Safer roads save cyclists
Wearing a helmet is still recommended,
but researchers argue that bicycle helmet
legislation was not the main factor behind
reduced head injuries among cyclists.
Image: iStockphoto

The effectiveness of legislation requiring cyclists to wear helmets in New South Wales has been questioned by research from the University of Sydney.

Australian pedal cyclists have been required to wear helmets since 1991. Analysis published in the latest Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety finds most of the recent reduction in head injury rates among cyclists occurred before mandatory helmet wearing took effect and is due to general improvements in road conditions.

Associate Professor Chris Rissel from the Sydney School of Public Health collated annual hospital data for head injuries resulting from cycling accidents from 1988 to 2008 and compared these to cyclists' arm injuries during the corresponding period. In the paper 'The Effects of Bicycle Helmet Legislation on Cycling-related Injury', he expressed this figure as a ratio; raw data of absolute injury numbers does not account for ebbs and flows in the number of cyclists on the road, a figure not readily available.

"Head injuries from cycling accidents decreased across all age groups during the data collection period and are now outnumbered by arm injuries," Associate Professor Rissel says.

"But the most marked decrease in injuries occurred before mandatory helmet wearing was introduced in 1991. Subsequent reductions in head injuries have occurred at a much lower rate and are not of the magnitude you'd expect from making all cyclists wear a helmet.

"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."

Associate Professor Rissel says policy makers should consider the health and environmental benefits of more people cycling, and work to remove the many barriers to riding a bike.

"Wearing a helmet is still recommended, but you don't really need one if you're just riding in a park or going to the shops for some milk."

He co-wrote the paper with Dr Alex Voukelatos who recently completed his PhD at the University of Sydney.

Editor's Note: Original news release can be found here.