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Benefits of making cyclists wear helmets divides opinion among bike advocacy groups

Two researchers at Sydney University claim that Australia’s compulsory bicycle helmet law, introduced nearly two decades ago, do not work and have called on a trial to be conducted to help try and predict what would happen if the law were repealed.

In 1991, Australia became the first country to require cyclists, adult and child alike, to wear helmets while cycling, and while there has been a fall in the number of head injuries recorded among cyclists since then, Associate Professor Dr Chris Rissel and a colleague at the university’s school of public health maintain the decline is due to other factors.

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, which reported the findings of the academics’ study, which is published in the August 2010 issue of The Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety, Dr Rissel believes that factors such as greater road safety due to initiatives such as random breath testing had made a contribution to the lower casualty count. 

''I believe we'd be better off without it [compulsory helmet laws],'' Dr Rissel insisted. ''I'd recommend a trial repeal in one city for two years to allow researchers to make observations and see if there's an increase in head injuries, and on the basis of that you could come to some informed policy decision,” he added.

Dr Rissel also emphasised the point often put forward by opponents of helmet compulsion that while helmets may protect the head, they act as a deterrent to cycling in the first place.

He argues that doing away with compulsory helmet laws would get more people cycling, which in turn would improve public health generally. Moreover, he maintains that the more cyclists there were on the roads, the safer it would be for bike riders, a point underlined by the UK national cyclists’ organisation CTC through its Safety In Numbers campaign last year.

As part of the research, Dr Rissel compared the ratio of head injuries to arm injuries found in cyclists admitted to hospital between 1988 and 2008, expecting that unless increased use of helmets had led to a reduction in the rate of head injuries, the ratio would remain unchanged; however, he found that most of the decline in the rate of head injuries had occurred prior to helmets being made compulsory.

Dr Rissel added that after helmets were made compulsory, he and his colleague discovered ''a continued but declining reduction in the ratio of head injuries to arm injuries [and] … it is likely that factors other than the mandatory helmet legislation reduced head injuries''.

He acknowledged, however, that helmets were desirable for some cyclists, especially children and those who undertake longer bike rides.

Yesterday, Dr Rissel defended the findings of his study on ABC radio show, The World Today, in the face of criticism from the chief executive of the cycling lobby group, Bike NSW, Omar Khalifa.

Dr Rissel told reporter Lindy Kerin: “There was a substantial drop in head injuries compared to wrist injuries in the 1980s, which then tails off and flattens out from the 1990s and the introduction of helmet legislation came in 1991 and all the big drop in head injuries happened before the introduction of the legislation and the legislation doesn't seem to have been associated with a big reduction that you'd expect.

“I think we should trial repealing the legislation to see what happens if we don't have to wear helmets all the time, and I don't think you'll get the massive increases in adverse events that people fear,” Dr Rissel added.

He also pointed towards the decline in the number of people cycling following the introduction of the ban as a further reason why it should be overturned, saying: “We saw a drop in ridership when the legislation was introduced of about 30 per cent and this actually makes it less safe for the rest of the cyclists, because there's this safety in numbers phenomenon.”

Dr Rissel’s views were backed by Stephen Hodge of the Cycling Promotion Fund, which promotes safe cycling in Australia, who explained: “The wearing of helmets is the single biggest impediment to casual use of cycles, you know, for people to just rock up to a bicycle hire station, pick up a bike, or even at home, pick up their bike to ride down to the shops to get the litre of milk they need for their morning breakfast or whatever.”

He added that there was “some fairly good anecdotal evidence that the mere fact of having to wear a helmet often is an impediment for people.”

However, Mr Khalifa rejected calls to overturn the compulsory legislation, saying that “Some people may be resistant to cycling because of helmets, I think it's also saved so many people from more serious injury that we believe that it's even, the statistics may not be showing up all of that.

“So it's not compelling enough for us to think that this is a major reason to begin a change in that piece of legislation,” he added.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.