This post has been updated: February 2015.
Some time back I mentioned I don’t wear a helmet all the time. And that I don’t support mandatory helmet laws (MHLs). Which prompted some of you to want to lock me away from your children (should I corrupt them into not wearing theirs). But many more of you shared some very good info about where the research and laws are all at.
There are two separate questions when discussing this topic:
1. Do helmets work?
2. Do mandatory helmet laws work?
I’ll stress, before you read on: I’m not anti-helmet. I’m against the the mandatory helmet laws here in Australia. It all started when I started questioning why Australia and New Zealand are the only countries in the world with all-age enforced MHLs. It seemed odd. Does the rest of the world not care about the collective noggins of its citizens? Or have they got rid of the laws for good reason? Turns out it’s the latter…
If you’d like to read the column I wrote for News Ltd recently click here. (Note: the headline isn’t mine.)
There’s no conclusive proof helmets save lives or limit injuries.
The “science” on whether helmets actually protect us on an individual basis is very inconclusive and no randomised controlled trials have been done on the safety of bike helmets. The trials that have been done, however, point to the fact they don’t save lives. Turns out this is why a great deal of countries don’t have MHLs. There are so many variables entailed in how this can possibly be so:
- Helmets have been shown to prevent injury from “linear speeding”. But the majority of head injuries from bike accidents occur from “angular” accidents caused when the head is rotated. Helmets actually CAUSE head rotation. Bill Curnow, the president of the Cyclists Rights Action Group in Canberra, reviewed the scientific literature for a 2008 book, Transport Accident Analysis and Prevention“Scientific circles had “widely discredited” the theory that linear acceleration is the main cause of brain injury, yet helmet makers had made a huge investment in this theory and designed their helmets accordingly, says Curnow, while ignoring the role of angular acceleration in causing brain injury, due to rotation of the head.”
- People who wear helmets are less cautious, therefore more likely to crash. This is a thread that comes up in a lot of studies – helmet-less riders are defensive riders.
- Similarly, studies show “risk compensation” kicks in – helmet riders can be more complacent and take more risks. Ditto drivers – one study shows drivers are more considerate of riders without helmets.
- When helmets are compulsory, and people don’t choose to wear them (ie they wear them reluctantly and without commitment), they’re often worn incorrectly.
- These factors mean there are more people being “saved” by helmets, skewing data.
This from anaesthetist Dr Paul Martin who encounters many bike accident victims in the trauma unit he works in:
A bicycle helmet will not prevent brain damage if the forces involved are so great that you would sustain brain damage without a helmet. You will certainly prevent superficial injuries but that’s about it. In fact, this is a major reason why they’re good to wear for sport cycling. There is nothing worse than having to abandon a race with a scalp laceration. I do not wear a bicycle helmet most of the time. When competing, I’ll wear one. Do you wear a helmet when in a car? If not, why not? The risk of a serious head injury in a car is much greater than on a bicycle. If there was a mandatory car-occupant helmet law would you all comply?
Helmet laws make riding more dangerous
So we have a law that’s not backed by conclusive science. The latest – and most comprehensive – study, focusing on Canada, and published in BMJ found MHLs had negligible impact on injuries.
But it gets worse.
The laws have a negative impact that goes behind inconvenience, curbing of freedom and bad hair.
- Helmets deter people from riding. They’re one of the biggest deterrents. Riding is great exercise. We face an obesity epidemic. We can’t afford to deter people from getting on a bike.
- So much so, regular riders live longer because the health effects of cycling far outweigh the risk of death from crashing. There is ample data to back this. Like, far- far. According to the Australian Heart Foundation mortality from lack of exercise accounts for 16,000 deaths a year. How many people die from bike accidents? 40.
- Less riders on the road = more dangerous bike conditions. Cities where more people ride are safer…it’s called the Smeed’s law.
- Also, there’s this: While-ever helmet laws are the government’s response to cycling safety, other measures (infrastructure, campaigns) are side-lined.
As I say, all these factors have stacked up for other governments. But not ours.
A peer reviewed study published in March 2014 looking at the costs and benefits of a bicycle helmet law for Germany found: For Germany, the benefits of a law that obliges cyclists to wear helmets are smaller than the costs. From an aggregated welfare point of view, Germany would therefore lose from introducing such a law.
In December 2013, the final report of the OECD International Transport Forum Working Group on Cycling Safety recommended member countries consider that although bicycle helmet laws could reduce head injury risk, they also increase crash risk and discourage cycling participation with possibly negative health and safety consequences. We are a member of the OECD.
And, seriously, what’s the *real* risk of head injury?
Not nearly as high as the hysteria would have us scared into believing. In Australia, about 40 people from bike accidents each year (not all of which are head injuries).
The problem is:
Vulnerability is confused with danger when it comes to bike helmets.
Yes, cyclists are vulnerable. But the danger – the real risk of injury – is minimal.
There are many safety studies about the issue. This one is a good overview. But a few interesting factoids I’ve collated along the way which might interest you and assist you in making your own mind up:
- Cycling is less dangerous than being a pedestrian. Indeed, six times as many pedestrians as cyclists are killed by motor traffic, yet travel surveys show annual mileage walked is only five times that cycled. The proportion of cyclist injuries which are head injuries is essentially the same as the proportion for pedestrians at 30.0 % vs. 30.1 %.
- UK research has pointed out that it “takes at least 8000 years of average cycling to produce one clinically severe head injury and 22,000 years for one death“.
- In the first 400 days of Dublin’s bike share, 1.3 million trips were made (average duration 16 minutes), equating to 3.7 million kilometres of riding, not one incident. Not one.
Some extra factoids to fuel fires (thanks Dr Paul):
- A helmet smashing into pieces is actually a sign of the helmet failing to work as it should. The foam needs to compress significantly if any forces are to be attenuated. If it cracks or breaks before the foam compresses then it has done nothing to help you.
- Helmets are tested to impact speeds of only 19.5km/h (the speed of impact if dropped 1.5m) and to pass they only have to not break. The documents can be read in full at your local state library (the main one is AS/NZS2063 and the testing documents are AS/NZS2512).
- A bicycle helmet will not protect your face, nor will it protect something which I’m extremely protective of – my cervical spine.
- The ‘new and improved’ helmet standard now differs in two key areas, both of which make a mockery of the last standard and suggest that making bicycle helmets mandatory by law unjust. Firstly, the straps now have to stretch to allow the helmet to come off after the ‘initial impact’ (how does the helmet ‘know’ if the initial impact is going to be the ‘big one’?). Contrast this to the last standard which said it must not move from your head…Secondly, visors and other appendages must be of such a design to not increase rotational forces on impact. This is ironic given that the last standard did no test whatsoever for rotational effects, despite being asked to do so for almost 10 years. So are they saying it is important now or not?
- Helmets which currently comply with the AS/NZS2063 standard, but won”t comply with the updated standard, will be illegal to sell after June 30, 2011. However, these very helmets will be perfectly legal to wear after June 30, 2011. This makes a law forcing people to wear them, plainly ridiculous.
You can catch up at the Cyclist Rights Action Group (CRAG) for good info on some more recent studies.
Or here, on the failures of mandatory helmet laws. Or here for helmet research from Helmet Freedom.
You can all make of the above what you will.