Lies, damn lies and helmet statistics

Worn properly, helmets that meet or exceed the toughest international safety standards can be highly effective at preventing head injuries following low-speed falls from heights of one metre or so. However, even the best of helmets cannot protect the wearer from the tons of statistics dropped from a great height by helmet compulsionists. The latest set of statistics is from a study by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, released yesterday. Stats show that less children are being hospitalised for cycle-related injuries but cycle campaigners point out that such drops can often be tracked against reductions in cycle usage thanks, in part, to 'safety' campaigns that scare parents into thinking cycling is a dangerous activity and should be curtailed.
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The number of Canadian children between the ages of 5 and 14 being hospitalised as a result of bicycle injuries has declined by 15 percent over five years, according to a new report from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI). Between 1997–1998 and 2001–2002, the rate of hospitalisation for this age group declined by 15.9 percent, from 42.7 to 35.9 per 100 000 population.

However, a contributor to the BikeBiz.com bulletin board warns about the pitfalls of dodgy arithmetic:

"What this actually says is that the injury rate within the population reduced from 0.043 percentr to 0.036 percent, giving a decline of 0.007 percent, not 15.9 percent. The 15.9 percent number is a meaningless red herring. The ploy of describing the difference between two percentages in terms of a percentage is bound to distort the picture and can often be traced to the source of the confusion in many debates where people who cannot add up bandy around 'statistics'."

The CIHI report does not give information on how this welcome trend of less injuries could be linked to the unwelcome trend of less children cycling.

The National Trauma Registry Report: Injury Hospitalizations, 2001–2002, provides a descriptive analysis of acute care hospitalisations due to injury in Canada, and shows time trends and provincial differences in injury hospitalisations from 1996–1997 to 2001–2002.

The report reveals that 58 percent of injuries sustained among children and youth were of an orthopaedic nature, broken bones and the like, with head injuries accounting for 27 percent of cases. In the five-year period between 1997–1998 and 2001–2002, the proportion of both superficial and head injuries resulting in hospitalisation for children in this age group each declined 11 percent.

In 2001–2002, New Brunswick recorded the highest bicycle-related hospitalisation rate among children and youth with 63.5 per 100,000 population. New Brunswick is one of five Canadian provinces that mandates its citizens should wear helmets when cycling.

Amy Zierler of safety pressure group Safe Kids Canada told a Canadian regional newspaper that the drop in cycle injuries across Canada could reflect the "explosion" in bicycle-safety campaigns stressing helmet use in the last 20 years.

Safe Kids Canada does not just stress helmet-use for cyclists, it has run campaigns urging all 'wheeled' children to don head protection. Its 'Got Wheels? Get a Helmet!' campaign targets children who roller-blade and skate as well as cycle. However, it does not campaign for children to wear helmets when in cars, something that would save scores of lives and prevent many child head injuries.

Greg Webster, Director, Research and Indicator Development at CIHI said:

“[The] report shows that there are many serious cycling injuries every year across Canada. These injuries should not be perceived as accidents that we can do nothing about - safe cycling practices combined with safe cycling environments can go a long way towards reducing these injuries. Injuries continue to be a leading cause of hospitalisation across Canada even though most can be prevented by reducing the level risk associated with the activity. Reducing the risks translates into fewer injuries."

One way of lowering the risk is by not cycling at all, an option feared by obesity-attuned health professionals.

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