03 October 2008

Culture of Fear - Cykelhjelm Society

After six months of reading up on not only bike helmets, but the unfortunate consequences of helmet promotion and legislation, I experienced a moment where I felt the need to produce satire. I'm not saying it's good satire, but it is, by all accounts, satire.

Taking the piss out of the scaremongerers here in Denmark who choose to pull the wool over our eyes. Including, but not limited to, The Danish Road Safety Council [Rådet for Større Trafiksikkerhed] and the Danish Cyclists' Federation [Dansk Cyklist forbund].

I found this American programme on youtube, as well. Really interesting stuff. It addresses the problem of a Culture of Fear. This phrase really sums it all up.

Wikipedia has an entry on it, which is most enlightening. Under the heading of Constructed Fear, there are examples of the specific tools and techniques used in order to create fear in the population:

- Careful selection and omission of news (some relevant facts are shown and some are not) - this applies to the two organisations above in the Danish context. They are quick to send out press releases that serve their purpose but neglect the vast majority of scientific studies on bike helmets.

- Distortion of statistics or numbers - A prime example of this is a press release from earlier this year, which was in every newspaper. "Sale of bike helmets has risen by 20% in 2007. Head injuries in bike accidents have fallen from 28% in 1998 to 22% in 2007."
What they don't tell you is that cycling has dropped 30% since the 1990's in Denmark and it is expected to drop further because of the current promotion of helmets. And sales of helmets has absolutely nothing to do with head injuries. There are no stats regarding people wearing them. It's all so shockingly silly.

- Transformation of single events into social epidemics (Salem witch trials) - this applies to the sudden media interest in bike accidents - fueled by the two parties above. Hyping them out of proportion and not mentioning that we have the best safety record, together with Netherlands, in the world.

- Corruption and distortion of words or terminology according to specific goals - slogans, catch phrases, the same repetitive mantras found on all the websites involved. Distorting reality and rationality by presenting the public with scary quotes.

- Stigmatization of minorities, especially when associated with criminal acts, degrading behaviour or immigration policies (Yellow Peril, Hispanophobia, Islamophobia, Blood Libel and AIDS, which was originally called "GRIDS" for "Gay-Related Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome") - Dansk Cyklist forbund stigmatizes cyclists who feel secure on the bike lanes by labelling them as "vain" and "stupid".

- Oversimplification of complex and multifaceted situations - When you have dozens and dozens of scientific studies from around the world over the past 20 years, it really isn't acceptable to oversimplify the issue with emotionally-charged slogans that have no basis in reality.

We'll paraphrase the writer Jennie Bristow here:
"The culture of fear is not a spontaneous reaction by the public to a truly dangerous world. [...] Our propensity to panic about everything from child abductions to mobile phones does not come from the fact that modern life contains more risks than ever before - on the level of everyday reality, the opposite is the case. The culture of fear comes from the top down. It comes from society's leaders, and their inability to lead."

Marc over at Amsterdamize has a post about these scare tactics and fearmongering, too. When you live in countries like Denmark or Netherlands, helmet promotion is a rather different affair. We don't wish to see our bike culture dismantled.

The European Council of Ministers of Transport issued a statement in 2004 which is rather enlightened:
"PROMISING [1], a research project commissioned by the European Union and coordinated by the SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research (2001), suggests that from the point of view of restrictiveness, even the official promotion of helmets may have negative consequences for bicycle use, and that to prevent helmets having a negative effect on the use of bicycles, the best approach is to leave the promotion of helmet wear to manufacturers and shopkeepers. The report entitled 'Head Injuries and Helmet Law for Cyclists' by Dorothy L. Robinson, Bicycle Research report No. 81 (March 1997) shows that the main effect of the introduction of the general helmet law for cyclists in Australia was a drop in bicycle use."

