Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Ultimate Bike Helmet-related Letter to the Editor

OK, just kidding (sort of). The May/June 2011 Momentum magazine features "The Helmet Debate" by Elly Blue (four pages long), as well as two bike helmet buying guides, a separate short helmet review, a full-page helmet ad, a contest with a helmet as a prize, lots of nice photos of both helmeted and unhelmeted cyclists and also several letters regarding helmets, which were submitted in response to a request in the March/April issue. They printed/posted a short letter of mine. Following is the longer version from which it was excerpted (I sent it at the end of March and tonight I added some additional paragraphs).

Dear Editor,

Very detailed information related to your question of mandatory cycling helmets has been done by the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation. Beyond that, I am quite interested in the imagery of helmetism, i.e. how promotion and compulsion of cycling helmets are, perhaps, closer cousins then we think:

To start, nearly all urban cycling promotion organizations suggest that helmets are safer and implying or explicitly state that you are smart to wear one. This includes both the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and Transportation Alternatives (NYC), the latter with their Biking Rules project, which irritatingly conflates their recommendations of helmets with laws for cycling. An exception is C.I.C.L.E, from Los Angeles, which had what I would call a very pro-choice helmets page, with simple, objective information and links (including to the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation). (Just added: That link is dead now, the C.I.C.L.E. website is in the midst of a re-design and the only new helmet link is typical of most other bike orgs. Will update if it changes back. Sigh).

Consider that most of the other local organization's publications and websites have helmet imagery which might support the view of the organization which created the page but often does not reflect the real helmet-wearing rate in their area and this is worse if the photos are more general, i.e. of how cycling looks in the city they work in.

I believe a good solution for that would be to determine roughly what helmet-wearing rates are and pick and commission photos of helmeted and unhelmeted cyclists to accurately reflect that.

Beyond that, cyclist pictograms in e.g. bike lanes in USA cities without mandatory helmet laws have helmets! As an illustration of a consistent approach to compulsion via promotional bombardment: Washington D.C.'s Capital Bikeshare website has a cyclist with a poorly-adjusted and thus useless helmet. And this from the company which runs that scheme. And that company's president. (I like much of what Alta does but just want to make a point about how helmet promotion can be both directly and indirectly connected with various initiatives.)

Added tonight: Capital Bikeshare sounds successful from all reports I have seen, however I am curious if all members have read the fine print in the contract, which requires them to sign a safety pledge (i.e. to agree to abide by recommendations on the safety page of the website, which of course includes wearing a helmet.) In addition, the contract says that Alta Bikeshare is "...not liable for any claim including those that arise from or relate to [...] failure to wear a bicycle helmet while using a Capital Bikeshare bicycle...".

What I find most troubling with all this is that while Washington D.C.'s helmet law only applies to children under age 16, users of Capital Bikeshare have to be 16 or over. The system is funded in part by taxpayers through Federal and local funds and because of this and also its design function it's a form of public transport. So while the D.C. government does not require helmet-wearing for people eligible to use Capital Bikeshare users via its democratically-created laws, it does require it via membership contracts for this system which it supports financially.

Perhaps someone with better legal knowledge can enlighten me about why there is not something peculiar about this.

On the other hand, B-Cycle - and I mention them because at this moment they and Alta Bikeshare are finalists in getting the NYC bike share gig - makes no mention of helmets in their membership page (at least in this one for Denver -- there is no statewide helmet law in Colorado for anyone). But to be fair to Alta, I assume there are other contracts in the USA which are similar to theirs, though I do know they will be doing something similar with their new operation in Boston.

At some point formal helmet compulsion becomes unnecessary when there is a never-ending barage of helmet imagery. (I am arguing that it does not matter if an org. which strongly promotes helmets say that they are also against laws to mandate it.) If people only see helmeted cyclists, they might not even ask if it is required to wear them or not. They will just assume so. I know that recently in NYC a police officer gave a ticket to an adult cyclist for not wearing a helmet, when actually there is no requirement to wear one, unless the cyclist is doing commercial activity. That is how crazy this gets. It might also be useful to compare how even a majority of opinions against mandatory cycling helmets in response to your query can compete against not just helmet company advertisements in Momentum, but all the other likely ads which have helmeted cyclists in them.

Finally, consider something else: If a serving politician promoted driving helmets they would be voted out of office (If they were running for election they would never win). Another: This is an issue of personal freedom, since helmet wearing - or not - only affects its user, and parents should be able to decide this for their children for the same reason. And one more: Required labels inside helmets do not clearly state under what kinds of crashes are simulated in helmet testing and their marketing is even less precise. I have a suggestion for this.

My accepted abstract for the last Velo-city in Seville, Spain, "Helmetism & Hyper-illumination" provides further information and references. I have a Facebook Page on the subject focused on Velo-city in Vancouver next year.

