A new study published by the Medical Journal of Australia found that bicyclists not wearing helmets were over four times more likely to suffer serious head injuries than their helmeted counterparts. The study was conducted by the Department of Trauma Service at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred hospital and looked at patients over 16 years of age who suffered head injuries related to bicycle accidents between 1991 and 2009. According to one of the authors, “Three per cent of people who wear a helmet could end up with head injuries, whereas 13 per cent who don’t wear a helmet will end up with severe head injuries.”
This study comes on the heels of Piet De Jong’s Health Impact of Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws conducted for the Department of Actuarial Studies, Macquarie University. His article sought to determine whether mandatory helmet laws deliver a net societal health benefit. He weighed reduced head injuries against reduced cycling to come up with a cost. From the abstract:
Using estimates suggested in the literature of the effectiveness of helmets, the health benefits of cycling, head injury rates, and reductions in cycling, leads to the following conclusions. In jurisdictions where cycling is safe, a helmet law is likely to have a large unintended negative health consequence. In jurisdiction where cycling is relatively unsafe, helmets will do little to make it safer and a helmet law, under relatively extreme assumptions may make a small positive contribution to net societal health. As such, helmet legislation appears to be a distraction from the main bicycle related health issue: the safety of the bicycling environment. The model serves to focus the mandatory bicycle helmet law debate on overall health. The methodology developed in this article is can be used in other situations where safety initiatives are proposed for healthy activities.
Another study, The Effects of Bicycle Helmet Legislation on Cycling-related Injury, was conducted by researchers at the University of Sydney earlier this year. According to Associate Professor Chris Rissel, one of the authors of the study, “Findings suggest the greatest reductions in head injuries resulting from cycling accidents come from road improvement safety measures introduced prior to 1991, such as lower speed limits, random breath testing and intensive road safety advertising.
“The case for continued mandatory helmet wearing for adults is questionable although there is a case for it continuing for children under 15, who suffered about half the head injuries reported in this study. Helmet use is likely to prevent some injury, particularly for less experienced younger age groups. However the mandatory bicycle helmet legislation is appears not the main factor behind reduced head injuries among cyclists.”
I’m not sure any new conclusions can be drawn from these studies. The main thing I take away is that helmets continue to be a red herring, distracting us from the what I view as the more important issues of road design, bicycle infrastructure, and rider training and education.
You can view our semi-official stance on bicycle helmet use here.
As always, let’s keep the helmet discussion rational and friendly (view our discussion guidelines if you’re not clear on what I mean by “rational and friendly”). Thanks!
Trends in head injuries and helmet use in cyclists at an inner-city major trauma centre, 1991—2010 →
The Health Impact of Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Laws →
The Effects of Bicycle Helmet Legislation on Cycling-related Injury →