Bike helmet review throws cold water on sceptics: They'll likely save your life
The largest review yet of bike helmet use by 64,000 injured cyclists worldwide has found helmets reduce the chances of a serious head injury by nearly 70 per cent.
Claims that bike helmets damaged the neck and caused serious brain injury (diffuse axonal injury) were also found to be wrong in the study by University of NSW statistician Dr Jake Olivier who presented on Tuesday to the international injury prevention conference Safety 2016 in Finland.
Advocates of mandatory helmet laws – which only exist in a small number of jurisdictions including New Zealand and Australia – hope the Australian research will debunk "junk science" often cited by helmet opponents in the ongoing and heated debate.
Even at Safety2016, the leading injury prevention conference worldwide, a Helsinki emergency room doctor raised some questions about the efficacy of helmets, saying it was "not so easy to show". Another local expert disagreed: of Finland's 29 cycling fatalities in 2014, about eight people would have been saved if they'd worn a helmet.
The conference heard that in Austria the introduction of mandatory helmet law for children under 12 had significantly reduced head injuries, but were still opposed by parents. A Norwegian expert told the conference he had tracked 2184 patients who were treated at Oslo's major hospital. He found 60 per cent of those who were injured had worn a helmet, but those who wore helmets had fewer head injuries. Patients without helmets had more head injuries than patients with helmets, he said adding it made a compelling case for the compulsory helmet use.
The Australian research by Olivier, found helmets cut the chances of a head injury by 50 per cent, a serious head injury by 69 per cent and a fatal head injury by 65 per cent. They also reduced the odds of injuries to the face by 33 per cent.
Injuries to the neck were rare, yet wearing a helmet did not cause injuries to the neck, despite claims made in previous studies.
The study was a meta-analysis of 40 studies worldwide, covering 64,000 injured cyclists.
"This study emphatically proves that bicycle helmets are efficacious in reducing brain trauma in either single-vehicle falls or impact with other vehicles," said Australia's Raphael Grzebieta, the professor of Road Safety at the University of NSW's Transport and Road Safety (TARS) Research unit.
Bike helmet laws, combined with bike lanes and other safety measures to separate cyclists from traffic, had prevented about 900 serious injuries and deaths combined every year, said Grzebieta, a former president of the Australasian College of Road Safety.
While the silent majority wanted bike helmet laws, a small and vocal minority group, which often opposed helmets as an infringement of their rights, had used "crazy science" to lobby against them, he said. Poor research cited by these groups had cost lives, and Grzebieta was lobbying to have these publications retracted.
A highly controversial paper by Norwegian transport economist Rune Elvik – often cited by opponents as evidence that bike helmets exacerbate neck injuries and caused brain damage – had done a lot of damage, Grzebieta said.
Olivier said his review found "pretty solid evidence that bike helmet use in a crash or fall significantly reduces injuries to head and serious head, and facial injuries". He also found no evidence that they caused neck injuries when he reviewed 12 studies. "Neck injuries were particularly low rate .. and of very low severity," he said.
Olivier stressed helmets were designed to only protect the head.
"The bicycle helmet is not a panacea for cycling safety," he said.
The best strategy was to avoid injury or fatality was crash avoidance, including bike lanes that separate cyclists from vehicles.
Yet a steady increase in single-vehicle fatalities by cyclists who crashed in Australia and The Netherlands – with similar trends around the world experts said at the conference – also illustrated the need for helmets.
"In those instances, the bicycle helmet may be the only option for protection," said Olivier.
New Zealand and Australia are two of a handful of jurisdictions across the world to make it compulsory to wear a helmet, and apply tough fines on those who don't.
Olivier moved to Australia from the US in 2008.
"I bought a bike to commute to UNSW. I was told I had to wear a helmet by law, so I picked one out and wore it as I cycled home. It never crossed my mind bicycle helmets could be controversial. "
Julie Power attended Safety 2016 with support from the ICFJ-WHO Safety 2016 Reporting Fellowship Program and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
- Brisbane Times