Will a helmet save a cyclist's life?

Last updated 05:00 14/02/2012

Some things are never quite as simple as people would like us to believe. Take the cycling helmet law. Introduced into New Zealand in the mid-nineties amongst much fanfare, it was supposed to be the ground-breaking initiative that saved the lives of thousands of Kiwis. Not only that, with helmet wearing becoming mandatory on both sides of the Tasman, the Antipodes were about to show the rest of the world just what they were missing in terms of best practice.

Fifteen years later the results have not been so clear-cut; studies repeatedly demonstrating two negative and thought-provoking outcomes. Cycling numbers have fallen, not necessarily because of the compulsory helmet regulation (although it's clearly been a factor), while casualty figures remain roughly unchanged. The latest research from the New Zealand Medical Journal has supported these findings. Average cycling hours had plummeted (halved); risk of injury remains the same.

Of course, this sort of blasphemy isn't going down too well within the helmet-enforcing lobby, not least in New Zealand. We were only last week discussing the narrow-mindedness of some single-issue enthusiasts, and many of those who insist on a law forcing cyclists to wear helmets fall comfortably into that category. You get the feeling that, confronted with any amount of scientific evidence to the contrary, they'd still insist the world was flat.

'Helmet Lady' Rebecca Oaten, who campaigned for the new law after her son was paralysed in a cycling accident in 1986, has responded by saying if some folk still didn't want to be forced to wear helmets, then "too bad". With respect to Ms Oaten, it's "too bad" she feels like that. The more she and other campaigners refuse to consider any opposition to their stance, the less credibility they retain. Rather than sounding sensible, they sound a tad possessed.

Allow me to add some context. I have no doubt helmets can be useful and for youngsters, in particular. And I'm not (for one Auckland Minute) suggesting helmet-wearing might have contributed to the increase in injury, although I do have a caveat about that, which we can discuss later. What does seem certain, however, is that wherever attempts have been made to enforce helmet-wearing on cyclists, there's been a corresponding decline in the numbers cycling.

Maybe then, rather than being summarily dismissed on the strength of Ms Oaten evangelical-like beliefs, it's time to have a closer look. Has compulsion been successful? It's a moot point. Case-study research claims a benefit for helmet-wearers; research based over time suggests no advantages whatsoever. Neither do the best of the population-level studies available. Instructionally, most western nations, including the UK, have resisted passing legislation.

It's interesting too, to study their reasoning. In the UK, especially, exhaustive research has taken place and yet they still refuse to follow New Zealand's example. Why? Well, according to a landmark report compiled by Britain's Transport and Health Study Group the best available research demonstrates that no reduction of head injuries relative to non-head injuries could be linked to increasing helmet use. Study after study suggested no clear benefits.

Actually, this independent group of public health and transport practitioners and researchers went a bit further than that, even including a wee scolding in their April, 2011 report: "The failure of mass helmet use to affect serious head injuries, be it in falls or collisions, has been ignored by the medical world, by civil servants, by the media, and by cyclists themselves," it noted. "A collective willingness to believe" (in helmets) had been partly to blame.

In other words, we may have been deluding ourselves. And while we've been at it, helping discourage cycling popularity and usage. In our rush to reduce the risk in our world we've probably been shooting ourselves in the pedal. I mean, what else are we to think when one of the chief objections now to introducing helmet-wearing legislation in the UK, is the way such laws have negatively affected cycling in countries such as New Zealand.

Cycling Advocates' Network spokesman Patrick Morgan is right: it's time for an independent review.  And if Ms Oaten can't relate to that, "too bad".

Footnote: The caveat? Just an observation, this one from cricket if you will. Before all batsmen were encouraged to wear helmets (in the early eighties), hardly any were struck in the head. You might have witnessed it once or twice a season. Once helmets were introduced, however, they started getting sconed left, right and centre. These days it's an everyday occurrence. Just saying.

» Read more of Richard Boock in the Sunday Star Times.
» Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardboock.

Post a comment
Dave B   #1   06:02 am Feb 14 2012

Quite right. It's good to see a journalist writing something sensible for a change rather than just regurgitating popular propaganda. Some helmet wearing cyclists deliberately land on their heads when they fall, believing they'll be protected while inadvertently increasing the likeliness of serious injury. I started driving more often when helmets became compulsory and I'm sure others did too - not the best environmental policy. Get rid of stupid laws like this and let people be free. As for the youngsters, yes, maybe they should wear helmets. But they should also be taught not to land on their heads. Perhaps basic judo training should be compulsory for everyone instead, for cyclists would learn to fall more safely.

