A flawed argument

January 28, 2011 at 21:26 | Posted in bicycles | 4 Comments
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In this previous post, I discussed how all cyclists – whether supporters of helmet use or not – should take issue with Dr Michael Dinh’s recent article in Australian Cyclist which, amongst other things, painted cycling as a uniquely dangerous activity. Such rhetoric, I argued, does nothing except scare people off their bikes.
However, there is more to Dr Dinh’s article than this; he links the fact that injured cyclists get brought into his hospital with the need, in his opinion, to maintain mandatory helmet laws. As I shall explain, this is a flawed conclusion – and it is not necessary to be sceptical of the effectiveness of helmets to appreciate this.

It’s probably necessary to say right at the start that this article is not about bicycle helmets. Or more accurately, it’s not about the efficacy of cycle helmets. There is much impassioned debate about how well bicycle helmets work, and just how many head injuries they prevent – but this article does not venture into this territory. Indeed, for the purposes of reading this piece, it is useful to assume helmets ‘work’, in the sense that they prevent a sizeable percentage of potential head injuries in the event a cyclist is unlucky enough to strike his or her helmeted head.

The point, though, is that just because something is effective at reducing injury does not mean its use should be mandatory. Long-handled BBQ tongs reduce the risk of receiving a burn, but that does not mean legislation is needed to criminalise the use of short tongs! This point may seem a trivialisation, but it is an important analogy.

Unfortunately, bicycle helmets seem to attract this kind of flawed thinking. If cycle helmets reduce the risk of head injury in the event of an accident, then wearing one may well be a good idea. However, jumping from that thought to supporting mandatory helmet legislation fails to take account of a range of other factors which also need consideration – factors which are not related to the performance of helmets, but rather to wider societal impacts. Some of these are outlined below:

1) Cycling without a helmet is better for you than not cycling at all
Cycling is a health-giving activity. People who cycle live longer than those who sit on the couch – even if you ride without a helmet. This is an important consideration; as a medical professional does Dr Dihn really feel that criminalising a behaviour that reduces the incidence of disease and premature death is the best approach to delivering improved health outcomes in Australia?

2) The barriers that helmet legislation place on cycling participation are not trivial
People reading the magazine Dr Dinh’s article appeared in are, by definition, committed cyclists. To a committed cyclist, wearing a helmet is not an inconvenience. Indeed, many would do it irrespective of the law. However, many such committed cyclists fail to appreciate that, for most people, a bicycle is very ‘take it or leave it’ option. When mandatory helmet legislation was introduced, around 40% of people stopped using their bikes; these were not the committed cyclists (who were by and large already wearing helmets), but the occasional ‘pop down to the shops’ bicycle users.  It is only when bicycle programmes that are expressly aimed at non-cyclists – such as bike-share schemes – are introduced that we see the issue anew when for example comparing ridership numbers for Melbourne’s bike share with almost any other international deployment you care to look at.

3) A tenet of our civil liberties is that we should be free to do that which harms no-one else
This argument sometimes get dismissed as either whining or aggrandisement, but it is an important principle. Our entire societal fabric is built on the presumption of personal freedom; that we are able to pursue the goals and activities we value in the manner in which we wish to pursue them. Curtailment of those freedoms can only be justified where the execution of them impinges on the lives of others. For example, smoking (a very dangerous activity that kills around forty people every day in Australia) is legal, yet there are significant curtailments on smoking in public places because this exposes others to something unpleasant and harmful that they would not otherwise choose to be exposed to. Any argument about mandatory cycle helmets needs to address this issue; essentially it is necessary to show that not wearing a helmet places an unacceptable burden on (or limits the freedoms of) others – something that Dr Dinh does not even attempt to address.

There are other arguments that I could make, but the point is clear. Several different arguments in favour of mandatory helmet legislation can be made, but simply claiming ‘it is necessary because helmets prevent injuries’ is not a valid one. There is an important debate to be had about mandatory helmet legislation but if Dr Dinh wants to further that debate he would do well to present better reasoned arguments that do not immediately fall flat on their face because they contain a basic logical fallacy. As it is, his article does nothing to support mandatory helmet laws, however much he might claim that it does – and this should be something that is clear to everyone irrespective of their views on helmets. And something else that all cyclists should agree on is that we desperately need a higher standard of debate on this important topic, especially from those that purport to speak from a position of authority.

(note: Australian Cyclist articles are usually available online around two months after the magazine is published; the article referred to should be available here in a few weeks time)

Read part three of this article here.



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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by helmetfreedom and Dan, Dan. Dan said: A flawed argument for helmets: why Dr Dinh's pro-MHL article is unhelpful. http://wp.me/ppsF3-dP […]

  2. […] 18 months after she was hit by a careless truck driver in Scotland. Why mandatory helmet laws are a flawed argument. A Malaysian physician calls for a change of attitude and better biking […]

  3. The best helmet argument that I’ve seen, at least from a legal perspective, is the “cost to society” theory that has been used to great effect in seatbelt/motorcycle helmet legislation. Whether it should also apply to bicycle helmets is an open question, but it does seem that some paternalistic legislation has come about simply because the affected persons were in a minority.

  4. Excellent argument, well done. It’s clear that helmet laws have failed to reduce the overall safety and health of the public when every aspect has been taken into account. Surely people should be free to decide for themselves whether the risk they face on any particular journey warrants wearing a helment?

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