ARG-019

The following appeared in a health newsletter.

"A ten-year nationwide study of the effectiveness of wearing a helmet while bicycling indicates that ten years ago, approximately 35 percent of all bicyclists reported wearing helmets, whereas today that number is nearly 80 percent. Another study, however, suggests that during the same ten-year period, the number of bicycle-related accidents has increased 200 percent. These results demonstrate that bicyclists feel safer because they are wearing helmets, and they take more risks as a result. Thus, to reduce the number of serious injuries from bicycle accidents, the government should concentrate more on educating people about bicycle safety and less on encouraging or requiring bicyclists to wear helmets."


Write a response in which you examine the stated and/or unstated assumptions of the argument. Be sure to explain how the argument depends on these assumptions and what the implications are for the argument if the assumptions prove unwarranted.


In the newsletter, the author cites two surveys that indicate that with an increasing proportion of bicyclists wearing helmets, the number of accidents associated with bicycle also increased simultaneously. Therefore, the author suggests that the government should assign priority to bicycle safety education instead of emphasizing the necessity of wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle. However, the author’s conclusion highly relies on the author’s unstated assumptions, which once proved unwarranted, would undermine the author’s conclusion and consequently nullify the proposed recommendation.

To begin with, while we are informed of the significant increase in both the percentage of bicycle-related accidents and people who claim to wear helmets, we cannot safely assume that an increasing number of people began to wear helmets, nor can we confidently claim that people have a greater tendency to take risks while bicycling. First, whether or not the number of people who report wearing helmets, both in proportion and in number, has greatly increased depends on their truthfulness. Generally speaking, when interviewed about how to ride bicycles, people may allege safety awareness, by claiming to wear a helmet, for example. If it turns out that people lied about wearing a helmet, then the assumption that more people are wearing helmets while bicycling is unwarranted. Moreover, if the 200 percent increase in bicycle-related accidents results from an increase in bicyclists, which is highly likely given the ten-year time period, or if the accidents should not be ascribed to carelessness of the bicyclists, but instead to car drivers or pedestrian, then the assumption is untenable that bicyclists tend to take more risk. As a result, the author’s recommendation is rendered questionable.

Even if the aforementioned assumptions remain tenable, it is worthwhile examining the soundness of another assumption that it is the helmets that led to bicyclists’ likelihood to take more risks and finally result in more accidents. In this argument, the author clearly regards the increased percentages of people claiming to wear helmets and the bicycle-related accidents as a causal relationship. However, we just do not know whether the bicyclists, who are supposed to take responsibility for the accidents, wore a helmet or not when the accidents occurred. If it was the ones who did not wear helmets while bicycling that caused the accidents, then we should not find fault with the helmets and the author’s recommendation deemphasizing the necessity of wearing helmets is obviously weakened.

Granted that wearing a helmet does increase a bicyclist’s propensity to take risks and consequently gave rise to increasing accidents, we should still be cautious about the assumption that helmets contributed little to the protection of these bicyclists involved in the accidents; it is of equal significance that we remain alert to the assumption that educating people about bicycle safety functions well in reducing the number of serious injuries from bicycle accidents. If helmets excel at the protection of bicyclists from significant injuries, then we should maintain their use until better safety measures are found. In addition, if the education about bicycle safety turns out to be futile, then the author’s proposal is undermined and we should therefore vote against such a recommendation.

To summarize, while people probably should receive more professional education about bicycle safety, we cannot readily assume that they will not benefit from wearing helmets while bicycling. Also, without concrete and reliable information, it is hasty to attribute the increased number of accidents to helmets, which in this argument are assumed to be responsible for bicyclists’ penchant for risky behavior.

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