Will a helmet save a cyclist's life?

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.

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