New “No Excuses” Helmet Safety Campaign Misses Its Mark

Written by Boston Biker on Oct 14

I have been noticing a new safety campaign around town, and have gotten a couple emails about it. It seems the Boston Public Health Commission has been putting up posters, and laying down stickers in bike lanes to alert cyclists to the importance of wearing helmets.

Sure its a little in your face, but wearing a helmet is a good idea. Reading the stickers you might think its the law to wear a helmet (it isn’t if you are over 16), but other than that no big deal. Wear your stupid helmet people, come on.

Then I ran across this.

Holy shit! Really!

That is some seriously heavy imagery, not the least of which because its a young black man with a bloody face posted in area of town heavily trafficked by young black people.  This is some seriously violent imagery for a public safety campaign.

I get what they are trying to do, its sorta like those anti-smoking campaigns.

The idea being that you make not wearing a helmet socially unacceptable by appealing to the fear people have of getting injured. Anti-smoking campaigns work in a similar way, appealing to peoples fear of mortality in order to get them to make different choices. However there are some important differences.

  1. Smoking is an addiction, addictions require stronger pushes to get people to fight them.
  2. Cycling is GOOD FOR YOU! Showing bloody images of people on posters is not going to encourage people to cycle.
  3. More cyclists seem to equal safer cyclists. Several studies have shown that increasing the number of cyclists on the road will actually make them safer.
  4. Most fatal crashes involve vehicles and cyclists. Helmets are good, but driver/cyclist education, better engineered roads, and enforcement will go a lot further in preventing these crashes than helmet usage will.

In my mind public safety campaigns should be about doing the most good for the most people. So lets take a hard look at this sort of campaign.

  1. This does nothing to educate drivers or cyclists to change their behaviour (cars turning without looking being one of the biggest safety threat to cyclists)
  2. It actively discourages cycling, I know I would not be cycling if I thought my face would end up like that
  3. Less cyclists = less safety for cyclists, safety in numbers works the other way when your numbers decrease.
  4. Cycling is good for reducing other public health threats (fights obesity and diabetes, reduces car pollution which causes asthma by replacing car drivers with bike riders, reduces heart disease, etc)
  5. Therefor less cyclists = more harm to the public health

So adding it all up, these bloody violent ad campaigns might actually do more harm than they avoid.

I would have rather these dollars spent on ad’s that warn car drivers about checking their mirrors before making turns.  You could use the exact same image, but instead put it up on a billboard near known traffic jam locations, with the text “Do you want to be responsible for the death of someones son. Check your mirrors for cyclists before turning.”

You could still put little stickers in bike lanes encouraging people to wear helmets, you could use the same slogan. But if you want to do the most good for the public health, you are going to want to encourage more people to bike.  Then educate drivers about how to handle the increased number of people on bicycle.

If you need a visual ad for encouraging helmet use, you could appeal to sex.  Have hot people in nothing but helmets (I guess its ok to see bloody faces but not naked people, use some bushes to hide the “naughty” bits), with the ad text “You look better in a helmet.”   Or a picture of a mother with the text “Your mother worries, wear your helmet” or any of a number of funnier/better ad’s that wouldn’t scare people away from cycling.

Helmets are good, and people should wear them. But showing a kid who looks like someone took a bat to his face is not going to get more people to ride their bike, and I think we would all be better off if more people rode their bikes, with or without helmets.

I tried to find more information about this campaign, but the URL on the poster doesn’t seem to work. Have you seen more of these posters around town? Are there other bloody imagery or just this one picture? Do you think the potential reduction in cyclist numbers is worth increasing the current percentage of cyclists who wear a helmet? Do you think these ad’s are effective? Let me know in the comments.

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42 Responses to “New “No Excuses” Helmet Safety Campaign Misses Its Mark”

  1. By john on Oct 14, 2012 | Reply

    I agree that the money would be better spent on educating drivers, at least 1/2 the money. Menino seems scared to ever put any responsibility on drivers in Boston, any time a bicyclist is seriously hurt or killed, he ramps up all this rhetoric about bicyclists needing to be careful, when what is really needed is he showing a little leadership and calling out Boston drivers to take responsibility. Boston drivers are known as the worst in the country, and its joked about, but they are killing pedestrians and bicyclists and the mayor is saying, its your fault, walkers and bikers. Time to man up Menino and be a leader.

  2. By babble on on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    That’s a Great Idea!

    “If you wear nothing else on your bike, wear your helmet…” I love it! Sex is better than gore, any day, and funny is even better…

    That graphic ad is silly, anyway, because your helmet wouldn’t protect you from the damage he sustained. It protects your skull, not your face. He looks exactly like he was hit with a bat.

  3. By Briar on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    THANK YOU! I saw these from the 86 bus the other day, and I thought they said “No Parking, No Excuses,” and I said to my husband, “FINALLY, that is so awesome!” But when we slowed down we noticed they said “No Helmets, No Excuses,” and I was like, “WHUHT???”