The Danish situation is rather easy to track. Here's the chronological path:

Early 1990's - Denmark experiences a spate of helmet promotion. The number of cyclists drop. In cities like Copenhagen and Odense the numbers rise, but on the national level cycling has dropped by 30% since the early 1990's. A Danish report from 2002 placed focus on how safety campaigns, including those for bike helmets, caused more parents to limit their childrens' cycling habits, choosing instead to drive them to school. Over the past 30 years the number of children driven to school has risen by 200%.

Late 2007/early 2008: The Accident Investigation Board - Havarikommissionen for Vejtrafikulykker publish a report about their investigation of intersection accidents between cyclists and motor vehicles, 30 in all. Their scientific methods are kosher, but they do not mention at any point where they got their scientific background for their assessment of bike helmets. A layman with just a bit of knowledge about the capabilities of bike helmets can see that they have grossly overestimated the bike helmet's ability in collisions. They conclude - without really knowing why - that promotion of bike helmets should commence and leglislation should be considered. The AIB are heavy hitters so people listen.

Early 2008: As a result of this report, The Danish Road Safety Council and the Danish Cyclists' Federation start an expensive national campaign promoting bike helmets. One that yanks hard at the emotional heartstrings but that is very vague on the science. They only quote a couple of Norwegian studies as the scientific foundation for their campaign, completing ignoring the science that many other cyclist federations in the EU use in their own assessment of helmet promotion.

2008: The promotion continues throughout the year. It is quite easy for them to gain a foothold when you consider The Culture of Fear. It's easier to say "Boo!" and scare people than to present the public with a wealth of options and ask them to make up their own mind. This is, after all, a Headline Society. When these public orgs speak, people in Denmark take it for granted. They read the headlines but not the article.

(The funny thing is that all the public service campaigns for eating healthy are largely ignored. It's just not as intutitive as the bike helmet issue.)

Late 2008: The Road Safety Council will be publishing the current figures for percentage of cyclists with bike helmets in the next couple of months. They will undoutably claim victory. But the numbers that are most important are the ones that show percentage of trips by bike. Sadly, by all accounts and based on experiences in other regions of the world, this will fall.

Which is why our website like www.cykelhjelm.org is an important factor in the fight against this Culture of Fear and for increased cycling in Denmark.

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Anonymous said...

I am writing from the capitol of fear - Washington DC. Keep up the fight.

Your cycle culture is too important to let a few myopic emergency room doctors kill. Isn't the first rule of medicine to "do no harm".

Karl On Sea said...

I'm with you on this - the tactics used seem to be all about selling more helmets, rather than improving overall benefits to society. The pity is that it looks like politicians have been lobbied - successfully. So in the absence of a BIG grass-roots movement (one that would threaten their election results), they think they're showing leadership.

Give me a society where a third of all trips are made by bike (but hardly anyone wears a lid) in preference to one where it's less than one in fifty (though the majority are 'protected') any day.

Oh, and BTW - the satirical vid is just superb!

Anonymous said...

Fearmongering aside, here is another "benifit" of no lid. No one has EVER yelled out their window "nice helmet" but at least twice a week I have women roll down a window and yell "nice hat" or "nice béret". That alone is worth it to me.

Erik Sandblom said...

"'Sale of bike helmets has risen by 20% in 2007. Head injuries in bike accidents have fallen from 28% in 1998 to 22% in 2007.'
What they don't tell you is that cycling has dropped 30% since the 1990's in Denmark and it is expected to drop further because of the current promotion of helmets"

I'm unclear on this. Aren't they talking about the share of head injuries among all bicycle accidents? An overall fall in cycling does not explain this reduction.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Marvellous video! (but then, you knew I'd like it) Is it only on YouTube? You should take up a collection and buy some TV time - I'd contribute to that. Let's get this in people's faces. I wish I were a digital video genius, so I could do one for the US. Maybe I know someone....Val

Sean said...

Zak, I'd like to propose an idea.

Since even according to the studies you quote, helmets can have some benefits to individual cyclists in the event of an accident. And, even in Denmark, there may exist citizens who want to cycle but don't because they want to wear a helmet when doing so but fear appearing uncool to a population of mostly helmet-less riders.

