Mikael Colville-Andersen on Why We Shouldn’t Bike with a Helmet (Transcript)

Mikael Colville-Andersen on Why We Shouldn’t Bike with a Helmet TEDxCopenhagen – Transcript


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Mikael Colville-Andersen – Urban Designer and Urban Mobility Expert

Thanks for calling me a young man! It’s really cool to be here. Being hanging out with TED – it really is quite cool.

The good life. Those three words probably mean a whole lot of different things to a whole lot of different people. I have my own personal factors for what the good life means to me and my family. And one of those things is bicycles or rather people on bicycles. A symphony of human powered movement across the cityscape.

It’s a large part of what I do: promoting urban cycling in cities around the world. This is the age of lists, of measuring, of ratings, and indexes. And it’s interesting to see how we try to determine, where the good life is being lived. Not long ago, it was done with simple lists of world’s richest countries, world’s poorest countries, richest cities, poorest cities.

So money was the key factor in determining quality of life. Now, things are much different as we all know. Now we have stuff like the world’s happiest nation survey, which continues to baffle and confuse the Danish people, year after year by placing them number one. I still don’t get it.

A lifestyle magazine Monocle has developed a world’s most liveable cities index a few years ago, using an interesting combination of statistical parameters and personal taste. And this is the a – it’s not working. Gentlemen? — The list of the world top twenty — Most liveable cities for 2010.

Now, I’m completely biased when I say that any liveable city’s worth its so well-featured bicycles, great numbers of bicycles on the urban landscape. And if you look at these cities — you are looking at — Now, there you go — it’s interesting to note that 12 of these cities, including the top 8, all have respectable levels of bicycle traffic, of citizen cyclists on their bike lanes and streets.

Most of the rest of the cities are trying — they’re doing what they can to re-establish the bicycle as transport as it used to be in cities and towns all around the world — I didn’t actually press that.

But this really is a modern catchphrase these “liveable cities.” It’s as though we’re trying to redefine what our cities should be like and try to return to how they used to be and in most cases — were meant to be.

One thing’s for sure — Can you tell me where to point this?

One thing is certain the bicycle is hot all over the world. The bicycle is back. Cities and towns around the planet are trying to encourage people to choose the bicycle as transport, and provide the infrastructure necessary for them to do so.

That was a teaser.

It really is a no-brainer. It really is the most obvious things to do, the bicycle is the most potent medicine that we possess, the most powerful tool, the most effective tool in our toolbox for this rebuilding of our liveable cities. There couldn’t possibly be anything standing in the way of promoting urban cycling. Or could there?

Damn! There was.

Welcome to the culture of fear. There are great many books and essays written on the subject by people far more clever than I am. I can guarantee that.

The German sociologist Ulrich Beck wrote, about over 20 years ago, that once homo sapiens are no longer hungry, they become afraid. Probably doesn’t mean that we’re all scared shitless because you’ve just had lunch — But I did cut my finger on the Sushi box, and I’ve heard about bacteria today, so I’m a little bit worried.

The Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen wrote that fear has become that feeling that controls the public. The culture of fear is many many things, but the most potent example of the culture of fear is this almost pornographic obsession that we’ve developed with safety equipment.

Never before have we lived lives so safe and so free of danger as we do right now in the Western World. And yet the culture of fear has developed a kind of, I don’t know, a bubble wrap society. I’m quite sure that the culture of fear can exist on its own, but it really is made all powerful by the simple fact that if there is something we can get people to be scared of, there’s a long line of people waiting to make money off of it.

Fear is lucrative. Fear is big business. One of the more odd, and perhaps, more extreme examples is this. This is the thud guard helmet. thudguard.com. I couldn’t have made this up if I’d tried. This is an actual product available online as we speak out of the UK. These are helmets that children should wear, “should” according to the people, of course, who are selling them, in the home — sitting on their bums, playing in the living-room or in the kitchen. I think their slogan is ‘learning to walk in a world of hard surfaces’. They quote all sorts of scientific facts.

For me this really is — the ultimate example of the slippery slope that we’re on — is this really where we want to be headed after 250 000 years of homo sapiens? I don’t know.

Another example — another example is close to the home. Apart from the Netherlands, Denmark is the safest country in the world in which to ride a bicycle. Never before has it been so safe to do so than it is right now. So for me it was a bit bizarre to see this recent wave of bicycle helmet promotion in this country. And when it started I became sincerely curious. I knew nothing about it and I decided to check out the facts for myself. This is what I was taught to do.

