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« Why do cyclists shave their legs? The only explanation you will ever need | Main | Dispelling the myth »
Wednesday
Jun182008

Helmets: Now you can vote


After the first three comments on my last “Dispelling the Myth” post, I posted my own comment saying I hoped this wasn’t going to turn into yet another helmet discussion.

Then I thought “To hell with it,” deleted my comment, stepped back and let the discussion grow legs and go wherever it wanted.

I am now glad that I did because it turned out to be a highly civilized, intelligent debate. I enjoyed reading all the comments, and I would like to thank all who took the time to post.

I hope no one lost sight of the theme of the original post; the “Myth” is that cycling is dangerous. With or without a helmet, it is not as dangerous as some think it is.

If someone wants to ride a bike for no other reason than a transport to and from work, or wherever he or she needs to go. And they choose to do so in regular clothes and no helmet, they should be encouraged, not discouraged.

In many cases drivers will give such a person more room because they are not sure how experienced they are.

If you look to the right hand side-bar of this page and scroll down a bit, you will see I have added a “Helmet” poll.

I plan to leave it there for a while, the more people participate, the more accurate it will be. I will then post the results as a separate blog, and it will be here permanently.

Reader Comments (34)

I wear one all the time, but I think helmet technology still has some way to go in terms of comfort.

Where I live, it's cold half the year and then the cold is replaced by heat and humidity. I find there are very few days in which wearing the helmet is really comfortable. I think those who say they are comfortable are just rationalizing.

1) Helmets are too ventilated when it's cold, and they aren't ventilated enough when it's hot and humid. Many helmet "advocates" on bicycle forums and other commentators say that helmets help them stay cool. I don't know what planet they are cycling on. I freeze my head when it's cold, and I sweat like a pig when it's hot under that helmet, to the point that I become nostalgic for my younger, pre-helmet days.

2) Helmets still present a problem with regard to sun exposure. Protecting the exposed areas of the head under the ventilation holes is a constant problem, as is getting some protection for the ears and back of the neck. Sure, there are some individual kludgie solutions out there, but this is a problem that requires some attention. I could solve this easily just by foregoing the helmet and wearing a hat, and to be honest, there are days when I'm tempted to do just that.
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter starling
Thanks for the opportunity to speak & vote. It would be nice if our political system would do the same. Can you display the votes in numbers instead of percentages?
Jack
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
Jack,

I will start posting numbers of voters this evening and at the each day. I will post them under the poll on the side bar.

This poll will tell me the number of real visitors per day. At the moment I get 1,200 hits a day but I suspect many are typical internet surfers with the attention span of a gnat on crack cocaine.

Dave
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Dave Moulton
When I rode and trained in the
1980's I never wore a helmet. In fact, I never gave a helmet a second thought. I only wore one when I raced because USCF made you. It was a giant Bell and it was very uncomfortable.

I wear one all the time now. I appreciate the fact that they're much lighter, etc. However, it doesn't make me feel any safer. I wear one because it's the law, and I must admit, due to social pressure. It's seemingly a sin to not wear one now and I don't feel like putting up with the crap I'll get from others. I also don't buy the argument that a helmet helps you stay cool. Yeah right!
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Richmond Roadie
I almost always wear a helmet (and the only times I don't are just because I'm wearing a hat and forget I haven't put my helmet on).

But, although I believe that helmets "save lives" and "prevent serious head injuries" (which I think are really the same thing on the poll), I don't believe in mandatory use for adults. I do believe, however, that - not pulling punches - it is stupid (or, less harshly, unwise) not to wear a helmet. I also believe it is criminal to not make a child wear a helmet (they are not mature enough to make such a cavalier choice about their brain's safety - and they have more accidents due to bike handling mishaps).

I feel the same way about smoking. As long as I don't have to breathe in second hand smoke, I am not going to prevent an adult from committing suicide by smoking in their car or their house or away from other people who don't smoke. But I think it is criminal to sell or promote cigarette smoking for children.

But, I still think that, as a society, we have to promote the idea to adults that smoking is bad for your health, just as we need to promote the idea that helmets are good for your health.

