Irresponsible and anti-cycling…

January 19, 2011 at 22:22 | Posted in bicycles | 4 Comments
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The helmet debate rages on in the pages of Australian Cyclist. In the latest edition, Dr Michael Dinh makes the case that mandatory helmet laws are a good thing by describing some of the injuries received by cyclists. However, irrespective of their views on helmets, all cyclists should condemn this kind of rhetoric as being irresponsible and anti-cycling, as I shall explain.

In the recent edition of ‘Australian Cyclist’ magazine, Dr Michael Dinh describes a cyclist brought into his hospital’s emergency department. He pulls no emotional punches, describing the team put on standby to save the mans life; we have vivid descriptions of his head injuries. And – shock horror – it turns out he wasn’t wearing a helmet!

Describing this unlucky cyclist as ‘one of the lucky ones’, later in the article, Dr Dinh discusses another cyclist brought in – graphic descriptions of the team performing CPR on him are included, as well as descriptions of his ‘smashed helmet strewn all over the road’ and his ‘major chest, abdominal and head injuries’. This patient, it seems, died.

This kind of writing is completely irresponsible, and can only be seen as a deliberate attempt to mislead; to attempt to paint a picture of cycling as some kind of extreme sport where death and injury lurks with each pedal stroke. Just getting on a bicycle, it seems, is risking life and limb.

Why is this deliberately misleading? No doubt the good doctor would simply claim to be reporting the facts surrounding two seriously injured cyclists. However, withholding information and failing to give context is as much of a sin as giving wrong information, and in this case there is much missing. Here are some facts that perhaps belong in the article:

1) Very few of the road accident victims Dr Dinh sees are cyclists.
Australian road safety statistics show that cyclists represent only about 2% of accident victims. The overwhelming majority of them are, in fact, car occupants. For every injured cyclist that Dr Dinh sees, he sees twelve injured pedestrians and about forty injured motorists or car passengers. I wonder if Dr Dinh writes articles in ‘Jogging Monthly’ describing in similar emotional terms the terrible head injuries received by pedestrians? Or writes in the NRMA magazine about the carnage he sees when injured motorists are brought in? I suspect not; so in singling out cycling he is clearly trying to make it seem much more dangerous than it really is.

2) Cycling is, per trip, about as dangerous as walking
Further statistics from Australia show that, on a ‘per trip’ basis, the injury rate for pedestrians is about the same as for cyclists. If you need to go to the shops; you’re actually less likely to be injured riding a bike as walking. (This changes somewhat if you consider it ‘per hour’ or ‘per kilometer’, but the point is still valid; the two activites are comparable in risk terms). Of course Dr Dinh is going to see terrible injuries; that’s the nature of working in a hospital emergency department. But why he chooses to paint cycling as so uniquely dangerous is unclear.

3) Cyclists, on average, live longer than non-cyclists
Cycling is health-giving activity. More so, in fact, that going to the gym or doing sport. There have been many studies that show that people who ride bicycles on average live longer than non-cyclists. Whilst Dr Dinh does acknowledge the health benefits of cycling, he fails to point out that it more than offsets the risk of riding. In blunt terms, sitting on the couch is more dangerous that cycling.

4) Cycling is a rapidly-growing activity in Australia; cycling levels having aproximately doubled over the last 5 years
Dr Dinh makes the point in his article that cyclist admissions to his emergency department increased by around 200% over the last five years. A troubling statistic when presented without context; however when one realises that cycling participation levels have risen by about the same amount over the same period this data suddenly looks much less sinister and indeed could be expected.

5) The main reason people give for not riding a bicycle is that they think it is unsafe
And here is the clincher. This very fact was alluded to by Omar Khalifa, the CEO of Bicycle NSW in his editorial in the same magazine. ‘The number one obstacle to getting more people on bikes is that they just don’t feel safe’ he writes. And after reading articles like Dr Dinh’s, is it any wonder?

To paint such a lopsided picture of the dangers of cycling; to fail to give proper context for the risk and instead play on the readers emotions and giving the entirely erroneous impression that getting on a bike will almost certainly result in being seriously injured is hugely irresponsible. It turns people off cycling; it feeds the perception that cycling is terribly dangerous and reduces the number of cyclists on our roads.

All cyclists, whether supporters of helmet laws or not, should reject this kind of rhetoric and insist that professionals such as doctors, who are in positions of great responsibility, stick to the facts rather than pandering to popular fears.  Articles such as this add nothing to the debate, and simply act as very effective pieces of anti-cycling propoganda.

