Glory! The policy wonks at Statistics Canada have opened their 2013-14 data vaults and issued a pre-summer presser that highlights safety. What’s most interesting about the Community Health Survey is how the data mine in Ottawa has serendipitously linked use of helmets by cyclists and use of condoms in the general population. First a quick summary:
- 11.9M Cdns (12 or >) rode a bicycle
- 42.5% say they always used a helmet
- Compliance lowest among 18-19 yr olds (20.6%)
- 11.8M Cdns (15 to 49) had sex with 2 or more partners
- 57.5% used a condom
- Compliance highest among 15 to 19 yr olds (70.8%)
What does this data tell us?
Many young people routinely make good choices before having sex whereas many of those same young folk make poor choices when they hop on a bike. It’s a little confusing. Unlike helmets, condom use is not mandated by law. Still there has been a consistent and widespread public health campaign (in the media, in schools, among families) that condom use – while only one of many strategies – is an easy and effective way to prevent procreation and sexually transmitted infections. Cultural messaging emphasizes that using a condom won’t make the wrong impression with the person you’re – er – trying to impress.
And despite medical evidence that wearing helmets is positively associated with injury prevention (e.g. reducing brain trauma), the upsides of helmet use are hotly disputed. Judging from the data, parents neither believe that the helmet laws are legitimate, nor accept that their kids need to wear helmets. Only 37.5% of 12-17 yr olds said they always used a helmet when cycling. A stunning result considering that all Canadian provinces with the exception of Québec, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland require helmet use for this age group.
Cultural messaging about helmet use seems to be governed by cosmetic rationale: talking points emphasize the impact of helmets on personal appearance. Aesthetics trump prevention! Simply put, helmet use is seen to be uncool. They muss your hair, collect perspiration, make your head look really big and, generally, fail to impress colleagues, peers, and potential mates with whom you might share a condom one evening.
From a cycling point-of-view, these data tell us plenty about lifestyle choices. Presumptive measurements of risk based on individual helmet use disregard a key element of condom use. It’s not just an individual’s decision to wear one or not: couples share a common concern.
However the intimate social nexus that governs sexual engagement doesn’t exist for cyclists. Here we speak only about individuals and their right to choose one way or another, an approach that excuses a panoply of road users from a public dialogue on cycling safety. The braggadocio of helmetlessness extinguishes factors like human error, congestion, road rage, blind spots, speed, and the multiple distractions that plague modern motorists. It reinforces a logic that crashes and their consequences should be assigned to individual cyclists.
On top of that there is no coordinated public health engagement with cycling safety (in the media, in schools, among family members) that rounds out preventive strategies when cycling in traffic. Ask yourself when was the last time you saw a commercial advertising a brand of helmets on a major media channel? Or for that matter, when was the last time your North American government released a well produced public service announcement like this one from the UK?
Looking at these Statscan survey results shouldn’t we wonder why our transportation safety choices are so naive, careless, adolescent even. Clearly, youth understand the relationship between unprotected sex and suffering: the consequences of sexually transmitted diseases or perhaps worse, pediatric parenthood.
And yet parents and the North American institutions that support their interests have neither associated helmet use with injury prevention, nor have they taken steps to augment physical protection with awareness measures and skills-based programs promoting safe cycling. As a result we’ve amplified helmet trash talking and – unlike our sexual educator friends – we’ve diminished our capacity to support a comprehensive approach to cycling safety. Whether you put a prophylactic on your penis or your head the fact is that protection begins before you go for a ride.