With this in mind, would you be better off adopting a media strategy that opposes mandatory helmet laws based on your public health data, but works to create a "it's okay to wear one if you want" helmet accepting cycle culture?

If I could offer an analogy, here in America, advertisers and public service announcement creators are careful to include people of various ethnic backgrounds, working together, in the media they create. These situations may not always naturally occur yet, but the idea is to make everyone feel included and accepting of people different than themselves. Is there a way for you to do the same with helmets in Denmark?

It seems a reasonable approach. Even though it may not be your intention, I fear some of your efforts may come across as "helmets are useless" or "helmets are uncool," which actually may work to keep some Danes off their bicycles.

Timbo said...

I am certainly not an advocate of mandatory helmet wearing but as soon as people use the argument that compulsory helmet wearing has caused a drop in cyclists numbers in Australia, they have in my mind blown any argument against mandatory helmet wearing. This is used commonly including in the You Tube video of the researcher from the UK. Numbers of cyclists did drop in Australia in the early 90's when the law came in. Cycling in Australia by any measure you wish to use is booming.
So sorry, the anti mandatory helmet argument has my total sympathy but when people use data from so many years ago they have totally lost the argument.

Anonymous said...

Hey, it sounds like George Bush!

Michael Meiser said...

Great article. Loved the 20/20 piece. I 100% agree on law. We pass to many damn laws in the U.S. and I'm sure it's the same in every other country in the world. It's a natural tendency of bureaucratic process. Officials just don't feel they're doing their job unless they pass a few more useless laws each year.

I cannot imagine living in a place where wearing a helmet was a law. Furthermore I could see how it would have an extreme detrimental effect on riding.

Speaking of bad laws and unintended bad consequences. The town near which I live has no sidewalks on the majority of either of the major roads running through it, what's more they passed a law making it illegal to ride a bike or a skateboard on the sidewalk in the immediate downtown area pushing kids to ride in the street or not at all. Luckily this was repealed. This is not new york it's a "relatively" small town america. I guess their thinking was better for kids to ride or skate in the street and get hit by cars (or sit at home and play video games) then have them theoretically run into a little old lady coming out of a store or grind some concrete off a curb.

I must then make a point of differentiation about the american market and european... or more about urban areas and suburban or rural areas.

In the majority of the U.S. the road conditions are much more hazardous then in places like Copenhagen or Amsterdam. These roads are much higher speed 55 - 65mph, have narrow shoulders, often have big high speed intersections 5 lanes x 5 lanes (or more), and what's more there's so few bikers in these areas drivers just aren't expecting them and therefore don't see them.

In these cases... call it "open road riding". I am a HUGE proponent of wearing a helmet.

That said I will readily concede in slow traffic / urban areas where ability to ride in street clothes, not break a sweat, and simple practicality are important I completely agree that wearing a helmet does not always make sense... of course it wouldn't stop me from making my kids wear one on the way to school (if I had any).

Case in point I have several types of bikes and on most I ALWAYS where a helmet. Yet on one, I almost never do.

Interestingly this one bike on which I almost never wear a helmet is a single speed, 100% upright / straight back european style bike. I love this bike because I can ride it casually in jeans or with sandals, even in bulky winter clothing. It is full fendered for foul weather, it is single speed, it has folding racks in the back, and it ways damn near 40 lbs. Yet it is perhaps the bike I ride the most, and I almost never wear a helmet on it. I also ride it almost exclusively on country lanes with no traffic.

The bigger issue for me then helmet is reflectors and blinkies. I have found that when my touring panniers are on my bike drivers leave me CONSIDERABLY more room. I wish the science guy on that 20/20 special would do some tests on these things.

A friend who road from Florida to Michigan this spring swears the same of his reflective safety vest which he now wears every time he rides. This is not riding on copenhagen streets though, this is 90% riding on 55+ mph intercity or suburban roads.

Furthermore there are new LED tail lights out that we've come to swear by like the Planet Bike Blinky Super Flash.