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To my surprise, it didn’t take me very long to figure out that bicycle helmet doesn’t have a very impressive track safety record, scientifically. Scientists, the scientific community has been completely split, for years, on the subject. Fifty-fifty, down the middle. If you look at it this way, if a bicycle helmet was a vaccine or a medicine, there’s no way you’d be anywhere close to getting approved by Ministry of Health, there is simply not enough proof.

Now, it’s been over two and a half years researching this subject, and damn, do I need a new hobby? I can tell you that right now. When you come from a literary background this is, you know, reading scientific reports, is not that much fun.

But it is amazing the things you find out. I mean, it’s an ocean of science out there but, there are actually scientific studies that show your risk of brain injury is higher when you are in a helmet, and that you have a 14% greater chance of getting into an accident with a helmet on. These are not things that we hear about too often so much for showing us the big picture —

The way that these helmets are tested — well, actually industrial design of the helmets, first of all — My son helped me out with this.

From an industrial design perspective these helmets are designed, I found out, to protect the head from non-life threatening impacts in solo accidents under 20km/h. We can all hear that, that excludes getting hit by the car, so please, don’t do that. Whether you’re wearing it or not.

The way that they’re tested in the laboratory is interesting. They’re tested only for impact on the crown of the head. They’re not even tested for impact on any of the sides. And, actually, the test that they go through the laboratory, is nothing more than a simulation of a pedestrian falling and hitting their head on the sidewalk. So, I thought, ‘Wow’ — It’s true — Well, wouldn’t that really make them great for pedestrians?

I was surprised to find out that pedestrians have a higher risk of head injury than people on bicycles do. You know, it’s my amazement that Danish Road Safety Council doesn’t have any campaigns for pedestrian helmets. I was shocked. So, I made one for them –

The PDF is freely available for download, at no cost for a tax payer — It works better in Danish, but it says, “A walking helmet is a good helmet.” And, if it is a slippery slope that we are on, then this is probably a very good idea.

But the thing about the culture of fear, is it doesn’t really worry about facts or science. They’re a nuisance. They clatter up the ideology, and they get in the way of making a lot of good money as well.

So, I thought, you know, hey, pedestrian helmets, ha-ha, what about, hey, motorist helmets? Maybe motorists should wear helmets? Wouldn’t that be funny? Boy, was I amazed when I found out that motorists’ helmets are actually and all seriousness being invented — I could’ve even made this up —

The Swedes played with the idea, of course, the Swedes in the 1960s — But in the late 1980s the helmet, the TOG, came on to the market, the company started producing and said, ‘Enough is enough’.

In 2001, the University of Adelaide and Monash University in Australia produced this motorist headband. They did so after an Australian Government study showed that that country could save up to $400 million a year in reduced injury and death, reduced societal harm, as it’s called, if everybody inside the cars were wearing protective headgear even with seatbelts and airbags. Does anybody here own one? Have you ever seen them on sale at the supermarket? Have you ever been offered a free one when you buy a car? No!

God, that might be logical or rationale.

Another teaser, sorry —

I’ve discovered — well, I didn’t discover, but the helmet industry is actually very interested in everybody buying their products, you know, there’s no surprise there.

I’ve discovered that one of the other main promoters of helmets is the insurance industry. Even in this country. Again, no-brainer as to why.

What I did discover was that the automobile industry is one of the main promoters of bicycle helmets. And why? It’s simple really. The bicycle is a real and immediate threat to the dominance of car culture in our cities. And the reason you’ve never been given the opportunity to purchase these fine products is that the car industry won’t touch them. They excel at marketing their products.

And, you know, if — they know that it would be a catastrophe for car sales if we started telling people, “You know what, driving a car is proven to be statistically incredibly dangerous, and we remove that false sense of security that people have about their cars.”

If word got out that 1.2 million people a year are killed in car accidents all around the world. Over 40,000 in the United States alone. If you think about that, that’s a world trade center every month, year in and year out. But, no, no. People would stop buying cars, driving them less, they might start taking public transport or, hmm, God, forbid take bicycles in our cities. We can’t have that. Of course not.

If we apply logic to the culture of fear, which is not something that happens very often, so, that might be the first time ever — This is what we would be doing. We would — Instead of telling the pedestrian and the cyclists to watch out and take care, instead of, like, the campaigns like these recent ones from Denmark, of all places, placing the responsibility on the vulnerable traffic users, we would be attacking the problem at the root.

