Monday, February 25, 2013

Bicycle Helmets IV

(Warning: non-sports post, including speculation on subjects on which I have no expertise.  Read at your own risk.  (I'll try to be back with a sports post soon.)  This is part IV ... here are parts one, two, and three.)


On Friday, you decide to take the day off work to go golfing.  Your boss objects, because you have an important report to finish for Monday morning.  You tell him you plan to come in tomorrow and finish it, and even Sunday if necessary. Your boss is satisfied with that. 

You decide you want to take the family to Disneyland.  Your wife objects that money is too tight.  You answer, you've decided to keep your car an extra year, and you've already quit your $4-a-day latte habit.  That's more than enough to cover the trip.  Your wife is satisfied.

On your next bike ride, you're not wearing a helmet.  Your friend says, that's risky!  You reply that riding without a helmet is only 40 percent riskier than with a helmet, and that you're compensating by riding less, and not at night.  Your friend is NOT satisfied.  He thinks you're dangerous and irrational.


Why the difference?  How come, in the first two cases, it's OK to make a trade-off, but in the third it isn't?  How come, when it comes to work and money, it's OK to evaluate based on achieving an objective ... but, when it comes to bicycling risk, it's not?

I've been thinking about it, and I've concluded that it's not really about risk at all.  It's about following a moral code.  Wearing a helmet has kind of established itself as the only right thing to do, kind of an ethical law.  

It seems to me that when you find tradeoffs are frowned upon, it's because of morals.  It's wrong to commit a murder, even if I save a thousand starving Africans to compensate, because murder is immoral.  It's wrong to commit adultery, even if I compensate by treating my wife like a queen afterwards.  It's wrong to cheat on an exam, even if I deliberately score lower on my next exam to make up for it.  

When there are moral issues, the bottom line doesn't matter -- the ends can't justify the means.

In terms of helmets, risk barely figures into it at all.  Suppose I got rid of the helmet, but started reducing my risk by riding only half as much.  But you get so outraged that I can't do that any more.  So, I give in.  I put on a helmet, but resume my normal riding schedule.  My risk actually rises 40 percent ... it drops 30 percent for the helmet, but then rises 100 percent for the extra riding.  But you don't care.  You're satisfied, even though my risk has gone up.

Because: without the helmet, I was breaking a rule.  With the helmet, I'm not.  It's morally OK for me to take on more risk, as long as I do it with a helmet on.


There are lots of other things that are rationalized as practical issues, but treated with the non-negotiability of moral issues.  

Suppose I refuse to recycle, because I think it's too much hassle.  Instead, I decide to cut down on the packaged goods I buy.  Instead of canned pop, I switch to tap water.  I switch all my utility bills to electronic delivery, and I buy a Prius.  I convincingly show you that doing all these things have done much, much more for the environment than if I just recycled.

My guess is: you're not buying it.  You're going to feel like, when I throw a pile of newspapers in the garbage instead of the blue bin, I'm doing something morally wrong, and I'm using these other things to try to justify my immoral behavior.  

There are others ... "wasting food" is a big one.  Yes, people are starving in Africa.  Is it OK to "waste" $1 worth of food if I send $5 worth to Africa?  No.  It's better to eat the $1 worth of food and send nothing to Africa.  Because it's not about the starvation, it's about the moral principle that you don't waste.


Another aspect is that when something becomes a moral issue, it moves from a "how much" issue, to a "yes or no" issue.  

It doesn't matter a whole lot *how much* I smoke ... a pack a day won't get me 20 times more disapproval from you than a cigarette a day.  It doesn't matter *how much* I drive without a seat belt ... a trip to the corner store gets me the same lecture from the cop as a five-hour drive.  And it doesn't matter *how much* extra risk there is in riding without a helmet.  Because it's no longer about how much; it's about the fact that I would dare to consider it acceptable at all.  

That's why there's so much outrage about "light" cigarettes.  Even if they *are* less dangerous -- which I believe is true -- they're considered no less immoral.  To some people, talking about "light cigarettes" is a lot like talking about "light rape".

