Bicycle helmets II
There's a lot of bicycle helmet activism going on these days ... it's a big issue, trying to force riders, by law or moral suasion, to wear a helmet.
I don't get it. What's going on? Why are my friends are so horrified when I ride bare-headed, especially when there are lots of other things that don't horrify them? In fact, I bet they'd laugh at me if I decided to wear a helmet when driving, even though, to me, it doesn't seem that much different.
Last month, I asked for a "framework" for how you decided that helmets should be worn (for those of you who believe that). I figured this was a good audience to ask, since we're a group that has repeatedly tried to set frameworks for other questions, like Hall of Fame credentials. We criticize those who want Jack Morris in the Hall, because we don't see any principle by which Morris belongs but, say, Rick Reuschel doesn't. If you consider that helmetless riding belongs in the societal "Hall of Shame," then, I asked, what's the principle by which helmetless driving doesn't?
I didn't really get any serious answers, either here or at Tango's blog. I did get a few responses that tried a justification, but that don't hold up.
One answer was, riders should be forced to wear helmets because, when they get injured, it imposes costs on the rest of society -- such as, for instance, the cost of medical care. But ... almost all activities impose costs on others. People get hurt riding even with a helmet, and people get head injuries in car accidents. Why are those things OK for society to pay for, but not riding without a helmet?
In fact, I bet just one baseball pitcher costs society more than ten helmetless riders. Arm injuries are pretty much inevitable for pitchers. How many extra medical appointments do you think the average pitcher uses up? But we don't ban pitching.
At best, the "it imposes costs" explanation is just question begging. At worst, it's an attempt to deflect the question by asserting a principle that we're not actually willing to follow.
Another answer I got was, "because that's what society determines is unacceptable." Which, again, is begging the question. No religious activist would accept that abortion should be legal because "society" has "determined" it's "acceptable". And no gay person would accept those reasons for why he shouldn't be allowed to marry his partner.
This answer is actually indistinguishable from "because we say so." It differs only in that it uses bigger words that make it sound like it means something meaningful and important.
A third answer I've heard is, "I had a really bad accident and a helmet saved my life." A good friend here in Ottawa actually told me that -- he wiped out and broke his collarbone, among other injuries, and it took him a long time to recover. The crash broke his helmet into two pieces, he said.
But ... that's not really a principle. It's an anecdote. I think everyone should understand that one person's experience shouldn't bind the rest of us.
Just to hammer home the point ... here's an actual news story about a child that was shot while riding in a car -- but she survived because a bible slowed the bullet down. Her sister was spared because the bullet later lodged in a watermelon on the child's lap.
Should we legislate that we all carry watermelons on our laps from now on?
With respect, these rationalizations are pretty weak. It does seem to me like many respondents started with the conclusion -- *of course* you should wear a helmet! -- and then tried to build a set of principles around it, which didn't test out.
I think it also goes to show that the issue is sensitive and emotional, when a community that's so used to objectively analyzing conventional wisdom still comes up with these kinds of responses. If someone had made these arguments about wearing a helmet when *walking*, I think the flaws would be pointed out in seconds.
What I was expecting was something to do with risk, with costs and benefits. And that did come up. A few people pointed out, reasonably, that the risk of helmetlessness was higher for bicycling than for driving. From there, I expected the discussion to start talking about the actual risks. Maybe someone would look up some numbers, and say, "helmets would save X lives for bicycling, but only Y lives for driving, and I believe the cutoff for forcing people to wear them should be between X and Y." And then, we could go from there, trying to figure out what the threshold should be, just like we try to figure out the threshold for Hall of Fame admission.
But that didn't happen. I don't think *anyone* talked about how big the risk has to be, even in broad terms. I don't think there was any serious attempt to set a principle.
As for benefits ... I think someone mentioned that helmets in cars were a bigger inconvenience -- and therefore bore a bigger cost -- than the inconvenience of helmets for cyclists. I'm not sure about that ... why would it be different? It's the same helmet! Regardless, if you acknowledge that comfort and convenience are factors, then, shouldn't you try to figure out how high the costs are for cyclists? Clearly, riders without helmets at least appear to have different preferences than other riders. So the costs aren't obvious.
And people are different. If I love cucumbers and you don't, and I want to pass a law forcing everyone to eat cucumbers because they have health benefits ... it'll take you about ten milliseconds to tell me, emphatically, that you hate cucumbers and who am I, who loves them, to force my preferences on you? But, for bicycle helmets, the issue never even came up.
