Should helmets be mandatory?

Australia and New Zealand are the only two countries with blanket mandatory helmet laws. Mandatory helmet laws are constantly debated, with public health proponents saying they save lives, and with its dissidents pointing out that they may reduce cycling participation and therefore actually increase the incidence of accidents. These laws have required cyclists to wear helmets for 27 years, so have they actually made riding our bikes any safer?

Noosa. Every time. #hubbard

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Mandatory helmet laws were first introduced in Victoria in 1990, after a huge push by a number of public health advocacy groups, chiefly the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. At the time, mandatory helmet laws in Australia were unique. They were the only laws in the world to require everyone riding a bike to wear a helmet. Many other countries have helmet laws for children, but Australia was the first to legislate their use for adults.

The biggest issue with legislating helmet laws is that there is currently no consensus on whether or not they work at a population level. For the individual, helmets work. They decrease fatal head injuries by up to 65% (1) (2). However, what really makes cycling safer is increasing the number of people on the roads, and this is the biggest issue that anti-helmet law groups have. They claim that requiring helmet laws discourages people from cycling, either because they can’t afford to buy a helmet, or because they make riding unenjoyable, leading to decreased numbers of cyclists on the road.

There is a well-established link between increased numbers of cyclists and decreased road fatalities. The Netherlands has the highest rate of cycling in the world but has one of the lowest rates of cycling fatalities, yet the Netherlands has zero laws concerning bike helmets. Compare this to the United States, which has 1/20th of the cycling participation but four times the rate of cycling fatalities. More cyclists means better cycling infrastructure and more cyclist-conscious drivers, both of which are more effective at promoting cycling safety.

The problem, however, is that whilst there were some initial findings that may have suggested helmet laws decreased cycling participation, more recent studies have suggested that this might not be the case (3).

Screen Shot 2017-11-18 at 10.26.52 am.png

The graph above highlights how better cycling infrastructure could really save lives.

Helmet laws aren’t the solution to Australia’s rising rate of cycling fatalities, but better cycling infrastructure is. One study in Belgium (4) found that 93% of fatal bike crashes occur on the road, compared to 3% and 4% on cycle lanes and cycle paths respectively. The problem with this solution is that better infrastructure takes time and money, so if helmets help reduce the severity of cycling-related injuries, why wouldn’t we decrease the risk of injuries and fatalities from accidents while we’re waiting on that better infrastructure?

References

1- Jake Olivier, Prudence Creighton; Bicycle injuries and helmet use: a systematic review and meta-analysis, International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 46, Issue 1, 1 February 2017, Pages 278–292.

2- Macpherson ASpinks ABicycle helmet legislation for the uptake of helmet use and prevention of head injuriesCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2008, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD005401. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD005401.pub3.

3- Macpherson AKParkin PCTo TM Mandatory helmet legislation and children’s exposure to cycling 

4 – Based on data from ITF (2013), Cycling, Health and Safety, OECD Publishing, Paris.

About Tim_Davis@Pushys

I'm a Science Graduate and Medical student at the University of Queensland, specialising in anatomy and physiology. More importantly, I'm all for any type of riding; road, mountain, dirt jumping, I love it all! Let me know if there is anything you want to know about nutrition and health, and I'll do my best to help you out!

5 Responses

  1. Troy

    I’ve had helmets save my life (or at the very least quality of life – no one wants to be a vegetable) twice now. The first was my fault (too tired at the end of a hard ride and wasn’t concentrating, riding very slowly came off and smashed my head on a fallen branch), the second wasnt my fault (young driver pulling out into traffic without looking or indicating) but without helmets both times I would have been severely head traumatised if not dead. Only idiots ride without helmets even if it’s just to the shops. It’s not what you do, it’s what others do that affects you. You won’t care how your hair looks on a mortuary slab or while your carer is wiping drool off your chin.. Don’t be dumb, wear a helmet.

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  2. Ben

    I’ve resented helmet laws for two decades. Why on earth should I be considered a criminal for not wearing a helmet? I can take good care of myself, thank you, and those helmet laws advocates surely must have some vested interest in helmet production. What a sham, or so I thought. Recently I crashed at high speed at night (a small rock on the road that wasn’t there the day before). I was left with a bloodied body but face and skull were all good. I was wearing a Kask Bambino (a very expensive but highly protective helmet). It made all the difference. Bottom line, wear your helmet even if you resent it, you’ll get used to it and some unexpected day it will save your life.

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  3. Comparing the Netherlands to Australia or America is totally pointless. Drivers in Europe are far more likely to take care around cyclists than those in Oz and the USA who see cyclists as parasites who shouldn’t be allowed on the road in the first place. Riding in Oz without a helmet just makes you another unprotected speed hump for moron motorists.

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    1. Terry, you seem to have missed the point about increased numbers of cyclists making a positive impact (excuse the unintended pun) on motorists – more cyclists = more considerate motorists.

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