We’d see simple campaigns like this one. This is just one I made up, and, you know, the sky’s the limit — Speaking directly to the motorists, I’m a motorist as well. I mean I’m happy to say that, but, you know what, after reading so much up on the subject, I drive less than I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve been scared out of the car, really. Once you start looking at the statistics and what not.

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But this would be, speaking directly at the problem, we would see an idea as simple as this one: health warnings on cars.

We would see legislation saying that 30% of the surface area, each side of the car has to include the health warning, just like on packets of cigarettes.

You know what the great thing is? Every single health warning on a pack of cigarettes applies directly to car traffic. We don’t even have to write new texts, we just copy – paste them.

It’s true. You know. Okay, I made one up at the top left, but still — It’s true. This would have an amazing societal effect if this idea saw the light of day. This would change behavior in a flash, I can tell you.

As it is now, all aroung the world, we are, what I call, ignoring the bull in society’s china shop, the elephant in the china shop, as we say in Danish. Instead of trying to tame it, and sometimes it feels like we’ve completely and utterly given up on trying to tame the destructive capabilities of the automobile in our cities.

Despite the oceans of science to back up the idea, despite the whole catalogue of ideas that there is out there to do so. Instead a war on bicycle is being waged. It sounds dramatic, but it’s true.

Cycling has become a bit of a bad brand in Denmark over the past 3 years. For the first time in 125 years the public, and not least, the press, and the newspaper above us here are, some of our worst offenders — are focusing on the perceived negatives about riding a bicycle.

I am going to take 2008 as an example. This was a banner year for urban cycling all around the world. Cycling levels were up everywhere in almost every OECD country. Bicycle sales were up across the board. All of these things also in the Netherlands, which is really the only country that we can compare ourselves to.

It was also the first year of hardcore bicycle helmet promotion in Denmark. Real emotional propaganda. The result in this country: bicycle sales fell 5%. The only place where it happened!

The number of cyclists being counted entering the city centre in Copenhagen fell by over 10000. Over 10000 fewer cyclists in Copenhagen from 2007 to 2008. Those numbers haven’t recovered yet.

We’ve seen in every country around the world that this is the main problem with promoting bicycle helmets: people stop cycling. In every region every country in the world where helmets have been promoted and, even worse, legislated, if you really want to kill off the bicycles, legislate it, people are being scared away from a very intelligent, life-extending sustainable zero carbon blah-blah-blah transport form, by making it look like it’s much more dangerous than it is. We’ve seen it across the board in Sweden, in Australia, in America and so on.

And now here in Denmark. But not in most of the rest of Europe, because this is where Cycling Federations fight against promotion and legislation. And I know these people, they know their science as well. They want to see more people getting on the bicycles instead of scaring people off.

This is a campaign from the European Cyclist Federation. What a world of difference!

We cycled 30% less in this country than we did in 1990. If we still cycle that extra 30%, we could save 1500 lives a year. That’s a conservative estimate. Because the health benefits of cycling are 20 times greater than any risk involved. We should be doing everything in our power to promote the bicycle as transport, to market it positively, to sell this product to the people.

Historically, traditionally, knowledge and by extension, rationality were handed down by, wise men, tribal leaders, later by scientists or people connected to scientists. These days it seems like the show is being run by, really, a very small group of communication consultants on personal crusades projecting their personal worries on to millions of other people. And, you know what, if anything scares the hell out of me it’s that.

But I am an optimist. This was a bit of Naomi Klein-i Bjørn Lomborg-ean approach to the subject, but I’ve figured, hey it’s a WikiLeaks week in the Western World, so let’s just — so let’s just get it out there.

But I am an optimist. I just think that rationality, liveable cities, the humble bicycle as transport, if these aren’t ideas worth spreading, then I really don’t know what is.

This is one of my favorite quotes about the bicycles, also my favorite son helping me out here. I only have one, so —

“The steel horse fills a gap in modern life, it is an answer not only to its needs, but also to its aspirations. It’s quite certainly here to stay.”

That was written in 1869. History really is repeating itself. The bicycle is back, it never really went away, but now the bicycle is back.

And not only is it a powerful symbol of transport possibilities in cities but it is also, if we want it to be a powerful symbol of rationality, of the good life and of liveable cities.

So, I think that we should just choose to go a little bit retro, a little bit of common sense back in to our societies, and I think we should let rationality become the new black.

Thank you very much.


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