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What Do Bicycle Helmets And Organic Produce Have In Common?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 15, 2012

A New York Times piece, To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose the Helmets, explains how a focus on the dangers of cycling can lead to negative outcomes, even though helmets really do protect against injuries:

Then I did something extraordinary, something I’ve not done in a quarter-century of regular bike riding in the United States: I rode off without a helmet.

I rode all day at a modest clip, on both sides of the Seine, in the Latin Quarter, past the Louvre and along the Champs-Élysées, feeling exhilarated, not fearful. And I had tons of bareheaded bicycling company amid the Parisian traffic. One common denominator of successful bike programs around the world — from Paris to Barcelona to Guangzhou — is that almost no one wears a helmet, and there is no pressure to do so.

In the United States, the notion that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries is taken as pretty near God’s truth. Un-helmeted cyclists are regarded as irresponsible, like people who smoke. Cities are aggressive in helmet promotion.

But many European health experts have taken a very different view: Yes, there are studies that show that if you fall off a bicycle at a certain speed and hit your head, a helmet can reduce your risk of serious head injury. But such falls off bikes are rare — exceedingly so in mature urban cycling systems.

On the other hand, many researchers say, if you force or pressure people to wear helmets, you discourage them from riding bicycles. That means more obesity, heart disease and diabetes. And — Catch-22 — a result is fewer ordinary cyclists on the road, which makes it harder to develop a safe bicycling network. The safest biking cities are places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, where middle-aged commuters are mainstay riders and the fraction of adults in helmets is minuscule.

“Pushing helmets really kills cycling and bike-sharing in particular because it promotes a sense of danger that just isn’t justified — in fact, cycling has many health benefits,” says Piet de Jong, a professor in the department of applied finance and actuarial studies at Macquarie University in Sydney. He studied the issue with mathematical modeling, and concludes that the benefits may outweigh the risks by 20 to 1.

He adds: “Statistically, if we wear helmets for cycling, maybe we should wear helmets when we climb ladders or get into a bath, because there are lots more injuries during those activities.” The European Cyclists’ Federation says that bicyclists in its domain have the same risk of serious injury as pedestrians per mile traveled.

Yet the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that “all cyclists wear helmets, no matter where they ride,” said Dr. Jeffrey Michael, an agency official.

The point, of course, is that focusing on a particular benefit of an action — say wearing a helmet when bicycling — really doesn’t make any sense. You have to look at the total picture. In this case that is weighing the benefit of a helmet against the likelihood that one will cycle less. Writ large, this is a public policy question regarding laws requiring helmets of bicycle riders.

The same questions apply to the produce industry. Take an issue such as organics. Even if organics are in some sense healthier, is the benefit sufficient to outweigh a lower consumption due to the higher prices of organic. Then, note the argument against bicycle helmets: it is that the very act of making people wear “armor” dissuades from use. Surely it is not a stretch to look at the “Dirty Dozen” list from the Environmental Working Group and say that it doesn’t so much encourage people to buy organic as to discourage them from purchasing produce.

Equally, all those proposals to get individuals to scrub and sanitize produce for food safety reasons seems more likely to dissuade from consumption than to get lots of produce scrubbing done.

And, on a public policy level, one has to question if this insistent beat of pathogen recalls is really keeping people safe or just harming them by encouraging a switch to less healthful foods. 

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