At the end of the article Dr Dinh talks about some measures that would make cycling safer. The biggest irony of all is, of course, that one of the best ways to make cycling safer is to get more people cycling. The ‘safety in numbers’ effect is well researched and evidenced; as more people cycle motorists get more used to looking out for them, and more motorists themselves are also cyclists. Perhaps Dr Dinh might reflect on the fact that, by using such inflammatory prose and discouraging cycling, he actually makes it more likely that the next accident victim through the doors of his emergency department will be a cyclist…

(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 2 of this article here.

The Whisperers

April 20, 2010 at 15:47 | Posted in bicycles | 8 Comments
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There is something very wrong in the world of bicycling. A significant and well-funded force is afoot, and is actively discouraging cycling. They are everywhere; their influence extends widely and their message is insidious and relentless.

There are many great efforts undertaken to encourage cycling. The benefits of doing so are well known; environmental, health, congestion, road safety, public expenditure savings. And there are some great initiatives; encouraging people to ride to work or school, large social rides, programmes to encourage women onto bikes, skills training, commuter tips, bike buses and the like. However, all of these activities are having to work harder than necessary, and are less effective than they should be, because they are having to overcome those that would discourage cycling.

It’s like trying to tell people something, whilst all the time someone else is whispering in their ear with the opposite message. These Whisperers are always there, constantly undermining the positive messages about cycling. Often the Whisperers manage to get their message incorporated into positive advocacy messages, undermining the effect and sabotaging efforts to get more people riding.

So who are these Whisperers? And what is their message?

The message is very simple, and could have been carefully calculated to discourage everyday participation in cycling. It is this: ‘Riding a bike is very dangerous’. This is what is being whispered into the ears of your audience as you try to tell them of the pleasures and benefits of cycling. You talk about the convenience, how fit you have become, of the fun you have – but all the time the voice is there in the ear of your listener ‘… but it’s so dangerous. You’d be killed if you got on a bike…‘.

To overcome the Whisperers, you have to speak louder. And longer. Often to no avail; your audience can appreciate what you are saying, but think the risks you are taking simply don’t warrant the benefits. ‘It’s so risky! You take your life in your hands cycling on those streets‘, say the Whisperers, and their message is so insidious, so subliminal, so constant, and so often reinforced that no amount of positive advocacy or promotion can overcome it. ‘People get killed on bikes all the time‘ remind the Whisperers. ‘It’s not safe‘.

All cyclists know of this effect. Of riding to work day in day out for years on end – and as you prepare to ride home yet again people who have watched you for years say, ‘oooh, it must be dangerous – take care!’, or ‘You are so brave riding to work!’. Surveys show it rates as one of the major reasons why people don’t ride. People don’t ride bikes because they are scared of being killed.

So where are the Whisperers? How do they get their message out there so successfully – more successfully, it seems, than any positive messages about the benefit of cycling?

The Whisperers can be found in government. ‘Cyclists get killed all the time!’ whispers the Victorian government. ‘Cyclists have lots of crashes and get head injuries! whispers the NSW government. ‘Ride a bike and you’ll be hit by a car!’ whispers the UK government.

The Whisperers can be found in the media. “Cyclists are getting killed all the time!’ whispers the SMH, as does Channel 9. “Look how many deaths there are!‘ whispers the ABC.

The Whisperers are there in charity and not-for-profit organisations; ‘Bicycles are dangerous!’ whisper Kidsafe.

The Whisperers even get into cycling advocacy materials. ‘Lots of cyclists get hit by cars at night!’ whispers Bicycle Victoria.

Then, of course, there is the sheer volume of helmet promotion. It’s hard to find anything about cycling that doesn’t, as pretty much the first thing, insist on the wearing of helmets. ‘Cycling is so dangerous you need special protective equipment‘ murmur the Whisperers. ‘Look how much more dangerous it must be than other activities!

Maybe you don’t see the Whisperers in all of these. Or in any of these. Maybe you see well meaning advice. Well meaning it may be, but just pause and think for a moment – why does almost every promotion or communication about bicycles contain lurid descriptions of bicycle crashes, and references to cyclists being killed? This is the truly insidious nature of the Whisperers – to a non cyclist, the message is constant and reinforced. “Staying safe on a bike is hard – unless you are very careful, you’ll be killed‘. This is the message that most people hear when looking at these materials. Whisper, whisper. Other messages come and go, but this one just stays constant and unchanging. If it’s about bicycles, the Whisperers will be there, making sure their message is the one that will be remembered.

You might read the above, and dismiss it as poppycock. That I am over-sensitive; seeing things that aren’t there. Perhaps. However, next time you read or watch anything referring to cyclists, look out for the Whisperers. They might be hard to spot; if you are a cyclist you will be relatively immune to their voices. But put yourself in the shoes of a non-cyclist; one who already thinks cycling is dangerous (which most do), and look again. You might find they are whispering louder than you think.

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