Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Australian media & helmet promotion - a toxic romance

They are familiar murmurings and they gather righteous crescendo as they seep into print, broadcast and online media platforms.

But to many of us, we have heard them all before and recognise the strategy for what it is - helmet promotion via medical media release.

The language is paternalistic as are the players so why do Australian mainstream media fall for this bait every single time; hook, line and sinker?

A growing group of critics is questioning why the media accept these helmet pronouncements as received opinion and is wondering whatever happened to scepticism and evaluation.

On May 6, the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) published a letter by Dr Michael Dinh, emergency physician and co director of trauma services at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, stating that the results of his report "[added] to the growing weight of observational data supporting the use of helmet which should therefore be considered at least as protective for pedal cyclists as they are for motorcyclists."

Following the letter in the MJA, Dr Dinh appeared on ABC 702's 'Breakfast with Adam Spencer' as well as writing an opinion piece for The Conversation which was then released to the Brisbane Times, SBS Cycling Central, Reddit and various online bicycle forums such as the Bicycle Network.

But what exactly attracted the media to his findings, if they were able to find them?

The report is not the stuff of rigorous peer review. A small sample set, observational studies rather than randomised controlled trials, no factoring in of confounders and variables, or hospital data bias.

Really, media, no questions?

But not all Australian medical practitioners hold the same views on helmet legislation.

Dr Paul Martin, MBBS, FANZCA, a specialist anaesthetist, Brisbane, despairs at both the state of cycling and the state of academic cycling research in Australia today.

"Essentially any barriers to cycling are regrettable," he says, "and it's most important to get rid of them.

"The numbers in Dinh's study are teeny tiny. Consequently, the study is biased and not looking at the big picture - it's irresponsible. Alcohol is one of the biggest confounding factors and yet Dinh doesn't correct for alcohol, drunk cycling or running red lights. How does he get away with writing a letter when that data is not published in a peer-reviewed journal? It's a sneaky way of getting a citation in a medical journal and it's irresponsible of the MJA not to make Dinh publish the study.

"As an anaesthetist I see how much the lifestyle diseases blow out the costs for the community. Hospital equipment has to be upgraded and there's a great risk of not even surviving theatre - its death by a thousand cuts. Doctors don't understand the chronic cost to the health budget and lifestyle diseases are killing the budget - ischaemic heart disease, osteoporosis, strokes, fractures, all take too long to recover afterwards.

"Forcing helmets on all riders no matter how fast or slow they go is ill-thought out.

"I wear a helmet when training and competing in triathlons because sport has a different profile but for transport and getting the groceries, I don't."

Michael Rubbo, Australian filmmaker and a former commissioning editor at ABC television, agrees that mainstream media have an ideological fixation about mandatory helmet laws (MHLs).

"Many self-identify as cyclists themselves, and consider MHLs to be proactive with an excellent safety record," he says, "and it is extremely frustrating. You get a sense that there is a locked-in mindset, a locked-in orthodoxy.

"When MHLs were passed, their club formed and they became members in an almost cult-like capacity. They geared up and took cycling seriously. Their identity was captured by MHLs. It was an affirmation of a badge of honour leading to resentment towards the other side of cycling.

"Utility cyclists, now unfavoured by law, did not feel that cycling was unsafe and have been demonised because they do not see cycling as helmet promoters do. Helmets are like school colours and if you're not wearing one you're somebody on the outer and you'll get a dressing down like you might from a prefect."

Observing the media in action it is not hard to think that Australian bicycle IQ is in decline - even our bicycle organisations 'cheer' on ambitious helmet promotion as it tries its hand further afield.

The Dutch are now under attack, and Marc Van Woudenberg, online marketing strategist and proprietor of, is not impressed by the 'false framing and broken record' manipulation pedalled by Shell and other helmet promoters.

"The Netherlands,” he says, "can boast about having the highest cycle density, the highest cycle rate and the highest participation rate in the world...and...the lowest casualty rate (by a very wide margin) at the same time.

"Australia should stop chasing its tail, stop sustaining its confirmation bias, stop fighting symptoms, stop marginalising and (victim-)blaming people on bikes, start looking at the root causes and own up to it. It's definitely worth losing (political) face over...just ask any Dutch person...or child."

(Photos: Amsterdamize, flickr)

It is hard not to notice a disturbing picture of vested interests as the continuous oil slick of helmet promotion, seamlessly pedalled by medicos and parroted by media, spreads across the planet.

When will the Australian media think about questioning clinical judgments based on observation and when will they think about questioning data that has not been published and peer-reviewed?

(Photos: ABC News Online)

...and our man and his little son’s bike ride last year?

... illegal here in Australia, and we are the poorer for it.

(first published on Freedom Cyclist blog last month)

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