22 September 2010

The Vanity Myth - Go figure

Cartoon by Roald Als in the Danish newspaper Politiken. It reads: "You're free to play..."

I just don't get this Vanity Myth.

No matter how hard real bicycle advocates work at getting people onto bicycles there is always a little group of people - let's call them The Fear Minority - who claim that the primary reason for people not to wear bike helmets is... vanity.

That's it. Period. People who ride bicycles without a plastic hat are vain. They do so merely because of their hairdo or image. They are egocentric and arrogant and, as this little group of fear merchants will have you believe, they are shitting on the rest of society by acting so selfishly.

Seriously... is that all they got? Is that the best they can dream up?

The Vanity Myth is the singlemost telling clue that The Fear Minority are quite desperate. They are acutely aware that they don't have any conclusive scientific evidence to show, so they start a personal attack and attempt to wage a guilt-trip campaign against the rest of us. Declaring advocacy bankruptcy in the process.

All around the world we're in a race against time to get people onto bicycles. For the public health, for the common good, for rebuilding liveable cities. If wearing a helmet keeps someone on a bicycle, that's great. If not wearing a helmet keeps someone on a bicycle, that's great, too.

Unfortunately the latter group is subject to not only bullying on the streets from drafted 'disciples' but also from this Fear Minority themselves who, unfortunately, often have access to funding for campaigns. Not to promote cycling but to perpetuate the car-centric myth that cycling is somehow dangerous and that a plastic hat designed to protect the head against non-life threatening injuries in solo accidents under 20 km/h will magically protect you from certain death.

I've noticed that more often than not it is one individual who starts the neo-religious, ideological chanting. Spreading fear on a personal emotional crusade. For example, British Columbia's helmet law was started by one worried mother. The helmet law in Victoria, Australia was the work of one man. All around the world a few individuals are exhibiting enormous power and, in the process, reversing over a century of bicycle culture.

Even here in Denmark. A couple of people, here and there, fueled by personal emotions, are working hard at deconstructing the fact that cycling is safe, healthy and good for society. Like everywhere else, they sell their fear cheap to a couple of others and a bonfire is lit, on which the effigy of vanity is burned. A handful of journalists here. A couple of politicians there. You probably know your local versions.

It's never a good thing when facts and The Big Picture are overlooked in favour of the frail emotions of a handful of individuals. The Vanity Myth is an excellent, if not frightening, example.

I don't doubt that these people sincerely 'believe' they are doing a good thing but it doesn't take long before their belief is cemented and they are no longer capable of rational judgement. Especially if they succeed in recruiting followers. Then they are content to immerse themselves in the group and experience a declining need to explore and learn.

Imagine if our ancestors subscribed to this. Imagine a tribe - several families - of hunter-gatherers at their camp. The men are preparing for a hunt and sharpening spears and flint axes. The smaller children are helping, learning this vital skill. Nearby the women are sewing hides together into clothes for the coming winter.

Then imagine some schmuck walking around the camp tsk-tsking and shaking his or her head. "You could put your eye out on those sharp sticks..." Or "Sheesh, those needles could go right through your fingers and you could get an infection and DIE!"

Fortunately, Homo sapiens didn't listen to this minority. We wouldn't have evolved very far if we had.

The primary wish of The Fear Minority is, in my opinion, that everyone else become just like them. That we all happily subscribe to their worrying and adopt stern, disapproving looks and furrowed brows. That we share their unfounded fears. They seek a flock to which they can belong and, unfortunately, fear clubs attract members in our modern society. Intuitive messages, no matter how ridiculous, sell.

Frank Furedi's excellent book The Culture of Fear is an instruction manual for understanding how these people think and is an important tome for reversing western societies slide towards fear. Here on Copenhagenize, sociologist Dave Horton discussed Constructing a Fear of Cycling.

Not surprisingly, The Fear Minority's personal fears are often way off target. ABC has this article called Do We Worry About The Right Things? Why we fear what we fear.

This is the closing line of the article, perfectly summing it up:
"Less knowledge, more anxiety," says Grafman. "More knowledge, less anxiety."

