The new legislation forcing all under 14s to wear helmets in Jersey will “prevent head and brain injuries”, according to a report by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL).
The respected centre for transport research was commissioned to review literature on helmet laws and cycling injuries, as well as a possible disincentivising of cycling.
In its report, it concluded that the legislation would “prevent head and brain injuries, especially in the most common collisions that do not involve motor vehicles, often simple falls or tumbles over the handlebars”.
It added that cycle helmet legislation “leads to reductions in injuries in all ages of cyclists, although helmets are particularly effective for children”, and “the plausible mechanism by which this benefit occurs is that legislation tends to lead to increased wearing rates”.
Richard Cuerden, technical director for vehicle safety at TRL and an author of the report, told Road Safety GB: “There is no doubt that cycle helmets are effective in a crash, although some anti-helmet advocates still argue the opposite.
“The other arguments frequently made against them include, they put people off cycling and this results in a net health disbenefit; some even argue that helmet wearing increases the risk of an accident.
“These are extremely serious claims and the literature surrounding these issues was considered very carefully.”
TRL found that current evidence “does not support the assertion that cycle helmet legislation leads to large reductions in cycling participation that outweigh any potential injury reduction benefits through a corresponding reduction in health benefits”. It adds that any reductions in cycling activity “are likely to be small and short term”.
Richard Cuerden added: “Firstly, it is not true to state that the accident rate has been proven to be higher for helmet wearers per km of travel - this is simply not an accepted fact.
“The very large reductions in cycling activity cited by opponents of cycle helmet legislation are based on early analyses of observations of cycling rates in Australia in the 1990s, which subsequently have been shown to be statistically flawed.
“It is also important to remind ourselves that cycle helmet designs were very different in the early 1990s to those currently available, in terms of materials, ventilation, coverage, comfort and even styling.”
TRL said its report raises important questions for the rest of the UK, including “how can cycle helmet wearing rates be increased to help reduce head and brain injuries suffered across all regions of the British Isles?”.
TRL added “the lack of information regarding the size and nature of the cyclist casualty problem” is a challenge….”because the vast majority of single vehicle cycle accidents that result in hospitalisation are not reported to the police and there is limited hospital data available on the injuries sustained”.
Richard Cuerden concluded: “Cycle helmets are effective, but it is equally important to actively identify and improve other casualty reduction measures including road design - especially at junctions, cyclist conspicuity, cyclist and other road users training and behaviour, enforcement, the crashworthiness of other vehicles and new accident avoidance technologies.
“I believe it is clear that cycle helmets are an integral part of a safe system approach, which in my opinion should seek to promote and increase the rate of cycling whilst setting stretching casualty reduction targets, ultimately striving towards zero deaths and serious injuries.”
Deeply divided medical views
Views on mandatory helmets are deeply divided in the medical world. Recently we reported how a consultant paediatric neurosurgeon from Bristol said cycle helmets save lives.
Michael Carter of Bristol Children's Hospital says he treats an average of three children a month who have suffered a head injury while cycling that he believes would not have happened if they had been wearing a helmet.
His views conflict with those of Henry Marsh of St George’s Hospital in Tooting, South London, who as we reported the previous month, who said that helmets had not benefited patients in his care who had been involved in bike crashes.
Mr Marsh told the Hay Festival: “I ride a bike and I never wear a helmet. In the countries where bike helmets are compulsory there has been no reduction in bike injuries whatsoever.
“I see lots of people in bike accidents and these flimsy little helmets don’t help.”
He also cited research by Dr Ian Walker from the University of Bath who found that motorists gave less space to riders wearing helmets, because they perceived them as being safer than those without the headgear.
But Mr Carter insisted that the case against wearing helmets was “weak” and often founded on research that was small in sample size. He also said his experience at work contrasted with that of Mr Marsh.
After an unpromising start, having to be bribed by her parents to learn to ride without stabilisers, Sarah became rather keener on cycling in her university years, and was eventually persuaded to upgrade to proper road cycling by the prospect of a shiny red Italian bike, which she promptly destroyed by trapping a pair of knickers in the rear derailleur. Sarah writes about about cycling every weekend on road.cc.