Update, 17 January:
This Croakey post from December 8 details errors in the study described below, while this subsequent post contains the authors’ response.

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Earlier this year, Croakey hosted a lively discussion about the merits (or otherwise) of laws that mandate the wearing of bicycle helmets. One post argued that helmet legislation was “flawed public policy”.

Now, new evidence has been published by the author of that particular post, a leading public health and cycling advocate, Clinical Associate Professor Chris Rissel from the University of Sydney.

Chris Rissel writes:

A new research article documents the rate of head injuries among cyclists from 1988 to 2008. It concludes that: “It is likely that factors other than the mandatory helmet legislation reduced head injuries among cyclists.”

The article by Voukelatos and myself is to be published this week in the Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety, (the article is available now on the Cycling Connecting Communities site) and is covered in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.)

The main reasons that mandatory helmet legislation is a problem are:

  • There is minimal evidence of helmet legislation actually reducing cyclist head injuries
  • It reduces the number of people cycling, making it less safe for the remaining cyclists (the well known safety in numbers phenomena)
  • It inhibits spontaneous riding (eg just hopping on a bike for a short ride), and is a massive problem for public bike hire schemes
  • It adds to the image of cycling as a “dangerous” activity
  • It is a victim-blaming approach (the vulnerable road user has to wear protection…) if it does not also address the road environment and behaviours and attitudes of drivers
  • Other factors are very much more important for cycling safety (eg cycling infrastructure, vehicle speed and driver behaviours)

As Michael Colville-Anderson of Copenhagan Chic said in Melbourne recently: “Good ideas tend to travel. Australia and New Zealand are still the only two countries in the world with mandatory helmet legislation for adults. If it was such a good idea why hasn’t everyone else done it?”

Mexico and Israel have recently repealed their bicycle helmet laws, largely because of the difficulties mandatory helmets create for public bicycle rent schemes.

If people want to wear a helmet, they should. If someone wants to go down the street to get some milk, or go on a social ride with friends, they should have the choice about wearing a helmet. Anti-helmet legislation advocacy is about choice.

The complaints and debate about helmet legislation have not gone away because there is no clear evidence that helmet legislation achieved the desired reduction in head injuries that it should have. Helmets may offer some minor protection in some circumstances, but the negatives far outweigh any positives.

I think there needs to be a research study where the legislation is repealed in one jurisdiction (say Newcastle, or Wollongong) and the effects carefully studied over a couple of years.

This would add some valuable evidence to this whole issue.”

Update 17 Aug. A recent article from the Canadian Medical Association journal arguing for helmet laws.

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