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Helmet law leads to drop in bike-related injuries

Written by Fiona

June 23 2011

I wrote some months ago about wearing bike helmets. I have seen little evidence to persuade me NOT to wear a helmet. I have also heard so much anecdotal evidence about how a helmet saved a person’s life or reduced their potential for injury when involved in an accident. I know I have blog followers who completely disagree, and we all have the right (still, in this country) to choose whether to wear a helmet or not when out for a bike ride.

Anyhow, I thought some people might be interested in this latest study  in New South Wales that claims to be the most comprehensive analysis yet, and reveals a decline of almost a third in bicycle-related head injuries immediately after a new mandatory helmet-wearing law was introduced.

Hospital data reveals  that injuries fell by up to 29% after the laws were introduced in 1991, according to the study by researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the Sax Institute, published in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention.

Study author Dr Jake Olivier said: “We set out to perform the most comprehensive analysis possible on the subject while addressing any data limitations and possible confounding factors.What we found provides compelling evidence that the legislation has served its purpose in reducing bike-related head injuries.”

UNSW’s Chair of Road Safety and study co-author Professor Raphael Grzebieta said the study backs up overwhelming evidence from biomechanical experiments and in-depth accident case analyses that helmets prevent head injury. “It shows what we’ve suspected for a long time — that you would be unwise to ‘hit the road’ without a helmet,” he said.

Australia was the first country to introduce mandatory helmet legislation in 1991, but 20 years later public debate about the legislation’s effectiveness in preventing head injuries continues.

Last year, a Sydney University study found the laws had failed and should be repealed because compulsory helmet wearing could be a disincentive to cycling. The academic paper was later retracted due to serious data and arithmetic errors.

In the new UNSW study, researchers from the Injury Risk Management Research Centre and the Sax Institute examined trends in NSW hospital admissions for cyclists and pedestrians, comparing the rate of head injury relative to arm injury, and separately for head injury relative to leg injury, in the months before and after the legislation was introduced.

They found the decrease in head injury rates was significantly greater for cyclists compared to pedestrians, and cyclist head injuries decreased more than limb injuries, pointing to the positive effect of mandatory helmet wearing at the population level.

However, while the findings support the maintenance of mandatory helmet laws, the paper’s authors caution against seeing helmets as a panacea for bike safety.

“Cyclist safety is a complex issue driven by a range of factors. Cycling in Australia has changed with a considerable increase in recreational road cycling and mountain biking in recent years. Additional research into the diverse and changing risk profiles among these cycling subgroups could facilitate further safety improvements,” Dr Olivier said.

It’s up to you whether you pop on a helmet or not.

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