I agree, by the way, with Dave's original premise (subject to the caveats regarding cars below) that cycling is not as dangerous as it is sometimes made out to be. But, even if helmet promotion appears (unscientifically) to cause people some fear about cycling safety, I wouldn't stop promoting helmets because of irrational fear.

I also think, however, that it is wrong to say that there is no danger with cycling (even though it is less dangerous than the it is sometimes made to appear). Car drivers, intentionally or unintentionally, are what are dangerous, in the main part, to cyclists. To downplay that danger, rather than to offer strategies for dealing with it, and strategies for educating drivers, doesn't seem productive to me.

I want drivers to know how many people they kill and hurt in a year because they want to talk on the cell phone while they're driving. I want drivers to be aware that when they take their road rage out on cyclists, they could be in the unfortunate position of committing manslaughter - that cyclists don't have the ton of steel to protect them that their other road rage targets do.

And I want cyclists to be aware of the danger.

Maybe my perceptions are colored because I ride in New York City traffic. When you encounter Yellow Cabs and potholes, suicidal jaywalkers and potential "doorings" on a daily basis, you know what danger is. But even on suburban streets, drivers sometimes act like Yellow Cabs.

Also, in brief response to starling's points:

Yeah, it's not as comfortable to wear a helmet as it is to go bareheaded - but it's more comfortable to wear a helmet than to have your head punctured by pavement and have your brain leak out.

As to starling's point 1, when it is cold, there are plenty of lightweight cycling specific hats that can keep you warm and which fit nicely under the helmet. As to the heat, Giro's are pretty well ventilated - but, yes, there's a bit more heat.

As to point 2, without a helmet you still have sun exposure issues. Typically, I solve them by wearing sunscreen on my ears, back of neck, face and bald spots.

And Dave, thanks for the polling. You might add one for whether people think children's helmet wearing should be "mandatory". Also, as above, I don't really know the difference between a helmet saving your life and preventing serious head injury. I voted for "saving lives", but I also recognize that a helmet is not a perfect solution because it can never offer full protection - so I guess I could have voted for any of the first three choices in that part of the poll.

Harry from NYC
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
Someone near to me works in the medical sector and tells me the stories of vehicle vs. bike, tree vs. bike, etc. The rider rarely comes out unscathed and an even smaller amount walks away without some sort of permanent damage. You can damage an arm, leg, chest, but when you damage the main component in your body that controls the rest of it well then you're toast.
If you decide not to wear a helmet, then I strongly encourage you to check mark the 'organ donor' section of your driver's license.
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter spokejunky
I think “Saving lives” should be at the top of the scale because there is no recovery from being dead. This would be the worst outcome.

“Preventing serious injury” means no broken skull, or serious brain damage.

“Limited protection” is next because one can be seriously injured, but by still being alive, there is the possibility of a recovery.

“Little or no protection” means only slightly better than no helmet.

Dave
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Dave Moulton
All of my poll "votes" pertain to racing and training. I've only landed on my head just once, but that crash could have ended up as a trip to the ER.
If I was a commuter, I might have voted differently.
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Grump
I'm a 'personal choice' advocate.

On the other hand, I wear a helmet every time I ride. A year ago, I was in a charity ride and the rider in front of me went down. I was eating gel at the time, and flat out ran over him and his bike at 20 mph. I endo'd, and somehow turned in midair and landed on my back, head pointed in the direction of travel.

As I landed, my head slammed on the pavement. THe impact was as severe as anything I've felt before or since. I was scared to get up. When I did, I realized the back of the helmet had fractured in several places. I suffered no damage to my head (that I know of). No headache, concussion, bruising, anything.

And that's why I wear a helmet, and encourage all cyclists to do so.
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter 331 Miles
My helmet did save me from serious injury and perhaps saved my life when I was clipped by a NY city bus when I was traveling up Central Park West at 22-25 mph.

I *never* ride w/out a helmet. I am more than willing to suffer a bit of minor discomfort from heat for the additional protection.

