Irrationality and Risk

One subject you can always count on to turn people into emotionally-driven lunatics, besides politics and religion, is the proposal of mandatory safety laws requiring individuals to take certain precautions to protect their own life and health. e.g. Safety belts, regulating food and drugs, mandatory gun locks, banning smoking, minimum drinking ages, mandatory safety devices in cars, and mandatory helmets.

The mandatory helmet issue always comes up with me because, sometimes when I bike, I like to go helmet-less, depending on the weather, where I’m going, and the route I’m taking. And, without fail, there is always someone there to admonish me for my reckless behavior.

But if ordinary cycling is not more dangerous than walking or driving, why do people become apoplectic when faced with the proposal of helmet-less cycling? And why are they not as adamant about mandatory helmet use for pedestrians and automobile passengers as they are for cyclists? The position that cyclists ought to be forced by law to wear helmets at all times is completely irrational, yet so many people subscribe to it.

The bottom line of the issue is that if you believe the risk of head injury in cycling is big enough to warrant wearing a helmet, then you ought to be wearing a helmet whenever you get into an automobile, or go for a walk, because the risk of head injury is far greater and the potential life-saving effects of a helmet are multiples of the effects when cycling.

I think the mandatory helmet idea hinges on an attitude that cycling is a recreational activity and not a serious method of transportation like cars, trains or walking. Wearing helmets while playing sports is standard practice and normal. If you view cycling as a sport, rather than a method of transportation, then it makes perfect sense that safety equipment ought to be worn while participating in that sport, since all sports come with their cadre of typically-worn safety equipment.

The problem is that this idea comes from a world-view that automobiles are serious tools with a real purpose, whereas bicycles are kids’ toys and exercise machines to be used for sport. It is completely irrational and based on hunches and personal bias rather than numbers. After all, supporters might say, “Why would you need a helmet in a car? You’re surrounded by airbags and a steel cage. You feel safe, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?” Well apparently so.

But people making risk assessments based on feelings rather than numbers leads to things like mandatory helmet laws that actually kill more lives than they save.

If people wish to live their lives making ridiculous risk assessments about their activities, and the appropriate amount of safety equipment that ought to go along with those activities, they ought to be left alone to make those mistakes that arise from ignoring statistics and physics, and embracing a decision-making system based on misguided gut instincts. It does irk me though, as someone living a lifestyle outside the majority, when people try to make the life decisions they make for themselves mandatory for everyone else.

Dave Moulton put it nicely, “Would you want to be forced to wear a helmet while walking around town? Many people feel exactly the same way when forced to do so while riding a bike.”

If you want to regulate how much risk I am allowed to take on in order to limit the costs to society for my care after a mishap, or to just protect me from myself, I can understand that and even go along with it in some instances. But you need to calculate that risk by the appropriate use of scientific studies, statistics and physics. When you “calculate” and regulate that risk based purely upon gut instincts, cultural mores, and marketing, all you’re doing is imposing your irrational risk assessment upon everyone else rather than actually making people safer.

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