Kind regards,
Todd Edelman
Green Idea Factory
Berlin, Germany

Decade of Action for Road Safety: We are all "Steve"?

Today starts the "Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020", a collaboration between the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners. The "Wear. Believe. Act" website, which is the official page of the campaign, is hosted by the FIA Foundation, which also supports the campaign's "Road Safety Fund". The Road Safety Fund - a legally distinct UK charity - is co-chaired by the Director General of the FIA Foundation (FIAf - the reason for the little "f" will become self-evident shortly). Confused? Well, anyway, before I mention the graphic above, I will explain why I have not included a link to FIAf: This is because none of the pages above link to FIAf, or - I really did look around - describe what it is.

FIAf "... established in 2001 with a donation of $300 million made by the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), the non-profit federation of motoring organisations and the governing body of world motor sport..." which came from - "well, finally!", you might be thinking - this link.

This partial obfuscation - intentional or not - on the rather professionally-done "Wear. Believe. Act" website - oh, and by the way the first WHO website mentioned above is supported by the World Bank - is consistent with the video which is the source of the graphic above.

The video is produced by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies' (IFRC) Global Road Safety Partnership (GRSP), another partner of WHO. (The link to IFRC on the "Wear..." links page is dead), in support of the launch of the Decade of Action.

The video "...aims to give the viewers a different perspective on road safety by focusing on the hidden danger on the roads...". It is worth noting, first and foremost, that the video makes clear in gross terms that there are over 1.3 million annual road deaths, a statistic many carfree campaigners started to spread years ago.

So, when I first watched this I was pleased that that was mentioned (and it is included on the "Wear..." website, if less prominently).

The problem then is that the video goes completely and ridiculously overboard in two ways, the first I describe might not be intentional but the second definitely is.

Firstly, the reaction of fellow blogger David Hembrow to the video was "WTF was that all about ? All I know is that I'm now very very scared indeed, and am wondering if a Hummer would maximize my safety on the streets. I think they somewhat missed the point of their own message - i.e. that cars kill the majority of those 1.3 million people per year." This is so overwhelming it could just get people to turn off (and indeed the video suggests no solutions, just a link to the campaign website). In any case, this provides a segue to the second point, which is that the video says "we" created this system, and thus that we are all "Steve" (the sole character in the video, in multiple roles).

This is of course rabidly irresponsible, and - as my blogger friend says - misses the point about cars. By homogenizing responsibility, the message totally overlooks the fact the majority of victims are poor and in the Global South, the majority of beneficiaries in terms of ownership of companies is in the North, most people in the Global South do not have cars and are rarely in cars, that children cannot vote in elections and of course that a great many people in the Global South do note vote in free and fair elections (the last two points showing how creation of the system has been anything but democratic).

Now, back to the "Decade of Action..." - in the end of the video you will see that Youth for Road Safety (YOURS) is another partner (and they are supported financially from the get-go by Michelin).

The campaign mentions nothing - at least I could not find anything obvious on the website which is as far as the average person will go - about emissions or other direct or indirect effects of automobile dependency, from obesity to urban sprawl. Emissions is something that WHO deals with, as in obesity, so why are things not mentioned in the goals of the "Decade of Action..."?

In this clip, from BBC4 radio, the interviewer does her best with a good intervention with Lord Robertson, chairman of the Decade of Action for Road Safety, but at the end an essential fact is not joined up. (Robertson does everything to avoid it, a truly shameful and ultimately murderous act of deceit.) Can you hear what is missing?

That interview includes words by Ian Roberts, who paper published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine in 2007 writing about the establishment of the GRSP - questions if Formula One racing (as a symbol, but it is also the raison d'être of FIA) can really be responsible for public health and proposes that " is time to establish a truly independent Commission for Global Road Safety that will put the daily toll of 3,000 road deaths before any commercial concerns."



A 2009 article in the Road Danger Reduction Forum, based in the UK, serves as a good introduction to John Adams's fine work on seatbelts. The RDRF also today issued a press release about the launch of the "Decade..." (apparently Formula One race drivers are visiting 10 Downing St.)

Amend, based in NYC, supported by the FIA Foundation and with programmes in Ghana and Tanzania, has a poster for its "See and Be Seen" initiative:

(click on image to enlarge)

On the other hand, children in many cities in the North (and NYC) are now being told to play in the road, albeit a road calmed by various methods or philosophies. Do children in the Global South deserve less? Of course not... so do Amend and similar orgs. think that this "Don't play in the street!" warning from 1960's to 1990's era mothers (and fathers) is somehow the most relevant communication, i.e. enshrining - for a time - countries in Africa and elsewhere to this stage in transport development? Once automobilization gets established is it really hard to eradicate, as we in the North know so well, so why don't we help the Global South leapfrog to the next stage? (If FIA was supporing anti-malaria programmes there would be posters telling children to seal themselves in plastic bags.)