Even worse, the outrage continues when there's almost no danger at all.  There's a new product called "e-cigarettes," which look like cigarettes, and emit smoke-like vapors (which are really just water).  They can be used as a nicotine-delivery system, like gum or a patch, with little to no risk.

But ... some people want to make them illegal.  Because, for those people, it has never really been about the risk, or the effects of smoking.  The taboo, and moral crusade, is now about the *act* of smoking.  "You shouldn't smoke because it's too dangerous" has morphed into "you shouldn't smoke because smoking is evil, and we'll use danger as a rationalization."  That's the only way that you could argue that taking a cigarette-shaped piece of plastic, and blowing water vapor out of it, is an activity that needs to be banned.  Especially when it has the power to save lives by making it easier to quit.  


Robin Hanson has written extensively about "signalling." That's when an activity is done not so much for its own sake, but to display something about yourself that would otherwise be invisible.  I think that's what's happening here.  I think it's mostly a desire to identify yourself as belonging to a particular peer group, or social/political group, that thinks helmets are a good idea.  It's saying, "I'm one of us -- the type that's intelligent enough to know that helmets reduce risk, and understand that it's a good idea to wear them."  It's the way you signal to the world that you're a thoughtful, high-status Ken Dryden-type, and not a low-status Don Cherry-type, the type that's too shortsighted to care about his own brain.

For that to work, you have to treat helmet-wearing as obvious and non-negotiable.  If you start arguing open-mindedly about risk numbers, you send the wrong signal.  You show that your position on helmets is iffy, that it's not an obvious moral issue, that maybe you're not as Drydenish as the rest of your group.

It's like ... let's say I'm a famous and well-respected political pundit.  And I say, "You know, the KKK thinks black people are less intelligent than whites.  I'm going to go and study that, and see if they're right."  

My career is over.  Instantly.  And it's over if even, next month, I come back and say, I've looked over all this data, and I've studied it from 100 different angles, and you know what?  It's not true at all.  Those KKK guys have been intellectually dishonest!"

The world would still see me as a potential racist.  Why?  Because I was willing to *consider* the idea that the moral issue was negotiable.  I gave the signal that I care about the bottom line -- whether or not the statement is true -- more than I care about the moral principle that you shouldn't say things like that.


In a way, these kinds of moral issues take on certain aspects of religion.  We pick a side, embrace its position, and signal our adherence.  We get very uncomfortable when challenged.  We have to be that way -- our signals are judged relative to others.  In a world where the accepted signal is immediate disapproval, an open mind sounds like something the other side would do.  

And considering trade-offs, costs and benefits ... you can't do that at all.  As soon as you let in the possibility that your moral principle could be anything less than absolute -- even in theory -- you're denying the moral imperative.  If you talk about costs and benefits, you're signalling, "I might be willing to give up my ethics for the right price."

Suppose you're a high-ranking public relations person at MADD.  You talk about all the damage drunk driving does, and how the drinking age should be higher, and how there should be more roadside testing, and so forth.  

And then someone asks if it should be illegal to drive after even one drink.  And you say, "no, we don't go that far."

And the response is: "OK, what's the tradeoff?  At one drink, the risk increases maybe Z%.  That's X deaths a year.  That, you say, is OK.  But, you believe that anything over .05%, which results in Y deaths a year, is not OK.  Tell us where your cutoff is, and why.  What number of deaths is a reasonable, albeit tragic, price to pay?"

You have to duck the question, if your goal is to treat drunk driving as a moral principle.  You can't start arguing that it's only bad if it causes more than X deaths.  Because then you're arguing about what X should be, which is not compatible with ethical imperatives.  Moral standards don't depend on numbers.  Moral standards can't admit grey areas.

Ask a Rabbi, "If there were very strong evidence that the bible had been mistranslated, and God actually required pork instead of banning it, would you have a BLT?  How strong would the evidence have to be?"

Ask a career anti-smoking activist, "If they figured out an additive to add to tobacco that would make smoking less unhealthy, would you be less opposed to smoking?"

