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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