As for the costs ... on almost any scale, the risk of helmetless cycling is small. Here's an article that claims a helmet can save around 30 percent of cycling deaths. (It's not clear from the article, but I believe that's comparing 0% helmets to 100% helmets.)
Is 30 percent big? No way. 30 percent is nothing. I'm pretty sure that riding at night increases risk by at least 30 percent. I'd bet you that riding in rush hour traffic increases risk by at least 30 percent. I'd bet you that riding fast increases risk by at least 30 percent. In fact, I'd bet riding on the roads, instead of bicycle paths, increases risk by at least double.
Do you want to ban those, too? If you don't, then, since the cost higher, you must believe the benefit is higher, too. Fine. But it's different for different people. I don't like riding at night, and I seldom do it. Banning night riding costs me almost nothing. Banning helmetless riding costs me a lot.
If you want to allow night riding but not helmetless riding, logic forces you to admit that you are weighing someone else's benefit more than mine. You're not tallying the actual cost to me, but, rather what you think the cost to me *should* be. I *should* be willing to ride at night, because, that's worth the risk! But not riding without a helmet, because that's not!
In fact, it's the very definition of unfair: banning something for no reason except that we believe you shouldn't want to do it.
Now, you could come back with this response: OK, we acknowledge that you hate wearing helmets, and the risk isn't that big. But, Phil, you're just being obstinate. Once you wore a helmet, you'd get used to it, and your cost would drop to zero! Long term, the benefit way outweighs the cost. The law is our way of forcing you to give it a try!
That's the most reasonable argument I can think of, and I was expecting to get that from my original post. And, you know, it may be true, that once I started wearing a helmet, I'd get used to it.
But I might not. And even if I do, who's to say that the benefit even outweighs the temporary unpleasantness?
More importantly, do you want to live by that principle for everything? Are you willing to submit to it yourself?
"Candy is unhealthy, so we're going to ban it. You may not want us to ban it, but you'll get used to it and be glad you're not eating it." "McDonald's is icky, so we're going to ban it. You might not like eating at nicer restaurants at first, because they cost more and they're slower, but eventually you'll get used to it and not mind the extra time and money." "PBS political specials may be boring, but they broaden your mind and make the population better informed, so we'll fine you if you don't watch them. Don't worry, eventually you'll actually start to enjoy them."
There are literally hundreds of things you do in your life that increase your risk of something bad happening, and many of those you'd eventually get used to not doing. That doesn't mean it's right for me to ban them.
And what about just riding less? A safety factor of 30 percent means that seven trips without a helmet is just as risky as ten trips with a helmet.
Suppose your spouse or child is the one commuting without a helmet, and that concerns you. You want him to wear a helmet, so you don't worry. You know he really, really hates helmets, and he'd never get used to one, but you want him to wear one anyway.
He things about it, and finally he says,
"You're right, the risk of riding without a helmet is higher, and I know you're concerned about my safety. But I hate helmets, so I'm going to reduce the danger another way. Instead of commuting to work by bike five days a week, I'm going to commute to work only three days a week, and take the bus the other two days. So I'll reduce my risk, not just the 30 percent you wanted, but a whole 40 percent! That's even though I'd rather ride all five days. See how much I love you?"
Would you be happy? Remember: the overall risk is LOWER than if he commuted daily with a helmet.
I'm betting you wouldn't be much happier at all. Can you say why?
Here's another test. How fast do you drive? Faster than the speed limit?
If you drive 10 km/h (6 mph) over the limit, then, according to an Australian study, you increase your chances of having an accident -- not by 30 percent, but by over 400 percent. Now, that sounds too high. Another estimate (on the same web page) suggests it's only 30 percent, which sounds too low.
I bet the real number is somewhere in between ... but never mind. The point is, speeding is riskier than riding without a helmet, relatively speaking.
And, yes, I know speeding is already illegal. But it doesn't carry the same social stigma. I have had friends berate me for not wearing a helmet. If I berated them for driving 10 km/h over the limit, they'd think I was a creep. They'd tell me to mind my own business, and they'd probably avoid me. And they'd be right ... nagging someone for speeding is socially unacceptable.
That's true even though other people have a vested interest in your highway speed, since you're putting the rest of us at risk, not just yourself. And, even though that risk is higher than for riding a bike without a helmet.
My friend feels like he's doing a good deed by nagging me ... but I'm a creep if I nag back.
Clearly, it's not about the risk. It's something specific about the helmet. It's arbitrary.
More in a future post.