Helmet law halves cyclist numbers

Should bicycle helmets be mandatory?

SHABNAM DASTGHEIB
Last updated 07:38 10/02/2012
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Fierce debate has broken out over the mandatory bicycle helmet law following the release of new research saying it contributed to 53 premature deaths per year and halved the number of cyclists.

Nearly 100 comments have been made on the dompost.co.nz site since the story was posted this morning.

The New Zealand Medical Journal research found a 51 per cent drop in the average hours cycled per person from the 1989-90 period when compared to 2006-09.

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Colin Clarke, the honorary secretary of the Yorkshire Region's Cyclists Touring Club in England who produced the research, has worked as a safety instructor and cycled in more than 20 countries including about 8000 kms in New Zealand.

Clarke estimates the 1994 law has translated to about 53 premature deaths per year (through adverse health effects from not cycling) and promotes discrimination in accident compensation.

He said safety should be improved through policies supporting health, the environment, and without the legal requirement to wear a helmet.

This assertion is backed by Cycling Advocates' Network (CAN) spokesman Patrick Morgan who said helmet compulsion was a failed experiment. Mr Morgan does not wear a helmet himself as he has a medical exemption.

''It does more harm than good and our policy is that it needs an independent review. Helmets can be useful but cycling is no more risky than things we do every day like gardening, like walking, like driving a car.''

He said CAN would like to see an independent review based on the best evidence available. ''If it was an effective programme then surely other countries would follow our shining example.''

But 'Helmet Lady' Rebecca Oaten said if helmets were worn correctly they could do nothing but good. Mrs Oaten furiously campaigned to make cycle helmets compulsory in New Zealand after her son was paralysed in a 1986 accident at the age of 12. He was not wearing a helmet.

''Had they seen the results from my son's cycle accident. The cyclist is the most vulnerable on the roads. No one in their right mind is going to take a computer and put it on the handlebars because it is common sense.''

To those who didn't want to be forced to wear helmets Mrs Oaten said ''too bloody bad''.

A Transport Ministry spokesman said it would need time to look at the study but had no plans to review the law at this stage.  ''Helmets are particularly useful in crashes which occur at low speed, for cycle-only crashes, and for protecting children who do not have the same skill levels as adults.''

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He said the Ministry recognised there were limits to how much protection helmets could offer in high speed crashes.

Research findings:

  • A 51 per cent drop in the average hours cycled per person from the 1989-90 period when compared to 2006-09
  • Risk to cyclists had not changed greatly between 1989-1990 and 2006-09
  • Comparing the ratio of cyclist to pedestrian injuries from 1988-91 to 2003-07 showed cyclists'  injuries more than doubled compared with pedestrians
  • By 2003-07 cyclists had a 20 per cent higher accident rate compared with pre law

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