The New York Times had an article last Friday called Keeping Kids Safe From the Wrong Dangers. It's about how parents are incredibly bad at assessing risk.

The five things they worry about the most? "Kidnapping, school snipers, terrorists, dangerous strangers and drugs."

The five things most likely to cause injury to children up to age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are: "car accidents, homicide (usually at the hands of someone they know), child abuse, suicide or drowning."

Do the fear minority cast their angst over motoring helmets or traffic calming? Mandatory all-age lifevest laws? Nah. That just may be logical.

Perhaps these people could band together and move to some remote camp together, somewhere in the mountains. (Nah... danger of falling rocks...) Or maybe the Amazon. (Nah, sure death by piranha fish...) Okay... some massive building with padded walls, sanitized for all bacteria. Then could live happily every after... and slowly 'safe' themselves into oblivion.

The Fear Minority invades your home, too. PUT YOUR MONEY ON THE TABLE... And here's a bet from Copenhagenize. There will never be a city that promotes (or legislates) bicycle helmets that will ever reach double digit modal share for bicycles.

Any takers?


portlandize.com said...

Mhmmm. Exactly.

Green Idea Factory said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brian said...

You make a reasonable argument against mandatory helmet laws or safety campaigns highlighting the danger of cycling. But what do I tell the Emergency Room doctor who came to our bike club meeting last month wanting assistance with a helmet safety campaign? He talked about his recent cases of treating local college kids who suffered bike accidents. (College kids are notorious for riding around while texting on their cell phones.) Should I ask for statistics on the injury rate? Recommend a campaign to teach college kids to cycle more carefully? This is not a theoretical question -- it is a real-world problem facing an ER doctor and a bike club in my small US city.

Green Idea Factory said...

Great addition to your long-running opera "Don't Fear the Bicycle", Mikael! Thumbs up!

I will leave it to the USA-and Canada-based commenters to mention details on how the League of American Bicyclicts, Transportation Alternatives, SF Bike Coalition, Active Transportation Alliance, People for Bikes, NYCDOT, the City of Toronto and the new Capital Bikeshare system - among others - all promote helmets with methods from the subtle, sober and understated to the manipulative and disingenuous.

bke said...


ER doctors see a lot of head injuries and they usually make the mistake of generalizing from their experience which leads to bias. I do not think that showing statistics will convince them... showing them statistics is like saying that what they see as a problem is not really a problem. This never works with people :-)

I think you should "agree" with them but point out that helmet promotion is probably not the best way to solve this problem.

If the problem is students texting while riding, then the campaign should be against texting while riding etc.

People tend to assume helmets are the answer because it seems more convenient than changing behaviour.

Kevin said...

Sounds like maybe there are some cyclists who fear they might have to wear a helmet. I wonder if back in the day, there was the same fear about the prospect of mandatory seat belts in cars. Did drivers fear that people would stop driving cars? No one seems to make a big deal that in some places there are laws making it mandatory to have front and rear lights when you bike at night. Crazy, right? I mean, why should anyone be afraid to ride in the dark? Not sure I want a mandatory helmet law... but I'm still going to wear my helmet when I bike.

portlandize.com said...

I suggest that we have to completely re-arrange how we think about the problem of bike-car collisions. We in the U.S. always come at the solution from the viewpoint "what can the cyclist do to be safer?"

What if, instead, we asked the question "how can we calm down the automobiles a bit so that they don't harm the other road users?"

Is it really the right of a human being to have convenience and speed even if in having it, they endanger other human life? I don't think so.

There are going to be those people who just simply do stupid things, no matter how they're getting around, and there are going to be fluke accidents - people fall down stairs and trip on the sidewalk and hit their heads way more often than they fall off their bikes and hit their heads - but if we make really safe places for people to ride their bikes (separated from fast-moving car traffic, smooth, not in the gutter with all the trash, going over sewer grates and manholes, with glass in them, etc - and with laws in place to protect cyclists and pedestrians), I think we would find that the head injury concern would all but vanish, except in the sporting realm.

It's way easier to force cyclists to wear helmets than to redesign roads and change laws, but the effects of the former are dubious at best, and the effects of the latter are brilliant, if done well.

