Did Not Wearing a Helmet Save Gene Hackman's Life?
|film still via the gothamist|
As some may know, 81-year-old actor Gene Hackman was hit by a truck while riding his bicycle in Florida last week. As the media has made a point to note again and again and again, Mr. Hackman was not wearing a helmet during the incident. It is now known that Mr. Hackman has survived the collision.
So... Does this mean that not wearing a helmet saved Gene Hackman's life?
Don't answer that, I know what you are going to say: My God, of course not. That would be absurd. What an insane conclusion. Right? Well, don't worry, I agree. Of course the fact that a helmetless cyclist survived a collision does not mean that this favourable outcome resulted from them not having worn a helmet. An accurate way to describe the situation is that the two facts coincided: He was not wearing a helmet, and he survived the collision. As everyone who has studies the scientific method or statistic knows, correlation does not imply causation.
I am glad we are on the same page now about the absurdity of implying that Gene Hackman's lack of helmet saved his life. Because if you agree about this, then surely you will see the double-standard of finding it entirely logical when helmeted cyclists who survive collisions report that wearing a helmet saved their life. It is a powerful emotional argument, but logically, statistically, and scientifically, it is erroneous for the same reasons it would be erroneous to say that not wearing a helmet saved Gene Hackman's life. If a cyclist wears a helmet and they emerge from a collision alive, that implies correlation, not causation.
Bicycle helmets have some protective properties under some conditions, but these properties are limited and do not extend to colliding with moving motor vehicles. Bicycle helmets also have some drawbacks, including their ability to cause rotational injuries. After reading lots and lots and lots of studies (the studies themselves, and not the media's digested, distorted, misquoted and sensetionalised versions of the studies), I believe that the evidence pertaining to bicycle helmet effectiveness is mixed and inconclusive. And this is talking about effectiveness itself, without even delving to the larger, social implications of the helmet debate. We are all scared of getting hurt while riding our bikes, and we would all like there to be a magic device or talisman that makes cycling safe. But it is erroneous and even dangerous to over-attribute protective qualities to the bicycle helmet. Personal accounts of surviving collisions are tremendously affecting, both for the person recounting their experience and for the listener or reader. And I by no means wish to undermine these accounts. But it is also important to recognise that as human beings, we are "wired" to be more susceptible to affecting narratives. Things that are not in fact logical make sense to us under emotionally charged conditions, and "a helmet saved my life" is a textbook example of that.
Be angry at me if you must for the title of this post and the things I write here. But also try to understand my point. Accepting emotional, subjective beliefs as evidence does not actually contribute to safety. It only contributes to a false sense of security, to hysteria, to witch hunts, and to the media now making it a point to state whether a cyclist hit by a motor vehicle was wearing a helmet or not, thus normalising the "blame the victim" mentality in reports of cyclist deaths and injuries. How did we let this happen? That is something we ought to think about very carefully.