Ask an anti-drug crusader, "How much would decriminalizing heroin have to reduce the total harm, in order for you to come out in favor of it?"

And, ask a bicycle helmet advocate, "How low would the risk have to be for you to change your mind about helmet laws?"

You won't get an answer from any of them.  Even admitting there's a cost/benefit issue is forbidden, much less actually trying to quantify one.  The best you'll get, sometimes, is something absurdly low, one that runs no chance of happening.  "I'd repeal helmet laws if it was only one extra death per decade."  


Usually, abiding by these moral principles require you to conduct your personal life a certain way -- in other words, to pay a cost, to make a sacrifice.  You have to wear a helmet.  You have to recycle.  You have to go to church.  You have to pay a little more for fair-trade coffee.  

And most of those things are public -- which, they'd have to be, if the main purpose is to signal.  Everyone can see you're wearing a helmet.  Everyone in church sees you're there.  Everyone notices your recycling bins, and your reusable cloth shopping bags.  

But the interesting thing about the signalling is ... the sacrifice is only a small part of the signal.  The most important part of the signal is to *not admit you're sacrificing*.  You have to pretend that it's no trouble at all, and you couldn't imagine doing anything different.  

You're active in your church, and very well-regarded by your fellow worshippers.  You go to church every Sunday, and you think everybody should, and you often lament at how attendance is on the decline.  

But, then, one day, you admit, "You know, I really hate going to church.  Most of it is boring, and it cuts into my golf time.  And I have to get up early, which I don't like, and I have to dress up.  But, I guess, that's the kind of sacrifice you have to make, because God wants it."

You look a little bit less devoted now, don't you?  

In a way, you'd think it should be the reverse.  If you go to church every Sunday even though you don't like it, shouldn't that show that you're sacrificing *more* to the cause, and so you're *more* devoted?  But it doesn't.  

Because, you're not going to church to signal that you go to church.  You're going to church to signal that you're the type of person who *likes* going to church, the type of person who goes to church willingly and enthusiastically.  Signalling is "a method of conveying information ... by performing an action which is more likely or less costly if the information is true than if it is not true".  By going to church, you're implicitly saying, "Look, I must be devout.  Would an immoral atheist be doing this week after week?"  You're saying, "look at how I can do this *without* sacrificing."

It's the outgroup that has to sacrifice -- the group that you're trying to signal you're not one of.  The guy next door, who's not religious.  You tell him he should go to church.  He says, "I hate it -- it's boring, and it cuts into my golf time, and I have to get up early and dress up."  And you reply, "It's for God.  You should make the sacrifice and do it anyway."

You're signalling two things here: first, that you abide by the moral principle of going to Church enough that you think other people should do it too, and, second, that you'll still be superior to your neighbor even if he makes the sacrifice you want him to, because, even though he does what he should, he doesn't really *want* to.  

So, I doubt you'll ever hear Al Gore, or David Suzuki, say, "you know, I really hate recycling.  Those cans are dirty, and they stink, and it's such a pain in the butt.  It would be great if we found a way to just throw these things in the garbage while still saving the planet."  

That won't look good.  See, you're supposed to WANT to recycle.  You're supposed to LIKE recycling.  If you're environmentally enlightened, the pleasure you get from walking to the bin, and taking it out every week, are worth it, for the glow you get for doing the right thing.  It's only a pain in the butt to the people who don't like doing it, the enemies of the planet.  

To an environmentalist, not liking recycling is like not liking dogs and babies.  It's not something you look good admitting.

What led me to start thinking about this is that I didn't understand why hardly any of the helmet advocates, in any of the other helmet posts, ever mentioned how they find helmets uncomfortable, or inconvenient, or unwieldy, or that they wish they didn't have to wear one.  It struck me as strange.  Helmets *are* uncomfortable and inconvenient, which is why we choose not to wear them when we drive, or walk, or even when we're making repairs up on our roof (when they would actually make sense!).  