Just look at Denmark and the Netherlands. Extremely minimal helmet usage, safest traffic in the world for all modes, including cyclists.

I'm not afraid of having to wear a helmet, per se - I'm afraid that, in requiring me to wear a helmet, my government is saying "sorry, we don't really care. have a nice day."

Green Idea Factory said...

Eyes-o-Portland: Your main thing is right on but I just want to make a few points:

* You identify automobilist entitlement, but then suggest bicyclists should be "separated from fast-moving car traffic". This seems inconsistent. Please explain in the form of an actual new design strategy which gives cyclists full freedom, does not impede emergency vehicles or surface public transport on major streets and which takes into account Peak Oil and finite quantities of lithium :-)

* Helmet-use and promotion is quite different in Denmark and The Netherlands you only have to look on the Amsterdamize and Copenhagenize Blogs to see the difference, and even after Mikael's liberal use of his Photoshop helmet filter. Also in this entry Mikael refers to the DCF which does promotes helmet use -- compare this to Fietsersbond in the NL.
Both are comparatively very safe for cycling.

Gary said...

Promoting and legislating helmet use are two entirely different things. I never ride without wearing a helmet. I always enjoy Mikael's fairly-well reasoned rants against helmet laws and have thought that, since I've ridden thousands of miles for over 40 years without ever needing a helmet to save my cabeza, maybe it was silly for me to continue the practice. Then, last Saturday, outside Santa Barbara, on my way home from the International Bike Film Festival on a lonely, dark stretch of two-lane road at about 10:30 pm I suddenly found myself sprawled in the middle of the road with scrapes all-over my left side, including the side of my helmet. There's no doubt that the helmet saved me from more serious injury and I'm glad that I chose to wear one, but it must remain my choice.
I wish that helmet laws were the worst example of social manipulation by fear; it's pervasive and costs society dearly.
What are the reasons to not wear a helmet?

sheffield cycle chic said...


John Adams http://john-adams.co.uk/ also has some interesting thoughts on mandatory seatbelt laws and argues that they haven't actually saved any lives merely transferred the risks to more vulnerable road users like cyclists and pedestrians. It is a theory called risk compensation whereby as making driving in a car is made safer it encourages risker behaviour
Similar behaviours have been observed in cyclists.

There is a very simple fairy tale that tells you all you need to know on this subject - The Sleeping Beauty-
Overprotective parents try to protect their daughter from risk and ultimately fail!

Robert P said...

Call it vanity, call it dignity, call it aesthetics, call it civility...

Of course the proponents of the vanity argument are being somewhat disingenuous, but why should the response to their position be to call it a myth?

What's so wrong with not wanting to look like a construction worker when I'm on my bike? (An ex-gf of mine refused to wear a high-viz jacket because she didn't "want to look like a Playmobil man", and she had a point.)

Today I'm wearing a green tweed jacket, chocolate brown corduroy trousers, brown shoes, green socks, and a pink and light brown shirt (and I'm riding my trusty black 3-speed Dutch bike- with a bell that matches my shirt and a crate that matches my jacket, as it happens!). To be honest, I think I look pretty sharp. Why would I spoil that by putting on a plastic hat?

Vanity? No. I'm under no illusions about my hottness. But I do like to make the most of what I've got. :)

Herzog said...

Most of the helmet-mongers who play the "vanity card" actually think that helmets look ridiculous, so it's very hypocritical.

Edward said...


portlandize.com said...

Green Idea Factory: I know there are differences between the NL and Denmark regarding helmets and promotion and all that, but I wasn't trying to make an exhaustive comment, just to make a general point.

As compared to Portland, where helmet usage sits at about 75%, and helmet usage in the "work commuter" group at probably 95%, no bike-related events can happen without mandatory helmets, and no public photo, video etc advertisement or information can appear without the people in it wearing helmets, even the situation in Denmark is somewhat different.

The point is, in both places they put emphasis on the infrastructure and law to support pedestrians and cyclists, and that causes a huge benefit.

By mentioning that bicycles should be separated from fast-moving traffic, what I meant was that bicycles should be given appropriate space both physically and in planning and law to allow them free movement and safety, not that they should be "removed to the existing sidewalks" or something like that. They should also be able to intermingle with cars when necessary without being seen as being "in the way" or impeding the imperative, speedy progress of traffic.