YeahNa   #2   08:01 am Feb 14 2012

Well, I'd prefer myself and my children were wearing a helmet on our heads if we were to make contact with the ground. End of story.

velovelo   #3   09:18 am Feb 14 2012

Helmets actually detract from cycling safety because they give the rider a false sense of invulnerability and reduce their commonsense and self-preservation instincts. This subtly leads to more stupid and dangerous behaviour which leads to more cycling accidents in the long run. I say 'subtly' because obviously people don't instantly become maniacs when they put a helmet on their heads, but anything which offers false security can't be good for enhancing safety. Cycle injuries normally involve broken limbs and abrasions, not the head. Our brains are protected naturally by the cranium and any accident bad enough to crack a cranium is going to do much worse damage to the body generally than an idiotic piece of plastic crap on your head will protect you from.

Joe   #4   11:14 am Feb 14 2012

Cars pass closer to cyclists who are wearing helmets than those who aren't and cars are more likely to hit cyclists who are wearing helmets (look up Dr Ian Walker's bicycle overtaking studies). I don't think the issue here is cyclists choosing to fall on their heads, it's how often cars hit them. Based on this research I'd put some thought into not wearing a helmet for safety reasons if given a choice.

Robbie   #5   11:17 am Feb 14 2012

Cricket is an interesting comparison? However,helmets in that particular game have changed the style of batting leading to a more gung-ho attitude among batsman.Is this a fact with cyclists.I certainly believe their behaviour in the cities indicate they think they're fireproof,or should that be accident proof

Different Perspective   #6   11:18 am Feb 14 2012

Thank you Richard. How nice to see a non-emotive, analytical story in Stuff. Having been born and brought up in the UK - one of the noticeable features of Kiwi-ness is how often our society seems to buy-in to something utterly ridiculous just because people (like Ms Oaten) express strong beliefs about a certain perspective.

I for one, enjoyed cycling from a young age in the UK and have been deterred from cycling because of the inane helmet requirements here. I just can't be bothered.

Legislation MUST be based on good quality policy advice to responsible ministers - and the very essence of good policy advice is having a strong evidence base to support the legislative requirements. The rest of the world seems to demonstrate that there is no evidence to support the current legal position on cycle helmets - how long are we going to persist with such hocus pocus all because of some poor woman's well-intentioned, but irrational channel for her grief?

Next on the to-do list will be to have proper enforcement of road use regulations on cyclists. So that cyclists start to observe the same regulations, they so stridently demand other (non-cycle) road users observe.

Richard Veber   #7   12:32 pm Feb 14 2012

2 months ago a friend swerved to avoid 2 pedestrians on the NW cycleway, and next he knew he was in Middlemore. His comment to me - "my helmet got pushed back, and the road caused major scalp injury, however if I hadn't been wearing the helmet I believe I would have been a goner." we both now tighten helmet straps before getting on the bike. no way would I be on my bike without one. i suggest we ask the medics if they are in favour of doing away with helmets.

TA   #8   02:10 pm Feb 14 2012

I live in the UK and my family always wear helmets, unlike large numbers of other cyclists. The exception is the club cyclists, who possibly know a thing about safety?? One of our local cyclists was rear-ended by a truck 2 years ago. He broke 5 vertebrae and had some ground-breaking surgery to his spine so that he is walking again. The surgeon said that the only reason he didn't get bleeding on the brain was due to wearing a helmet. Compulsory helmet laws prevent the argument about it "being uncool" and if helmets save one life like this (and prevent 4 children losing their father), they have to be worthwhile. I never wore a helmet as a child in NZ, or a seatbelt in the back, but I wouldn't allow my children to go without either nowadays. Some never reached adulthood to pass this common-sense safety on to their own children...

Stefan   #9   05:59 pm Feb 14 2012

RE Richard #7 The article is not so much about the effectiveness of a helmet but on the effectiveness of the compulsory helmet law. Nobody disagrees that a helmet can offer some protection if you hit the road head first. But with the rate of head injuries not responding positively to the increase in helmet wearing over the general decline in injury rates, one must ask whether the helmet law fulfilled its purpose in the first place. It certainly has a negative effect on cycling which by itself is bad for public health. My other comment is that these stories of individuals falling of their bike hitting the helmet and then claiming that it saved their life is not very meaningful. I fell of my bike twice in NZ not wearing a helmet, once high speed once low speed. Never hit my head but that does not mean that I would state that helmets are unnecessary. Personal experience is not a good advisor on the helmet law. I like the cricket comparison for that one.



meg   #10   10:03 am Feb 15 2012

Nice article. For me the issue is mostly about the way not wearing a helmet can make one a target for police interest, which in turn discourages a lot of people from cycling. We need to face the fact that car ownership is out of the reach of many and support casual cycling. (Myself, I bike to work almost every day and I would wear a helmet regardless of the law because cycling over the bridges in Hamilton means taking my life into my hands!).

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