But, I think this is the reason.  If you admit that you dislike helmets, but you wear them anyway because of the risk, you're detracting from the signal that you're an enlightened, educated, sensible, safety advocate.  You're mostly just signalling that you don't want to hurt your head.



At Monday, February 25, 2013 6:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may find this article relevant. It defines different kinds of tradeoffs in moral psychology: "Taboo tradeoffs", "tragic tradeoffs" and "routine tradeoffs".

The reason people don't accept your arguments is because you want to treat it as a routine tradeoff, when many, if not most, people would consider it a taboo tradeoff.

At Monday, February 25, 2013 6:53:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Thanks!!! That description sounds exactly like what's happening. I'll check out the article.

At Monday, February 25, 2013 8:01:00 PM, Blogger Brian Burke said...

I was going to suggest something similar to that article above. I was thinking of the 'disgust' instinct. Jonathan Haidt refers to it as the sanctity/degradation/purity component of morality.

I think paternalists aren't really motivated by concern for their fellow man as much as a 'disgust' response to the behavior of others. Guys like NY mayor Bloomberg can delude themselves into thinking that banning large sodas is the right thing to do for the love of their brother, but the reality is that they are simply offended by fat hicks drinking 44-ounce Big Gulps from 7-11.

They impulsively find it repugnant. They are motivated by their judgment of others rather than a concern for well being.

At Monday, February 25, 2013 9:00:00 PM, Blogger Phil Birnbaum said...

Hmmmm ... that makes sense. It does seem to me these days that people are a lot more disgusted by others than they used to be. Democrats never used to think of Republicans as stupid, and vice-versa.

It's just a human tendency, I guess, to try to force the "other" on the right path. People used to hate comic books, and make up reasons to ban them from the unenlightened. Now they've switched to Big Gulps.

At Tuesday, February 26, 2013 1:13:00 PM, Anonymous rcbuss said...

I see the Big Gulp-ban as a natural follow-up to the trans-fat ban and smoking ban that NYC has instituted. Increased taxes on tobacco products has also had an impact on the number of people who choose to smoke.

I think what we're seeing is a shifting of responsibility to the individual for doing what they can to maintain their health.

I see it with employers offering lower health insurance premiums to employees who quit smoking. Anyone who has applied for life insurance sees it, as well.

As the cost of health care continues to increase, I can see why cities who pay for the health care coverage of their employees would want to reduce their chances of developing somewhat avoidable medical problems, and potential complications of them, such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, sleep apnea, emphysema, lung cancer, colon cancer, etc.

At Wednesday, February 27, 2013 11:15:00 AM, Anonymous aweb said...

You know what else is uncomfortable and inconvenient? Pants. Don't you just hate pants?

I wear a helmet when I ride my bike because it's the law (ticket avoidance) and I'd rather be safer on a particular bike trip than try to plan out my lifetime biking totals in advance, which seems to be your plan to offset not wearing a helmet. That seems absurd to me. People buy fuel-efficient cars and drive more, thereby wasting the efficiency. People don't behave rationally or in their own best interest, and they certainly don't make long-term plans for total transportation mileage and time needs.

Are helmets uncomfortable? I suppose, but a lot of clothing isn't comfortable (stupid pants). Heck, just sitting on a regular bike seat is way more uncomfortable than a helmet. Are they inconvenient? Compared to what? More inconvenient that no helmet, yes. But not really more inconvenient than carrying a bike lock around.

Oh, and I worked with anti-smoking addiction counsellors for years. They would love it if you could have less harmful cigarettes (the electronic ones, the gum, the lozenge, they'll try anything). The nicotine is not the harmful part of smoking. Hell, nicotine on its own is not even a drug of abuse or particularly addictive(you can buy straight nicotine in the drug store, but barely anyone does that unless they are trying to not smoke. That makes it almost the only widely available, cheap drug that isn't abused by a significant number of people), it's the combination of the nicotine with the rest of the chemicals. Light cigarettes haven't shown they are less harmful to those smoking them. There have been extensive studies, and almost certainly massive ones by the companies themselves that they couldn't get to show what they wanted (a less dangerous cigarette would be marketing gold). Your reasoning in the other post sounds fine, but hasn't held up to observations yet.

