Experts collide over benefits of cycle helmets
By Ben Cubby
March 25, 2006
FORCING cyclists to wear helmets damages public health because they discourage many people from riding, an academic says.
Dorothy Robinson, a former senior statistician at the University of New England, found that while laws that make wearing helmets mandatory reduced the seriousness of some head injuries, the cost to public health and fitness outweighed their benefit.
But some researchers suggest Ms Robinson's conclusions "crumble" under scrutiny.
Writing in the British medical journal BMJ, Ms Robinson compares data between countries and regions that have made it illegal to ride without head protection.
"When we brought in helmet laws it discouraged people from cycling; there was a big drop," says Ms Robinson, a keen cyclist who has been struck by a car and wears a helmet.
"The overall effect on public health is bad, with less people getting fit by cycling since the laws came in, and more driving."
One study she used found the number of bicycle riders counted at 25 locations around Sydney fell by 48 per cent between 1991, when mandatory helmet laws were introduced in NSW, and 1996.
In surveys riders frequently said helmets were uncomfortable and expensive, she says.
Mandatory helmet laws were still "very contentious", said Peter Strang, executive director of the Bicycle Federation of Australia. It opposed the laws when they were introduced, but many of its constituent associations have since accepted them.
"[Ms Robinson] certainly makes some claims that I think deserve further research," he said.
A group of researchers - Brent Hagel, Alison Macpherson, Frederick Rivara and Barry Pless - also writing in BMJ, dismisses Ms Robinson's conclusions.
"For example, a fall in the number of bicyclists in the 1990s may simply reflect an increase in in-line skating or other recreational activities," they say.
They also say that there is no proven link between a decrease in cycling and falling fitness levels.
The Roads and Traffic Authority did not respond directly to Herald queries about mandatory helmet use. A correctly worn helmet "can reduce the risk of head and brain injury by up to 85 per cent in a crash", the authority said.
The NSW Minister for Sport and Recreation, Sandra Nori, was sceptical. "I haven't seen the research yet, but it doesn't appear to address the grave problem of head injuries caused by bike accidents."