Thursday, 18 November 2004

Lies, damned lies, and cycle helmets


I've just been moved to write to the British Medical Association, a thing which doesn't often happen. The BMA had a critical role to play in the recent campaign to make cycle helmets compulsory in the United Kingdom; they have long had a well thought out policy on cycle helmets - on the whole favouring them, but aware of the ambiguous nature of the evidence in favour of them and siding against compulsion. Their position helped persuade MPs not to vote for compulsion. It seems the pro-compulsionists have seen the BMA as a key target to convert, and recent press releases have announced a policy change, apparently by fiat at the top. The papers the BMA have published in support of their new policies are masterpieces of dishonesty and sloppy thinking. So here is my first, brief, critique, as expressed in an email to parliamentaryunit@bma.org.uk, the address they cite for comments.



My attention has been drawn to your web pages published at
<URL:http://www.bma.org.uk/ap.nsf/Content/Cyclhelmet> and <URL:http://www.bma.org.uk/ap.nsf/Content/Cyclehealth>.

In the first you quote: "Each year over 50 people aged 15 years and under are killed by cycling  accidents, with 70-80 per cent of these resulting from traumatic brain  injury."

As I'm sure you are well aware, the figure recorded for the UK for 2002 as a whole is nineteen deaths, of which only ten involved head injury[1], so the figure you quote is a gross exaggeration. Indeed in no year in the past decade have 50 children died in the UK in cycling accidents, so you cannot even pretend that this figure is historically correct.

In the second you start with the statement: "Action should be taken to both reduce the high rate of fatal and  serious accidents suffered by cyclists..."

In fact, there is no 'high rate of fatal and serious accidents suffered by cyclists'. The fatal accident rate for cyclists is only 75% as high as that for pedestrians (29.5 per billion kilometers as opposed to 44.8 per billion kilometers), and less than a third of that for motorcyclists who do have to wear helmets[2]. Cycling is not only safer than walking, it is getting safer faster, with a steady and healthy downward trend in casualties[3].

Finally, of 114 cyclists of all ages killed in 2003, 61 were involved in collisions with cars, while 25 were involved in collisions with heavy goods vehicles; in total 95 deaths resulted from collisions with motor vehicles.[4] No-one pretends that a cycle helmet would make any useful difference in accidents of this kind.

In summary, these two documents taken together represent irresponsible scaremongering, composed of phoney data completely at variance with the facts. Scaremongering has the inevitable effect of reducing cycling, and reducing cycling has been shown to increase the risk per cyclist. So not only are these papers dishonest in their content, they are also misguided and counter productive in their intent. By reducing the number of people cycling the BMA will not only increase the number of people dying through illnesses related to obesity and lack of exercise, it will also increase the risk of injury and death to people who do cycle.

I am horrified that the BMA should express views on a public policy matter on the basis of such shoddy and dishonest research and without, I understand, bothering to consult its members.

Yours sincerely

Simon Brooke
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