    I don’t even understand the impetus behind it. It’s like a vicious attack against the vulnerable instead of the people doing the actual killing, and in this type of rhetoric that makes an already tenuous relationship even more strained.

  4. By Briar on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    Whoops, I meant to type the slogan of the actual ad which was “No Excuses, Wear a Helmet”—I would hope people knew what I meant, but since this is the Internet, I sincerely doubt I won’t be called out on that…unfortunately.

  5. By Sean on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    Another well meaning misguided cycling project created by folks who haven’t ridden a bike since middle school. But it’s cheap, requires little effort, and it probably allows them to qualify for some federal dollars: that seems to be how these things usually work.

    Meanwhile still no update on the cyclist hit from behind and crushed with the driver fleeing the scene in Wellesley.

  6. By Sean on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    Another well meaning but misguided cycling project created by folks who haven’t ridden a bike since middle school. But it’s cheap, requires little effort, and it probably allows them to qualify for some federal dollars: that seems to be how these things usually work.

    Meanwhile still no update on the cyclist hit from behind and crushed with the driver fleeing the scene in Wellesley.

  7. By Justin on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    Hilariously, the injury depicted in the ad would not have been prevented by a helmet.

  8. By Jeremy on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    Glad to see this post. I made this exact point in my last podcast episode, that the promotion of helmets does nothing to increase bike safety.

    Sean is completely right that helmet campaigns are the work of people who haven’t biked since middle school. And as a result, whenever they hear “bike safety” all they think of is helmets.

  9. By KillMoto on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    What can we do to ensure the Boston Public Health Commission is at least given some incentive to learn the facts?

    Could people like us petition the Boston Public Health Commission, under the Massachusetts Public Records Law, to release any and all documents related to injury and fatality rates for cyclists, with an indication of whether or not a helmet would have credibly reduced injury/prevented death, and with additional causal elements (e.g., a 2-ton SUV parked on the victim’s chest) listed?

    Perhaps if the BPHC has to go through the exercise of conjuring up said documentation, they’d have an epiphany, a healthy meeting of palm-to-face, and (dare I dream) a change in direction the next time they have some taxpayer money to blow on advertisements?

    Or would it be more effective to print a bunch of stickers that say “Inattentive Driving Kills People” and plaster them on top of these ads?

  10. By Erik Griswold on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    If that non-conforming “No Excuse, Wear a Helmet” stencil is indeed on a roadway in Boston, it needs to be reported to both MassDOT and the FHWA as a non-MUTCD compliant roadway marking. Not that Massachusetts has ever followed the Federal MUTCD (See how highway Exit-only lanes are striped, even in the Big Dig tunnel) but if this lane was added using federal funds, it can’t have that distracting and confusing marking.

  11. By Erik Griswold on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    KillMoto: Think we’ll ever see this (Warning: Graphic) anti-texting British PSA aired in the USA?

    Not if Detroit and the Wireless industry have any clout.

  12. By Dave on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    …are they promoting full-face helmets? or helmets which put a force field around your whole face?

    This is like showing some guy who just got shot in chest, with the text “Be responsible, wear your bullet-proof vest whenever you leave the house.” Meanwhile, selling guns to anyone who wants one, and encouraging people to carry them around all the time, while promoting the idea that if anyone doesn’t have a gun, it’s your right to show them what your gun can do, and if they didn’t have a bullet-proof vest to protect themselves, THEY were the irresponsible one.

  13. By Brian on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    A sixth concern. It reinforces the notion among motorists that cyclists are responsible for the injuries they incur from being hit by said motorist.

  14. By rtuck on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    You’re right. They should put the effort into making helmet and front/back use mandatory and enforceable by law.

  15. By rtuck on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    That is- front and back LIGHT use.

  16. By gmook on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    Dear City of Boston:

    No excuses, build some cycletracks.

    No excuses, enforce no parking in bike lanes.

    No excuses, repair the potholes.

    No excuses, reconnect our once-majestic pathways.

    No excuses.

  17. By Chris on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    This campaign is BS. As a cyclist who wears a helmet 99.9% of the time, this really pissed me off.

  18. By Fred on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    Sadly helmets do not work as intended. They are the quack medicine of cycling safety.

    Also, they are a HUGE waste of money.

    For example, if one spends the price of a helmet on infrastructure improvements, about 30 dollars per person, one can save make the streets seven times safer.

    Contrast this to places like Australia where they had a mandatory helmet law which has not saved a single life. They were promised an 85% reduction in deaths. This did not happen.

    Helmets are popular because they put the entire responsibility of safety on the cyclist. In reality cycling is absurdly safe, and cyclist rarely die in the absense of a high speed motor vehicle. Despite this, safety campaigns almost never take this basic fact into account. It’s almost as if the “safety experts” don’t actually want to make things safer at all.

    I can’t image how much money was wasted on these billboards which could have been used to save some lives by building bike lanes and other infrastructure.