The complainers here should stop the f***ing whining already! Wear a skull cap in the winter for protection from the cold. Invest in a top-of-the-line helmet with the design to maximize ventilation. Use a high SPF sunscreen on exposed skin. Wear a light cycling cap or whatever if you really want additional sun protection. Or, put your bike on a trainer and ride inside. Opt not to wear a helmet. There are no laws. Then, if you suffer injury, refer to the first sentence in this paragraph for recommended reaction. Just to be absolutely clear, bicycle helmets are to protect your head in case of impact. That's it and believe me, that's a lot! Again, if you expect more from a bike helmet or any other kind of helmet, please refer to the first sentence in this paragraph. Take responsibility and act like a grown-up.

What really bothers me are parents who will put a helmet on the child in the booster seat, but not wear a helmet themselves. That is just so wrong and so irresponsible on so many levels!

Okay, that's my rant for today. Here's something fun! If you are easily offended by nudity, do not click on this link! http://tinyurl.com/5tuyoj
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Lydia Sugarman
Dave, it would be really interesting to know where people came from, and if this influenced their vote- I wonder if European cultures which have a tradition of relatively low speed cycling for transport would be more opposed to helmet compulsion, and less believing in their benefits than countries with a tradition of cycling as predominantly a sport.

I am always surprised at how vehement this debate becomes, and how little factual information is used to support the cases made. These two things are probably related. Apparently, "it is stupid (or, less harshly, unwise) not to wear a helmet". But more head injuries occur to motor vehicle occupants than cyclists, and no- one thinks that they should put a helmet on when they get in the car.
In the majority of fatal cycling accidents in London (for example), the cyclist had multiple injuries resulting from crush injuries to the chest and abdomen, and these were the cause of death rather than any head injury. No helmet will preserve your life if your heart is ruptured, for example. As far as I am aware, none of the helmet manufacturers have ever tested their helmets for efficacy (ie prevention of brain injury) in real situations, and where epidemiological studies have been done, they either demonstrate lack of efficacy, or are so badly flawed that no conclusion can be drawn from them. I'd be all for helmets if they were proven to work, and the risk was large, but they haven't been, and it isn't.

Andrew
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
I have no way of knowing where the votes come from. For every 1,000 hits from the US, I get about 250 from the UK, slightly less from Australia, Canada, and so on, followed by France, Germany, etc.

People really do get passionate over the helmet issue more than any other. As we keep saying there is more chance of a head injury in an automobile, and yet no one suggests helmet use there. But just the tiniest hint that a cyclist may not need a helmet is tantamount to blasphemy.

Please keep the comments civil, everyone is entitled to an opinion.
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Dave Moulton
To Andrew:

I wrote that "it is stupid (or, less harshly, unwise) not to wear a helmet".

You wrote back: "But more head injuries occur to motor vehicle occupants than cyclists, and no- one thinks that they should put a helmet on when they get in the car."

I guess I should respond - but not in 20-25 mile an hour crashes where drivers are wearing their seatbelts and have airbags. In those type of crashes, surrounded by steel and glass, and held in position by a seatbelt, protected by an airbag and with neck and back support from a seat and head rest, most drivers do not have serious or any head injuries to speak of.

In any event, what car drivers do to protect themselves is irrelevant to whether it is smart or stupid for a cyclist to suffer a minimum of discomfort by wearing a helmet to protect himself brain against injury or death.

This debate isn't (at least I don't think it is) about making helmets mandatory for adults. The folks who have responded (including me) have overwhelmingly said personal choice should govern for adults (95%). And that's from a group composed of only 12% who say they never wear a helmet (88% do all of the time or some of the time) and only 3% who say helmets offer little or no protection.

So, I presume you are in the 3% who think that helmets are virtually useless and the 12% who never wear a helmet. I don't mean to offend you, but that is just as "stupid" as cigarette smoking is "stupid". You are risking your life unnecessarily and, if you have anyone that depends on you, you are cavalierly betraying that trust for a minimum of personal comfort.

