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Major Canadian study concludes protected bike infrastructure does more for safety of cyclists

A major Canadian study has found no link between cycle helmet legislation and head injuries, and has recommended governments focus on providing bike infrastructure to protect cyclists instead.

Between 2006-2011 the study recorded hospitalisation data from different Canadian jurisdictions, some with mandatory helmet laws, some without. Of an average 3690 hospital administrations per year in riders aged 12 and over there were 622 hospitalisations per 100 million bike trips in Canada.

The study found helmet legislation did not reduce head injury rates, while female riders were injured less, and areas with a greater proportion of cycling trips saw lower injury rates. The CTC's Roger Geffen says the study provides further evidence cycle helmet's aren't a panacea for cycle safety.

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The study published in the BMJ, Bicycling injury hospitalisation rates in Canadian jurisdictions: analyses examining associations with helmet legislation and mode share, notes bicycling injury research is "dominated by helmet research" but while helmet use is associated with reduced odds of head injury in a crash, "studies examining the effect of helmet legislation have shown more mixed results".

The report found: "Helmet legislation was not associated with reduced hospitalisation rates for brain, head, scalp, skull or face injuries, indicating that factors other than helmet laws have more influence on injury rates."

Of all cycling-related injuries torso or extremity injuries occurred in 82% of those hospitalised, head injuries (including brain, and face) 25%.

Females had "consistently lower" hospitalisation rates than men for all injury causes (including transport and sport cycling), while areas with higher proportions of cycling trips saw fewer traffic-related injuries. The lower injury rates among women are attributed to less risk taking behaviour.

The report states: "We found that hospitalisation rates for traffic-related injuries were lower with higher cycling mode shares, a 'safety-in-numbers' association consistent with results elsewhere and for other modes of travel."

It concludes: "These results suggest that transportation and health policymakers who aim to reduce bicycling injury rates in the population should focus on factors related to increased cycling mode share and female cycling choices. Bicycling routes designed to be physically separated from traffic or along quiet streets fit both these criteria and are associated with lower relative risks of injury."

Roger Geffen, Director of Policy at CTC the national cycling charity said: "Once again researchers have unearthed evidence which casts doubts on the usefulness of cycle helmets.  They not only provided limited protection - they are only designed for minor falls, not collisions - but there is also evidence that they may increase the risk of collisions happening in the first place, by making either drivers or cyclists less cautious, or indeed by increasing the risks of neck and other injuries.

"What's clear though is that there's no justification for health or safety professionals to bang on about cycle helmets as if they were a panacea.  Their focus needs to be on reducing the risk of collisions occurring in the first place, by reducing traffic volumes and speeds, creating safe and cycle-friendly roads and junctions, tackling bad driving and reducing the risks from lorries.  That's what will help achieve more, as well as safer, cycling, in order to maximise the benefits cyclists gain from 'safety in numbers'."