Anonymous said...

Gary: Are you wearing a helmet right now? If not, what are your reasons? For myself, I prefer to have good reasons to wear protective gear in any situation, rather than requiring good reasons not to. Val

Scanner said...

Vanity Indeed. And worse. We are cursed in Toronto (now in the midst of a municipal election) with a group who want to License cyclists and force them to be insured (like car drivers). This madness comes from the fear that they will have to share "their" roads with people on bicycles. They call themselves The Toronto Party and want to get rid of streetcars and build more motorways.

didrik said...

Here's a direct quote from Safe Bicycling in San Mateo County booklet. It covers a lot of traffic safety behaviors. In the small section on helmets, here's what they state:

"About 1000 American bicyclists die in crashes each year--and around three-fourths die from head injuries. Hundreds more suffer permanent brain damage. Many of these are experienced, careful riders--maybe just like you. And most of these injuries can be prevented with bike helmets.

You say a helmet is too much hassle? It'd make your head sweat? Give you hat-head? It's too expensive? You'd look like a geek? Think how good these sayings would look on your gravestone." (then there is a little cartoon of a gravestone that says "RIP He had nice hair"

Totally playing the vanity card and implying your are absolutely stupid to boot. Plus, I'd like to point out that they are stating actual stats but only part of the picture. There are also some outright lies. They leave out that 92 % of these fatalities are due to collisions with motor vehicles. Also, the 1000/year fatalities is a 70s era stat. It's been several hundred less for years. The "hundreds with permanent brain injury" is interesting too. Is it 200 or 999/year. It's classic though. When you want to show something is dangerous you show absolute numbers (because 1000 sounds like a lot). When you want to show it is safe you show rate (because 1 in 121,429 sounds safe).

The latest data is around 700 fatalities a year and the estimated cycling population in the US is an upward estimate of 85 million. Factor in that more than half of these fatalities are children riding out into traffic unexpectedly and you have (crude calculation) 350 "adults" killed out of 85 million. Now keep in mind this set of adults includes untrained, reckless riders, mountain bikers, road racers as well slow city cyclists. While I know that something bad could happen whilst cycling, one's odd's are pretty good.

sexify said...

@ Brian:

An ER doctor will also have seen far more patients admitted after motor crashes than the handful of bicycling injuries he's seen. It's a form of observation bias that we notice the out-of-the-ordinary events more than the commonplace.

Personally I'd like to think I'd draw his attention to the bigger picture problem of what's causing both injuries to both of these groups: high speeds, lousy driving and poorly thought-out streets. Instead of pinning the blame on the kids, he'd achieve much more by writing to the local politicians. (A doctor holds a bit more sway over these types than hoi polloi like you and I too.)


Brian said...

This is a good discussion. I'm not very compelled by the argument that promoting helmet use is the politically expedient way out and we should put our energies into better cycling facilities. I agree we should do the latter -- but this is a longterm process and doesn't remove the need for considering short-term fixes.

I find the arguments about injury rate much more compelling. I'm an engineer -- so I like numbers. I wish I had recent and trustworthy data on the injury rate for urban cycling in US cities compared to other activities. Does anybody have references?

(Sexify -- who you calling hoi polloi?)

Anonymous said...

I think it's important to note that many people in the USA don't actually get any bike riding training, or bike safety lessons. Most people learn as kids via the old "fall over and hurt yourself 100 times until you don't." I certainly rode for decades and only recently actually took a class on how to properly handle a bike! How to stop efficiently, how to look back correctly in traffic, etc. Whereas my Danish boyfriend tells me he had an afterschool bike safety class everyone attended for 4 days by his kommune. So let's be honest - most people do have low bike skills in the USA. And here in San Francisco, I do see a lot of people texting on bikes, talking on their cell phones as they weave in traffic - these are problems from which no helmet will save them.

Daniel said...

I think the risk to cyclists very much depends on the local culture. Drivers in Europe may be much more aware of cyclists then in the States. Helmets are extremely effective in the minor accidents that are most frequent in urban cycling, like when you get doored rather than hit by a truck.