You say you'd be for helmets if they are "proven to work". Well they do - I can point you to the overwhelming majority of medical studies that say they increase survival or prevent serious injury - if you cannot google them yourself. I will also agree that they won't work in every situation and that they won't offer full protection. But they will, in many instances, keep your head intact and your brain from being exposed or taking as much of a beating as it would unprotected.

What is your "evidence" that helmets do not work? Certainly not the BMJ article - it was just making an assumption that people don't ride bikes because of the great fear caused by helmets and, accordingly, were dying in the "millions" due to lack of exercise. So that was a comparative risk analysis - death by heart attack versus death by bike accident. Of course, this "study" ignores that you can run on a treadmill or a stationary bike and get exercise without much risk at all.

Try this scientific experiment at home: (i) Put on your helmet (or borrow one if you don't have one). (ii) Have a friend club you on the head with an axe at a 5 mile per hour speed equivalent or a baseball bat at a little faster speed. (iii) Take off your helmet. (iv) Have them repeat step (ii). (v) Repeat.

After experimenting for about 50 times, record whether you felt better with the helmet or without.

Harry from NYC
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
Dave,
EXCELLENT!
Cyclist safety, by legal means or activity, is paramount today and going forward!
(Chuckle - Ever notice bicycles don't have 'reverse' gears? :-)
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter wrw
Dave -

You wrote: "But just the tiniest hint that a cyclist may not need a helmet is tantamount to blasphemy."

I guess people get upset at statements that "a cyclist may not need a helmet" because they truly care about what happens to other people, and they have either taken a fall or been hit, know someone who did or are worried about it happening (which, eventually, it will to everyone who rides on a regular basis).

If I didn't care about needless injury or death to fellow cyclists, I wouldn't be passionate about it.

I also don't like the peddling of inaccurate science. It is one thing to say that you don't want to wear a helmet because my likelihood of a crash is insignificant, and my likelihood that I will injure my head, rather than my knee, hand and shoulder, is even more insignificant. That at least recognizes that you are calculating the risk and gambling that this time it won't happen. Just like, since I've never been in a car accident, I could calculate that I really don't need to wear a seatbelt (or that it didn't do me any good at all because I've never had the need for it). I don't know about you, but I still think it's silly not to wear a seatbelt, given how its protective properties in the unlikely event of a crash far outweigh the minor discomfort of not having full mobility in my seat.

But when the "debate" devolves into statements that helmets don't really work - then that is just peddling psuedoscience to serve your argument against limiting your comfort. It's the same pseudoscience that says that vaccines don't work and that cigarettes don't cause cancer or lung disease or heart attacks.

I am strongly opposed to psuedoscience - I heartily admit that I view it as "blasphemy" and that is why I will continue to get very exercised when someone suggests that a helmet is unnecessary. As with any other protective device, it is unnecessary until you need it and then it is highly necessary.

Harry in NYC
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
No matter what your skill level, if you ride a bicycle, sooner or later you are going to fall down. It could be a gravel patch, a pothole, or a witless pedestrian, that sends you to the pavement. But it is every bit as inevitable as death and taxes.

A helmet is but a common sense precaution. It can mean the difference between getting up, checking the road rash, and finishing your ride and sitting on the curb with a concussion or worse.

I wear a helmet. Every time. And gloves too.
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter John Marr
I always wear one. Its illegal not to here in NZ. I had my latest spill commuting the other day, when i slipped on some wet tram tracks. I whacked my head quite hard so am very grateful for the helmet.
June 18, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Daniel
I wear a helmet in part because I want my 5 Year old Daughter to wear a helmet while we ride together.

I would think most parents would do anything to minimise the change of something injuring their kids - and minimise the impact of something going wrong if it is going to.

I also only have one head - and it seems such a minor inconvenience to wear a helmet that I cant believe its an issue.

Its more that personal rights issue - what about the people who have to scrape your brains off the road - Think of them. Think of your family - then put your stack hat on.
June 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Warren
ok, how about we do this. All those who wear a helmet and suffer a head trauma get to have free public hospital care and rehab if needed. Those that dont have to foot the bill themselves. then see how many people will wear helmets.
Been hit by cars twice, broke my back once but no head injury.
June 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
Well, I have banged my head three times falling from a bike.

