The reason I pick up the bicycle helmet theme again this week is that the BMJ is running a sidebar poll of their readers (or, more accurately, of cycling tweeters and recipients of Robert Davis’s emails ;-)), asking whether it should be compulsory for adult cyclists to wear helmets.
The BMJ is the journal of the British Medical Association, the professional association and trade union of British doctors. Part of the BMA’s remit it to lobby the government on issues that its members believe are important, and it has some clout in this area. These policies are decided by a representative democracy — a group of members elected by region and by field. In recent years, this body has decided that it is BMA policy to support legislation that would make helmets compulsory for cyclists.
Doctors might not even have noticed the adoption of this policy. To most it is probably an irrelevance — most people will not cycle in the conditions that prevail in this country and doctors are no exception. And I imagine that very few have read the quite astonishing “promoting safe cycling” pages of the BMA website. Readers of Ben Goldacre should get their Bad Science Bingo cards out before clicking the link.
Tomorrow I’ll dissect those pages and ask how they came to be so bad. But there is a more basic issue here. Never mind whether helmets are effective or not, aren’t there more important policies that the BMA should be pursuing?
In 2002, the BMJ polled readers about issues of health and road danger — a slightly more scientific and insightful survey than the free-for-all yes/no question that they ask this week, and one much better targeted to British doctors rather than every joker on the internet. They asked readers to judge the importance, on a scale of 1 to 6, of various interventions for promoting the health and safety of pedestrians and cyclists. Helmets came out bottom of the doctors’ priority list:
|3.25||More and better cycle safety training|
|2.87||Compulsory cycle helmet wearing|
|3.42||Separate lanes for bicycles in urban areas|
|4.04||Traffic calming to reduce vehicle speeds in urban areas|
|4.04||Reduce car use by better public transport and by encouraging walking and cycling|
|3.85||Banning motorised vehicles from towns and cities|
Interestingly, helmets for cyclists was ranked as only a slightly more sensible solution than helmets for pedestrians. Indeed, the results for pedestrians look much like the results for cyclists.
It’s the most heartening thing I’ve read in a long time. Most doctors get it. They’re not ignoring the bull. Certainly all of the public health doctors and epidemiologists (the people with the most exposure to scientific methods, incidentally) that I know get it. The problem is not that cyclists are taking insufficient measures to protect themselves from danger, it is that they are put in danger by motorists and by the government policies and societal norms that support the mixing of fast-moving motor vehicles, including those driven by people known to be dangerous and incompetent, with cyclists and pedestrians in our towns and cities.
Alongside their policy of lobbying for legislation to compel the use of helmets, the BMA has drawn up a set of recommendations for motor-vehicle reduction. But while the former policy is actively being pursued in Westminster and in the nations, the latter looks to have fallen by the wayside, and is still stuck in 1997. Why?