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Mandatory Helmet Laws Reduced Cycling Fatalities by 46% – Exposing the Latest Myth by Jake Olivier and Raphael Grzebieta

March 11, 2019

11 March 2019

Just when you thought these two notorious helmet zealots had done enough damage to Australia’s cycling participation and safety outcomes with their previous insidious and deceptive “studies”, Jake Olivier and Raphael Grzebieta back with their most outrageous deception ever. After debunking previous myths like helmets reduce the odds of head injuries by 70% and helmet laws saw head injuries reduce compared to arm injuries, the dastardly duo have returned with a study for the University of New South Wales that claimed helmet laws almost halved cycling fatalities upon their introduction. They also took the opportunity to slander those against the pernicious helmet law regime as an “ill-informed, small but vocal group of anti-helmet advocates who claim that the MHL has been a disaster for cycling in Australia” and “These advocates are no different to the climate change deniers and the anti-vaccination groups and belong in that same category of people that do not believe in scientific evidence. It would not matter what you present to such people. They will always live in denial.” Quite ironically, it’s Olivier and Grzebieta that don’t believe the science, hence, their continued crusade to create their own. When that fails, they straight out lie. Let’s pick them apart again.

HELMET LAWS SAW AN IMMEDIATE 46% REDUCTION IN FATALITIES AND AN ESTIMATED 1332 FEWER FATALITIES SINCE 1990

This is the classic fraudulent manipulation of statistics by Jake Olivier, and debunked in the report’s own conclusion: “In the absence of robust evidence showing a decline in cycling exposure following helmet legislation or other confounding factors, the reduction in Australian bicycle-related fatality appears to be primarily due to increased helmet use and not other factors.” The use of the term “robust” is Olivier’s way to dismiss the plethora of creditable evidence actually out there that shows cycling did reduce, and many other factors were in play.

1) Data from Victoria and New South Wales shows there was an immediate drop in cycling rates by 30% to 40% following the introduction of helmet laws, with teenagers seeing the largest decrease of 47%, and secondary school students 67%. Commuting by bicycle dropped roughly 30% to 40% as a percentage of mode share. Western Australia, two specific count points showed a 28% and a 36% reduction in cyclists between 1991/92 and 1995/96. That’s much of the 46% reduction in fatalities right there.

census-mode-share

2) In Victoria, total hospital admissions were 40% lower than pre-law while the percentage of those with head injuries fell by only 1.7 percentage points. Curiously, similar results were observed for pedestrians. Western Australia largely echoed Victoria with only 4.8% less serious head injuries. This confirms two things: overall participation did drop about 30% to 40%, and that increased helmet wearing made little or no difference to head injuries.

bike-ped-compare

bike-hi-wa1971

New Zealand shows a similar pattern when their helmet law started in 1994.

new zealand injuries before and after helmet laws

3) The report misleadingly suggests the helmet law transformed a zero helmet wearing population into a 100% wearing one, and only a helmet law would encourage people to wear a helmet. In fact, helmets were increasingly being worn in the preceding years and it took many years to reach a high percentage of wearing, either through compliance or participation attrition. Observed helmet wearing rates before the law were between 30% and 37%, depending on the state, and between 75% and 82% following the law. Note: that is a percentage of people cycling, so excludes people that stopped riding. If they continued cycling then the helmet law increased helmet wearing to about 50% of the pre-helmet law cycling population.

4) Fatalities were already on a downward trajectory, just as they were for other road users, notably motorists and pedestrians. These trends continued for all road users after helmet laws, which suggests general road safety improvements and safety campaigns at the time regarding speeding and drink driving were significant factors in reducing fatalities. From the late 1990s into the 2000s, safety continued to improve, except for cyclists. This is despite tougher enforcement and higher fines. In New South Wales in 2015, a 500% increase in fines and heavy policing directly saw cycling numbers drop without reducing injuries. Nationwide, fatalities increased too.

bike-fat1950

Australia Cycling Report – Australian Bicycle Council July 2004

5) The estimated 1332 lives saved is grossly inflated, being 50 per year, and seems deceitfully based on picking a high year 1988 (98 deaths) with a low year 1992 (41), and presuming 98 in total would continue to die every year without a helmet law. Except, helmet laws weren’t enforced nationwide until 1992, and in the immediate five years after, fatalities increased to 45, 59, 48, 57 and 52, respectively. There’s also the deceitful assumption that every cyclist before the helmet law would continue their exact same behaviour until today, and improvement in road conditions, bike lanes and awareness campaigns would cease. In fact, we know helmet use would have increased to near 100%, especially for sports and more serious cyclists, because it has in other countries. Only the slower, safer, urban types typically go without a helmet. In Canada, where provinces have different helmet requirements, a comprehensive study found that compulsory helmets had a minimal effect to reduce injuries.

6) The obsession over helmet wearing and their grossly exaggerated benefits has killed cyclists by luring them into situations they ordinarily would not risk, taking more risks in general, and has allowed governments to avoid the only true safety measure of separating cyclists from motorists. Western Australian hospital data shows overall hospital admissions increased after helmet laws even as helmet wearing increased. Of all the lives allegedly saved, it would have been much more with more attention on infrastructure and less on wearing a flimsy foam hat. If we were to be as deceitful as Olivier and Grzebieta, we could calculate, based on a 70% better safety record in parts of Europe and the approximate 1040 deaths in Australia since helmet laws, that Australia’s obsession with helmets over infrastructure has killed over 700 people.