The thing looks like an old flash bulb going off. It's highly visible even during the day, and it really is visible from a mile or more at night. (I speak from experience having followed someone with one). What's more it runs for 100 hours on two AA batteries. I have something similar on the front of my bike. A superbright LED that I can alternate from solid to flash with a flick of my finger called a Niterider Ultra Fazer Max that runs on two AA's.

The point here is visibility is KEY... especially when people aren't used to seeing cyclists. If you make people register you with a couple ultra-bright blinkies (front and rear), bulk *looking* panniers or racks that make you look much wider then you are, or even a nice highly reflective vest they are much more likely to give you room.

The alternative is that they fly by you inches away at 55mph because they don't even register you.

Of course this is not just from the back, front visibility and side visibility are important when approaching busy intersections lest someone pull out in front of you.

Ironically I often find it safer to ride on the white line or even over it (given inadequate shoulders) rather then hugging the very edge of the road. I find that when you break their imaginary lane their much more likely to register you and pass leaving ample distance. (Note this is ONLY done on roads with highly inadequate shoulders of say nine inches or a foot.) This is a technique similarly to 'controlling your lane' in which you take up a full lane on city streets to keep cars from attempting to pass you... usually done at intersections.

Lastly on the safety accessories front is reflectors... in most cases these are more effective then blinky lights because they reflect back cars much more powerful lights and therefore appear much brighter to them. They're also zero maintenance. I find them most effective when they're on something that moves... i.e. pedals or most cycling shoes have a reflective heal patch. These however only work if cars have their headlights on and have no value during the day or when the sun is just starting to set, which is the most dangerous time to ride. Therefore they should be used with blinkies.

To summarize up the gear thing, this is all gear that is either zero maintenance or low maintenance and stays on the bike. The new LED's will go for 100+ hours which translates to months of riding before a battery change. (I strongly advise trying the new ultra-bright LED's that are just coming onto the market like the Planet Blinky Ultra-bright.)

That said, a reflective vest or helmet is another accessory that must be carried which prevents you from just hoping on your bike and going. So while they may or may not have a place in short distance in city / town everyday commuting they definitely have a place on high speed inter-city roadways.

Finally... one more gear thing... the helmet thing is really taking off hear in the U.S. and this has nothing to do with ad campaigns or laws. It is largely do to fashion and tech. It is now fashionable to wear a helmet. They no longer look "special ed" (special education) and have become fashion statements.

It's not uncommon to see a kid at the skate park or even on the street wearing one. It's not in fact to different culturally then seeing a kid wearing a baseball cap, though not as common yet. This has more to do with pro skiiers, snowboarders, skateboarders, and BMX riders wearing them then anything. That and superb technical and design improvements.

The biggest factor in the long term evolution of biking is parents sharing in the activity with their kids. Parents who bike have kids that bike... parents that don't bike and even remotely discourage their kids from biking have kids that don't grow up biking. Kids easily pic up cultural values... some just perceived, like "successful parents drop their kids off in a car".

These perceptions are soooo bad in the U.S. it appauls me. Generally speaking I get a lot of reaction when I tell people I commute that is not "wow" or 'cool', but "what's wrong with you". In other words "there must be something wrong with you if you don't drive a car." It's so bad that I see it even with employees at the local bike shop. The american market is f*cked up in so many ways.

Not the least of which that it's sooo driven by technology they've completely overlooked the fashion, style and simple practicality that can change the way people think about biking and move it into the mainstream. There are many sparks in the industry, but in small town america you walk into a shop and 90-95% of the bikes are technologically driven designs. Even the top sellers of the day... the modern equivalent of the cruiser have both seat post suspension and a front shock... which absolutely do nothing in actuality for the majority of riders. Simply fat tires and a springer seat accomplishes the same thing and weighs much less. The key is instead of focusing on technological bling, focus on style, design, fashion and above all a ride that people can ride in practical street clothes... is light enough to put on a car rack or in a car.

The american bike industry is healthy and competitive, it's just been dominated by Trek and Specialized (two brands that are driven by tech) for too many years. They are great companies and have done wonders for recreational riding... but this dominance of focus has largely ignored the commuting market.