Twice I had a helmet and no harm at all. The third time I broke my nose, still have a scar on my forehead, and get the chills every time I remember the sickening feeling of the impact - I was very stupid and lucky (it wasn't more serious).

Not wearing a helmet is a very poor choice.
June 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Will
Yes, it's definitely interesting to see how this issue gets people worked up. Perhaps it's because it touches on our seemingly universal fear of death?

Dave said "I think 'Saving lives' should be at the top of the scale because there is no recovery from being dead. This would be the worst outcome."

But in response to this I ask: why would it be necessarily the "worst" outcome? Granted, there's no recovery for our meat-body, and who knows where the "rest" of us will go (if indeed there is even a "rest" of us)... but since none of us have been dead, who's to say it's necessarily a bad thing?

Besides, what happened to the whole "allow life to happen" and "don't focus on the negatives" approach? When your time comes, you can be wearing a full-body kevlar suit complete with crotch-protector and you'll still be ushered into the great beyond. Conversely, you could be lanesplitting helmetless and blinding drivers with your bald patch for decades without consequence (beyond perhaps the odd spot of melanoma). Statistics about helmet safety (or anything else) are meaningless when dealing with individuals: at best, they'll only provide a guideline as to what might happen, at worst they'll get abused to form laws that will control us for generations to come.

Our indivudal fear of death is the real issue here. Do they make a helmet for that?
June 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter jan
@ grump : A familiar route is the most dangerous route, because the boredom allows the mind to wander. So wearing a helmet while commuting would be a pretty good idea.
June 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
It's interesting that here as everywhere else, a comment was made about "signing your organ donor card" if you don't wear a helmet. If we apply that logic, not only motor vehicle drivers and passengers would be wearing a helmet, but so would every pedestrian and every child who ever spent a minute in a school yard.

I'll wager I'm one of the few people here who is actually an organ transplant recipient, and I did receive my kidney from having spent a number of dangerous and extremely unpleasant years on the waiting list... until an unfortunate young man died as a result of a car wreck.

Unfortunately, there are no good statistics on the causes of death that result in organ transplants. But I'm pretty sure bicycle accidents are way down the list.

So please, sign your organ donor card or whatever other means you have to give pre-consent because it's the right thing to do, and not in relation to whether you wear a bicycle helmet or not.
June 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter starling
Jan,

In terms of helmet failure, death would still be the worst outcome whether or not it is good or bad.

I can honestly say I do not fear death, but that doesn’t mean I should flirt with it, or hasten my demise by taking unnecessary chances.

I have a lot more I would like to achieve here before I check out, and when I do I would prefer it to be peacefully and by natural causes.

Dave.
June 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Dave Moulton
Jan - "Our indivudal fear of death is the real issue here. Do they make a helmet for that?"

Personally, I'm more afraid of lasting pain and crushing disability and the effect it will have on my family who will have to deal with it.

I wear a helmet primarily because I have a responsibility to my kids not to take foolish chances - especially when putting on my helmet is just as easy as putting on my gloves and shoes.

You shouldn't be afraid of doing the right thing because of a fear that the government will then impose that choice upon you.

Finally, a practical outlook for those who don't care about death or injury, but do want to recover damages from the driver who sideswiped them:

If you don't wear your helmet, don't expect to get much in the way of compensatory damage payments. By not wearing your helmet, if you get a head injury, your failure to put on a helmet is contributory negligence. I.e., it's not the driver's fault anymore - it's yours.
June 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
For information about the efficacy of helmets, relatively free of bias, and certainly without threats or ad hominem attacks, may I respectfully suggest:

http://www.magma.ca/~ocbc/hfaq.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bicycle_helmet

www.cyclehelmets.org

Andrew
June 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
Andrew:

Don't see how "The Vehicular Cyclist" blog on helmets or cyclehelmets.org are "relatively free of bias". Both are basically anti-mandatory helmet law websites.