    At least the multi-billion dollar helmet industry can get adversising for their useless product.

  19. By gabe on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    @fred I have two broken helmets and a perfectly fine skull to attest to the usefulness and financial value of helmets. My two helmets = $160. My emergency room bill = $0. In both cases the helmet cracked on impact, and I walked away with a stiff neck and some road rash.

  20. By MarkB on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    Apparently the world doesn’t like me very much, people keep doing stuff to make me NOT want to go where they are.

    My tolerance for STUPID can be measured with a micrometer….

  21. By John_in_NH on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    GAHHHH. I have noticed these over the past few days over on Harvard Ave and then just recently on Comm. You know what, I want to wear my helmet less because of these god damn awful ads, and in fact I am in certain sections where I know there will be no issue (still keep it on comm ave when not using a bikeshare, just a bit too hairy still)

    A number of these were placed where the bike symbol and arrow were missing or obscured, use the damn funding you got for this to repaint the symbol, or how about marking the door zone in the bike lanes targeted, or like somebody mentioned above, No parking in the bike lane!

    These piss me off, who can we complain to about this, not to mention they are illegal and should be removed (ok if they did it in chalk and I didn’t have to see them every freaking day I would feel better)

    I am seriously thinking about changing my route so I don’t have to see this crap.

  22. By John_in_NH on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    Oh another thought, “use lights its the law” markings would be fine by me.

    What is more important, preventing crashes by making folks on bikes more visible or maybe maybe lessening an injury for one person if something were to happen, and only if it happened in a certain way. (most crashes in the urban environment with high speed motor traffic are too sever for the limited benefit current helmet design provides)

    just stupid…

  23. By Rebecca Albrecht on Oct 15, 2012 | Reply

    For people who were thinking of riding a bicycle in Boston, I don’t think seeing gruesome photos showing the dangers of cycling will get them to bike. Have you ever seen photos of car accident victims who were not wearing helmets being used in ad campaigns to sell cars? I sure haven’t!

  24. By Guido on Oct 16, 2012 | Reply

    Thanks for promoting this issue… I wish this ad wasn’t so horrifying. This will make it harder for me to get my friends to join me on a ride.. ugh

  25. By Robyn Lynn on Oct 16, 2012 | Reply

    This campaign is an embarrassment to Boston and should be petitioned to be taken down.

  26. By Colleen Welch on Oct 16, 2012 | Reply

    When I first saw this, I thought it was going to be another helmet-bashing article. I am an ardent supporter of wearing helmets. I would like to see it required by law for everyone (like in New Zealand where, in 5 weeks of cycling, I never saw a cyclist without a helmet). I understand that would have some serious issues (primarily enforcement), but, I digress. The reason I am commenting on your article is because, surprising myself, I agree with you! I think the lane markings are great, but the brutal poster is…well…brutal, and certainly not going to achieve the desired result of getting more people to wear helmets. I very much like your suggestions of better ways to communicate the need for helmets; especially those involving humor. I hope there is a way for you to pursue this in Boston. I am across the country in Washington State, but in this, I am on your side.

  27. By MoD on Oct 16, 2012 | Reply

    I just called the Mayor’s office and left a complaint. Feel free to do the same: 617.635.4500

    I strongly agree with combining sex appeal with helmet use. Those posters would work!

  28. By Barbara on Oct 16, 2012 | Reply

    I’ve noticed this billboard as well and it is not encouraging cycling, rather using fear to instill the implementation of “safety”. Other adverts need to be implemented, especially for motorists. By making motorists aware of cyclists, it will help to legitimize cycling. Additionally, kudos on this story being picked up by the Atlantic Cities blog!

  29. By Michelle on Oct 16, 2012 | Reply

    I agree with most of the comments here. Although it is good to wear a helmet, people should not be force into wearing one. The money used to paint those ugly signs should go towards converting drivers to bikers instead or maybe even eliminate smoking in the Bay State. Now that is what I call progress if BPHC could accomplish what I brought up.

  30. By Helment Hair on Oct 16, 2012 | Reply

    I have seen remarkably similar facial injuries on people who were wearing helmets. And a couple of much more serious facial injuries on people who were also wearing helmets – one a nasty impalement. A lightweight EPS helmet sitting on top of your head doesn’t provide any real protection from the pictured type of facial injury – you need a full face helmet. BTW, nice fear mongering campaign.

  31. By lisa on Oct 19, 2012 | Reply

    Found the campaign website…

    Sure, a helmet will help when you are hit, but let’s see what can be done to prevent crashes from happening.

    Thanks for speaking out.

  32. By James Dowd on Oct 22, 2012 | Reply

    I ride in Boston and wear a helmet whenever I ride. But my helmet- a Bern- does not cover my face. Therefore I don’t understand what this campaign is saying helmets prevent.

  33. By Atbman on Oct 22, 2012 | Reply

    Ah, yes. The good old “Wear a helmet or YOU WILL DIE!” campaign to encourage the safe and healthy activity of cycling.

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