Luckily there are dozens if not hundreds of superb brands ready to fill this new need if and when the market shifts.

I was listening to the (past / present?) CEO of Intel talk about chip manufacturing on the ITconversations podcast (one of my favorite podcasts). He was talking about the importance of stepping back from the bleeding edge of technology in manufacturing (in his case chip design), in order to produce not only low cost chips but a wider array of specialty chip designs. It's this innovation that has moved the U.S. from a $1000+ desktop computer industry to a notebook, netbook and increasingly hand held computing industry.

Computers are becoming (information) appliances (and even fashion accessories, i.e. iphones)... and bikes need to transcend the functional debate and become stylish and fashionable as well.

Of course we seem to be heading into a recession so... this may change the equation toward cheaper and more practical... but the principals still apply. Just in different measure.

amigosito said...

Hi there, love your blog and agree that scare tactics are counterproductive, but the simple fact is that helmets save lives. What would you propose as a healthy and productive way to encourage the use of helmets? Or do you disagree with the need for helmets?

Forget about statistics--have you ever seen someone w/o a helmet get hit by a car? I have. On Amagerbrogade. The cyclist was in the bike lane and got hit by a taxi. The result was gruesome. I came upon the victim one minute after the accident. Another young woman was cradling the victim in her arms, and I could see very clearly the victim's skull split open and brain matter pushing and pulsating in the raw naked air. I will NEVER forget that moment.

I am American, and so you may justly accuse me of being a fear-monger, but I commute on my bicycle in San Francisco and have been hit by cars more than once. I'm extremely thankful that I had the good sense to wear a helmet because I would otherwise have suffered massive head injuries.

Should there be a law? That's not for me to say, obviously. But as much as I like to watch the golden locks of young Danish women flow about in the air as they ride down the street, I think that the Danish mind is even more valuable and I hope that you have the sense to protect your most important asset. Vi ses!

Mikael said...

amigosito: a helmet is designed - and limited to - protecting a head from non-life threatening injuries in solo accidents under 20 km/h.

get hit by a car and a helmet is of little use. so in the unfortunate incident on amagerbrogade a helmet would have been of little use.

helmets aren't even designed to save lives so please don't go around telling people they are. that's more dangerous than anything else.

regarding brain injury, you in your helmet have a higher risk of getting one than me, who cycles without. plus, your risk of accident is higher than mine.

make your choice, but do so with some balanced respect for science instead of just "belief".

Anonymous said...

Timbo is wrong. In comparison to European cities, cycling is not booming in Australia. Weekend lycra cycling by middle aged men is booming. The difference in the number of people cycling regularly pre and post helmet laws is pretty clear and much lower than it was against trends elsewhere to the contrary. It is a clear and well-documented warning to other jurisdications seeking to introduce mandatory use. The cycle of fear being peddled by government and taken hook line and sinker by most has ensured that cycling is considered a highly dangerous activity. As a result, Australian children no longer ride bikes to school, in many cases they are not allowed to by schools and are very close to being the fattest children in the world. Governments have spent millions trying to convince us of the absolute certainty that cycling without a helmet is a deadly activity. They could have spent this money on separated lanes, safe storage at train stations (like in Holland) and other cycling infrastructure.

The key cause of death of the few people who lose their lives in Australia while cycling is apparently that they are literally run over from behind by vehicles. Sadly, helmets do nothing to protect the rider in such situations. Much better to mandate visibility than a manufactured-in-China-to-dubious-standards egg on head.

I have occasionally forgotten to wear a helmet whilst peddling around my neighbourhood (I spend a lot of time in Europe where I don't even consider wearing one) and have been abused in the street by random passersby... weird, like I kicked a puppy or something.

Melbourne has recently introduced a public bike sharing facility alongside mandatory helmet laws. There are many who feel the scheme may be the first of its kind to fail. It's a shame and so unnecessary.

Avoid the introduction of bike helmet laws in your cities at all costs.