Their goal is to preserve freedom of choice, and their "evidence" is skewed towards that end.

As for ad hominem attacks, people have been passionate here, but I haven't seen any individual subject to attack as an individual - only statements and biases have been challenged.
June 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
Dear Anon. 11:20am,

You are entitled to your opinion about the neutrality of the sites: I think that taken together, they review all the literature available, but you are welcome to disagree.

I, however, have to disagree that there have been no ad hominem attacks:

Harry of NYC, 4:41pm, responding to me:

"I presume you are in the 3% who think that helmets are virtually useless and the 12% who never wear a helmet. I don't mean to offend you, but that is just as "stupid" as cigarette smoking is "stupid". You are risking your life unnecessarily and, if you have anyone that depends on you, you are cavalierly betraying that trust for a minimum of personal comfort.",

followed by his suggestion that either I or other helmet non- believers get someone to hit us over the head (with either axe or baseball bat), with and without helmet.

Its hard to take that any other way than ad hominem.

Andrew
June 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
From Harry to Andrew:

I didn't call you "stupid" - I called the action of not wearing a helmet "stupid". Ad hominem would be "Andrew is an idiot because I don't like him or his viewpoints"; no one has done that here.

I also didn't suggest that someone hit you in the head because of your beliefs.

You seem to suggest that there is no value to using a helmet - I merely tried to illustrate the point that they are better than going bareheaded. If you get knocked in the head at typical bike accident speeds (usually after scrubbing some speed due to first contact of other body parts to the ground), common sense and scientific research suggest that you'd be better off with protection.

I'm sorry that you are sensitive about challenges to the theory you posit - I will try to keep my strong reaction to it impersonal.

For what it's worth, I don't want the government to force you to wear a helmet. Nor do I want a politically-motivated anti-mandatory movement to distort the benefits of headgear.
June 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
The problem with this survey is it only gives you ONE option for check for wearing helmets. I wear one for all the right reasons.

Next time make sure that you have an "All of the above," or allow multiple checks. It would be much more accurate.


j.
June 19, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter ensenadajim
No matter what your skill level if you are walking around/running/driving/cooking eventually you are going to hit the ground/have an accident.

Do you all where chain mail gloves when using a knife? Wear helmets everywhere you go? The safety protection we choose to wear when undertaking activities of similar risk is *totally* relevant to the debate. People slip and fall all the time. Wearing a helmet for walking around outside is just as easy as putting one on for cycling. Is everyone who suffers any personal injury who could have been saved had they been wearing a full suit of protective clothing responsible for not taking the proper precautions?

I use my bike nearly everyday for running errands and I never wear a helmet. I cycle at low speeds in a defensive manner and have never even come close to hurting my head. On the other hand I can think of times when I have slipped down stairs, twisted my ankle, fallen and hit my head etc. by just living.

If I am doing serious cycling on serious roads at serious speeds then yes, the helmet goes on. Otherwise I leave it off, in the same manner I do when engaging in other low-risk activities.

Ben
UK
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Ben
I wear a helmet. But I'd like to wear one in my car - along with a five point harness. Both of which are _illegal_ in my juristiction.

Go figure
June 20, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
Ben -

I don't wear "chain mail" gloves, but I do ordinarily wear bike gloves. They've saved my skin a couple of times.

But I would give up the gloves anytime in favor of a helmet. Even though I'm much more likely to need the protective shield of the gloves than the helmet (more likely to break my fall with my hands than my head), if I lose all the skin on my hands, or my entire hand and arm, I can still live a productive life. Can't live much of a life at all with similar damage to my head.

Even at the low speeds you say you ride at, the compounding of speed, height and concrete will likely do more damage to your unprotected head than a trip and fall while walking. In any case, walking with a helmet isn't socially acceptable; thank goodness riding with a helmet is.
June 21, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
This thread indicates that you may be more likely to suffer a head injury in a debate about bicycle helmets than while actually riding a bicycle.
June 22, 2008 | Unregistered Commenter Anonymous
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