7) In trying to prove that helmet laws reduced head injuries compared to arm injuries, their data shows cycling became more dangerous overall as both forms of injury increased, only that arm injuries increased at a more rapid rate (likely caused by the surge in popularity of weekend pack riding MAMILs). Things improved for both once infrastructure increased, more so for head injuries. This graph does not consider the reduced cycling activity after helmet laws either, so the injury rate was actually much higher.

raph-graph43pc

8) Olivier and Grzebieta are proven liars and manipulator of statistics to produce the conclusion they want. Grzebieta has often mentioned how the Netherlands is the most dangerous place to cycle in Europe and more dangerous than Australia, and bases this on data per population level, not per distance cycled. Also note the contempt he has for those that question him, and the sordid inference of Dutch cycling policy failure. Most Dutch fatalities are caused by motor vehicles and, as we’ve seen in Australia, forcing people to wear a foam hat is not the answer.

Raphael Grzebieta the liar on Netherlands cycling and mandatory helmet laws

Of course, we know the Dutch cycle far more often, and per distance cycled, Australia is far more dangerous.

Serious injuries per 100 million km cycled

THERE IS NO STRONG EVIDENCE THAT HELMET LAWS LEAD TO FEWER PEOPLE CYCLING

To quote Olivier: “It is one of those things where it has been repeated so many times that people just believe it to be true, and won’t question it because they’ve heard it so often”. So much for living in denial. It must be an illusion that all those countries with mass participation of cycling don’t have helmet laws. Australia’s bicycle use is roughly the same as the USA, and this graph clearly illustrates that helmet laws or excessive helmet promotion correlate to less cycling.

helmet wearing rates vs fatalities and safety in numbers

A survey in 2013 of Melbourne’s failed bike-share showed that helmets were a deterrent, either directly not wanting to wear one or “safety concerns” (helmets create a perception cycling is dangerous).Melbourne Bike Share Survey 2013

Of course, if people were happy to wear a helmet, then there’d be never any helmet fines, and certainly not a strictly enforced law with harsh penalties. There’s thousands of fines a year nationwide, which obviously would only represent a fraction of those going without a helmet, and failing to wear a correctly fitted helmet is the most common cycling law broken. The below graphs are from the city of Adelaide and the state of New South Wales.

offences-ade150123-3

nsw-fines160300-0400

Even in Australia, helmets are exempt in the Northern Territory on footpaths and bike-paths, and they have the highest per capita cycling rate in Australia and the best safety record. Thankfully they have resisted any temptation to change their sensible and enduring law on helmets following this dubious report, with Infrastructure, Planning and Logistics Minister Eva Lawler telling NT News, “Australia and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world with mandatory helmet legislation. In the Australian context, levels of cycling are relatively high in the NT, with 25.6 per cent of the population cycling in a typical week compared to 15.5 per cent nationally.”

IF LAWS WERE REPEALED, THERE WOULD BE A SUDDEN UPTAKE IN THE RATE OF SERIOUS HEAD INJURIES AND FATALITIES

Grzebieta goes on to say: “The subsequent increase in hospitalisation costs would further exacerbate the already overwhelming demand for crash trauma treatment at hospitals and cause a significant increase in health costs.” Blatant fear-mongering, if not an outright lie. Several countries have repealed helmet laws, notably Mexico, Israel, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Malta, and there’s no evidence of increased injuries and fatalities. That’s because those most predisposed to crashes and injury – sports and enthusiast cyclists – would always wear a helmet. They don’t need a law. As for crash trauma treatment in hospitals and increased health costs, that’s not only infinitesimal compared to the trauma and costs caused by motorists and their vast amount of head injuries, it shows you an insight into the warped and bigoted thinking of Grzebieta towards cyclists. He advocates for “five star roads” for motorists, whereas cyclists must do with a flimsy foam hat.

WE ARE HIGHLY SKEPTICAL THE BENEFITS OF CYCLING FAR OUTWEIGH THE ‘DISBENEFIT’ OF HELMET LAWS

Grzebieta suspects “poor assumptions are being made in the scientific methodology”. No, it’s common sense and simple mathematics. We know regular exercise is a proven way to improve health, so the less people that ride, the less overall exercise there is among the population, so the more unfit and unhealthy they become. A recent British study showed that regular cyclists reduced their chance of any form of early death by 41%, incidence of cancer by 45% and heart disease by 46%. A Dutch study estimated the health benefits of cycling were substantially larger than the risks of injury, while a Danish study put a number on that at 21 to 1.

THE FOCUS ON HELMET LEGISLATION DETRACTS FROM THE MORE IMPORTANT CONCERNS

Olivier continues to say those concerns are “construction of dedicated cycling infrastructure, education of all road users, and supportive legislation to protect cyclists, such as minimum passing distances”. This is rank hypocrisy as Olivier is obsessed with helmets, that obsession has contributed to the very inaction on infrastructure and other measures, and repealing helmet legislation would end the distraction. Let’s see if this is the last of his dubious “studies”.

Debunking the Biggest Myths of Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Law Advocates

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From → Cycling Free

One Comment
  1. wdr permalink

    Great! I think it would be really good to send this to the editorial board of International Journal of Epidemiology and ask them to withdraw this article. Science without a proper methodology isn’t a science anymore.

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