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      Safety Professionals Cross the Stupid Line

      by Avery Burdett


      As one who, like many of my contemporaries, has managed to enjoy the best part of 50 years of healthy cycling life without wearing a bicycle helmet, a brief preview of a TV program recently caught my eye. It asked viewers, among other things, if they always wore a helmet when riding a bicycle. The program, "Coast to Coast" on CBC Newsworld, is an open line show. The subject that day was risk management.

      Guest, Dr. Robert Conn started off by saying there is a line between risks which are acceptable and unacceptable. He called this the "stupid line". Conn is an executive director of the Smart Risk Foundation which was formed to reduce the number of serious injuries suffered by Canadians. An admirable enough objective I suppose. What would the world be if we didn't have a few who want to save us from ourselves? Inevitably, the discussion focused on the wearing of protective equipment - seat belts for car occupants, helmets for cyclists and in-line skaters, and life jackets for boaters. Do I need to explain that this pernicious piece of linguistic fascism means that if cyclists ride bare headed, they are stupid?

      In the same week that the program aired, an article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen reporting on a survey which revealed that 90% of Canadians still do not get the minimum exercise needed for keeping their hearts healthy. This is despite years of media and government promotion of the benefits of regular exercise, such as cycling. On reflecting on the contents of the article in relation to the TV program, I found it curious that the physician from the Smart Risk Foundation failed to identify the principal risk to our lives and maybe the only one we should be obsessively concerned about - the risk brought about by not exercising regularly. Curious because Conn is a heart specialist, and ought to know the enormity of the problem. The following figures from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the British Medical Association show how enormous it is:

      Eighty thousand Canadians die of heart disease annually (to put it in perspective, compare that to less than 100 cyclists). The figure represents 42% of all Canadian deaths. The death rate from heart attack is 60% higher among those over 35 who do not exercise compared to those that do. Forty three percent of heart disease patients are aged 45-64. Regular cyclists in this age group have reduced risk of coronary heart disease of over 50 per cent. Life expectancy would increase over 10 years if heart disease was eliminated. There are 10 fold fewer heart disease cases among cyclists over 75 years old. Cardiovascular disease costs Canada $17 billion in medical care, lost wages, pensions, etc.

      Now it's not that I'm against reducing unnecessary injuries to cyclists, but there seems to be an inordinate obsession by the media, the medical profession, and some in the cycling community about secondary (and mostly bad) measures of preventing injuries or saving lives to the exclusion of primary measures. For cyclists, there are two key primary measures which increase the chances of living a long healthy life. First, cycling itself. Dr. Mayer Hillman a researcher for the British Medical Association has calculated that the life years gained from cycling exceeds the life years lost through death and injury by a factor of 20 to 1. He says that governments should put their energies into programs to promote cycling because of the phenomenal social and cost benefits that society derives from a healthy population. Hillman also puts to rest the myth that cyclists are a financial burden on public health care systems. Cyclists in unhelmeted Britain, as in Canada, subsidize the life style of sedentary citizens.

      The other primary measure is accident avoidance. A large majority of cycle accidents are caused by cyclists themselves. By becoming a competent cyclist and adopting the vehicular method of cycling as taught in CAN-BIKE courses, cyclists can reduce their chances of being involved in a collision by 90%. Even though there are far too many untrained cyclists on the roads, injury statistics show cycling to be an extremely low risk activity. A vast proportion of injuries are scrapes and bruises. Despite this, so called safety professionals are appearing in the media and exaggerating the risks of cycling and falsely making it look dangerous. In doing so, they frighten away potential new cyclists, as well as increase the possibility of further restricting of cycling through anti-cycling regulation, itself having the effect of discouraging people from cycling also. The ultimate consequence of course is the exact opposite of improving the health of Canadians.

      I find the Smart Risk Foundation's use of the term "stupid line" in regard to cyclists to be offensive. It is the "safety professionals" like Conn who are on the wrong side of the stupid line. The valuable resources they consume would better be applied to genuine life extending strategies. Let's take the charitable donations and government handouts to the likes of the Smart Risk Foundation and redirect them to Citizens for Safe Cycling and other organizations which not only understand the value of cycling but are also delivery agents of the primary measures which actually reduce cycling accidents.

      Is bicycling really more dangerous than driving? Should we be forcing motorists to wear helmets instead? This analysis of the medical and environmental ramifications of bicycling vs driving suggests that it will take more than an inch of hard foam to achieve road safety.

      This article appears in the October/November 1996 edition of Chainmail, the newsletter of Citizens for Safe Cycling a group based in Ottawa, Ontario.

December 2008
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