In any case, I was disappointed in this article. I don't see any argument against helmet use beyond the adolescent rant of "get off my case, Mom." Also, the constant worry wort caricature is tiresome.

Green Idea Factory said...

@Daniel: The "American" Fear Patrol loves you because you compare it to "Europe", and - aside from the ridiculous generalization - which body or entity are you referring to? The helmet-makers and sellers love you because you say a helmet is "extremely effective" in, for example, protecting your head in a dooring before the approaching truck turns you into a meat patty. The God of The Obvious loves you because you do not mention infrastructure and vehicle design which - in addition to behaviour - would make it very unlikely that you would ever get doored. You are actually the "mom" that you complain of.

Anonymous said...

Isn't the answer that we freakin' need better vehicle design, better infrastructure, more driver and bike rider training - and the emphasis shouldn't be on helmets, but on STOPPING distracted driving/cycling?

Brian said...

I see two different schools of thought in this comment thread. One school is focused on the need for better infrastructure, cycling training, automobile design, etc. instead of helmet safety. The other school is suggesting that helmet campaigns are a wise choice given the current reality in many geographies. Some people (me) subscribe to both schools.

P.S. In addition to assisting with helmet safety campaigns, my local bike club also helps with a 1 week bicycle safety program that is offered through most of the local elementary schools. Yesterday I saw a dozen kids on bikes lead by 3 adults who were practicing safe cycling through intersections. Bikes and helmets are provided for the kids who don't have their own.

Anonymous said...

I can take the risk of gashes, road rashes and perhaps minor fractures (which are the only head injuries I can conceive helmets actually preventing) for the convenience of not carrying around an extra piece of equipment the size of my head everyday.

Cycling is not unusually productive of head injuries; helmets are not particularly effective against serious head injuries. Repeat ad nauseam.

Ryan said...

Great post.

Currently I am in a discussion on two newspapers here in Ontario with people who are stating helmets are a must.

No matter how many links & articles I provide them, they won't budge on their stance that helmets are a MUST.

When I suggest helmets for motorists, they never respond.

In October (2011), Ontario will have a Provincial election. Yesterday I emailed each of the four main parties to know where they stand on helmet laws.
Thus far I have only received one response, and they said it's not a priority.

The city of Lethbridge was looking at adding a city wide helmet law. It was voted down 7-0 because most were against it!

Ryan said...

A "great" website that shows BC's fear mongering at it's best is:

Protista said...

One of the problems of cycle helmets is that AFAICT, that helmets are neither designed nor constructed to cope with the energy of collisions with motor vehicles. They are designed to protect the cyclist's head when falling-off the bicycle at around 12 mph / 20 km/h. These are two quite different events. It seems highly unlikely that current designs of helmet will achieve much in a collision with a motor vehicle.

There is evidence that helmets may make rotational injuries worse than not wearing a helmet.

There are claims that wearing a helmet may influence the cyclist's own behaviour (risk compensation). There is also some evidence that wearing a helmet may affect other road users' behaviour and encourage some to pass closer than they might otherwise. It is of course those vehicles that pass too close that pose the greatest risk.

Now I'm no expert, but I respectfully submit that a serious in-depth consideration of the multiple factors involved in helmet safety must consider in detail a wide range of numerous but often unrelated aspects and would necessitate a multidisciplinary approach. Few single 'expert' opinions have this crucial multidisciplinary aspect and it is likely that when a single expert in a particular field expresses an opinion about the usefulness of cycle helmets that its overall value has to be considered in the light of the breadth of expertise of the expert.

Basically, what is required is multiple better multi-disciplinary research studies that show what the benefits and disadvantages are. But compelling cyclists to wear bits of uncomfortable, hot sweaty plastic of dubious value on their heads, is to ignore what the Dutch have known for a long time, that separation of cyclists from the primary danger - motor-vehicles is the true path to much increased cyclist safety.
Compulsory helmet wearing will inevitably deter many from cycling, when physical activity is declining in industrialised countries.

Participation in cycling reduces the general morbidity of the population and benefits society in numerous ways.