I am not against people wearing helmets, just mis-informed people saying it should be law. Most common injury is broken collar bone. Two of my friends have been hurt recently, one broke her thumb and one her ankle. And the driver who killed my friend on North Wales earlier this year – helmet or no helmet a large range rover careering into you at 60+ because they weren’t paying attention or just in a hurry – cuts no ice with me.

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