Addressing your two examples at the beginning:
You go golfing and don't finish the report - obvious and direct consequences.
You lied and don't actually save money - no disneyland for you.
In both of these, there is a deeply personal consequence for not doing what you say. You are trading future joy (disneyland) for present suffering (spending cutbacks), or trading current joy (golf) for future suffering (report writing). Those trade-offs make sense to people intuitively, since you are being held to your “agreements” by outside forces (wife, family, boss). In the biking example, there are no outside forces. You ride your bike just as much anyway – nothing happens except you put yourself at greater risk. If you could set a bike to certain number of miles allowed a month, and get 40% more by putting on a helmet, would you?
Your "I'll just bike less" sounds like a failed dieter who claims they'll keep eating terrible food, but just have less of it. There's no way to verify or check your bike mileage, but your helmet use....easy. This is a lot of argument for something that boils down to "I don't wanna', and you shouldn't make me".

At Friday, March 01, 2013 1:49:00 PM, Anonymous skyjo said...

This fellow usually presents his view points in a well reasoned way, and here's his brief take on helmets:

At Friday, March 08, 2013 2:30:00 PM, Blogger dan said...

Excellent article & comments..I think B. Burke has an essential point the 'disgust' reaction is in play. In the examples given we have slipped from analyzing the risk rewards of a action to - moral judgment which , according to Emotivisim are the types of statements that can't be true ot false..
akin to I love Broccoli or Broccoli disgusts me...

At Friday, March 08, 2013 3:11:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing up these articles on helmets.

You're basically exposing the expanding rift between rational thinkers and emotional thinkers. Traditionally, rational thinking is what improved our quality of life. We'd identify an underlying principle, expand upon it, test it and apply it. As an example, man created calculus, and we used it land people on the moon (i.e., "A Conversation With Peter Thiel", I'm not sure why, but increasingly it seems that people are along for the ride and less thoughtful about these frameworks. We've become much more reliant on anecdote and our feelings/disgust emotions. The more advanced of this line will throw a thousand ideas against the wall and see what sticks via statistics yet neglect the underlying pattern recognition.

As a libertarian and a somewhat rational thinker, this scares the hell out of me. On a myriad of social issues, our policy makers no longer examine an issue from an analytical framework as you have. Rather, they trot out a tragic anecdote and "waive the bloody shirt" to instill an emotion and get what they want. Of course, this leads to ever-increasing safety drives (e.g., TSA, helmet laws, size of govt) at the expense of individual decision-making.

Finally, most logical thinkers lose these arguments because they get lost in talking about public health, specific principles, etc. The emotional thinkers aren't listening. Instead, they are seeing themselves as "enlightened" because they can get beyond these details. I think the best approach may be to use their emotional style against them. Perhaps, simply call them "idiots that can't do math" and leave it as that. ... end rant

At Monday, March 11, 2013 8:28:00 AM, Anonymous WaLi said...

I am late to the show, but thought this was a great read and it got me thinking. Here is my response:

When I used to cycle, I never used to wear a helmet. This was mainly due to the fact that I was in college and didn't have one, but also because when I rode my bike (cheap $200 road-type bike) it was mainly from home to school or just out for a leisurely ride. I would only ride on the sidewalk or bike paths.

When I graduated I gave that bike to my friend and eventually bought a mountain bike with my wife. I bought a helmet at this time, although I was slightly pressured into it because of my wife. However I also remembered this one time I was mountain biking (on a huffy) and almost flipped over and woudl have landed on my head, so I felt like the concern was valid. Now I always wear my helmet mountain biking because of the increased risk of falling due to the nature of the sport.

As far as road biking goes same type of deal. If there is an increased risk, I am wearing my helmet. That means if I am biking on the road, which is 90% of the time. The other 10% of the time which is if I'm only biking on bike trails, I may not wear a helmet. However it is hard to determine when I start whether or not I am only going to bike on the bike trail. Maybe I'm feeling good and want to go further so I bike on the road a bit. I'm going to wish I had that helmet; therefore I almost always wear my helmet. I may have felt the helmet was a little more uncomfortable at first, I honestly can't remember, but it doesn't really bother me. It's just part of the gear.

So what I'm saying is that my framework would take into the account the risk of the event. As your coroner report determined, most of the deaths occurred with a motorist. So let’s just limit it to:
1. If you bike on the road, a helmet is mandatory.
2. If biking on a sidewalk or bike trail, a helmet would not be mandatory.
3. However, kids are more precious, so they would always be required to wear a helmet.

At Monday, March 11, 2013 6:31:00 PM, Anonymous SVB said...

Here are a variety of comments on the framework and justification of bicycle helmets. Thanks for posing it.

Bicycle policy is not just about helmets, just as car safety is not just about seat belts. Both use a multi-pronged approach for making the experience safer. In cars, we banned rear-mounted gas tanks, we require seat belts, headlights, etc. and we developed a system that helps standardize traffic flow to make it predictable, and thus safer. When use shows there is a problem, we attempt to fix it, like installing a new red light. Providing for safe use of common space is a well-accepted role of govt.

Bicycle safety is similar to this. Bike paths, bike lanes, "share the road" education campaigns, and bike helmets are all components of bicycle safety policy. Each is shown to reduce the risk to cyclists and others by some percent. Each is not equally effective on average, or in any situation. Bike paths may not be needed in areas with wide streets, low speed limits, and little traffic, which is why you wouldn't see them there. Phil asks, why don't my friends accept the trade off that I don't ride at night (presumably he has a light on your bike that would allow him to do so). The simple answer is that using the helmet reduces his risk of death or serious injury by 30% should he get into an accident during that ride, or any ride. Every time one gets on the bike, he improves his chances of surviving an accident by 30% if he wears his helmet, and the effort to do so, as opposed to constructing a bike path, is very minimal. Just as it takes minimal effort to wear a seatbelt, but much effort to retrofit my '67 Mustang with anti-lock brakes. The overall policy attempts to maximize liberty in some cases (bike paths) and maximize life (helmets).

The question, as noted by others, then becomes when is it worth it to attempt to compel people to wear helmets. The answer is "when it is reasonable to predict that the other conditions of bicycle use might lead to some threshhold of likelihood of an accident, or some severity of an accident should it occur even under low likelihood." What conditions make it more likely that an accident can occur? Inexperienced bike riders (thus the requirement for kids to wear helmets, but also should be adults who ride infrequently), wet roads, sharing the road with cars or many other cyclists, high speeds, narrow or poorly maintained roads, riding a bike anywhere in Puerto Rico, etc. So the helmet law might be made more conservative to only cover those particular instances. Some of these instances are easy to determine: kids wear helmets, you have to wear helmets on city streets in traffic, but how to determine "high speed on a bike path" or know if a road will be wet, or where a cyclist will go? Parsing the situation, although more fair, makes it very hard to codify. Better to install an overall helmet law and then let law enforcement determine where not to enforce it, like on bike paths at low speeds.

What is the likelihood that a bicycle rider will have an accident that causes injury at some point in time? I'd guess that likelihood is nearly 100%. Every cyclist I know (dozens, but not 100s) has an accident story. I know many car drivers that do not have accident stories, but those that do, have had greatly better outcomes because of safety equipment. Given that stat, rather than accidents per km traveled (which I don't think Phil actually provided), it probably makes sense to compel helmet usage. One could argue for compulsory helmets only in youth because that is when the accidents are more likely to occur, but after that the rate would have to drop quite low for adults.

At Monday, March 11, 2013 6:34:00 PM, Anonymous SVB said...

I should say, I live in Puerto Rico, and I had a bike here. I came to the conclusion that no amount of body armor made riding a bicycle safe, so I took my bike to my sister's house in a city with great bike paths, and gave it to her.

And although I don't find my helmet uncomfortable, I still don't like wearing it.


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