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Helmet debate rages on Down Under as others claim helmets aren't sole factor at work...

Academics in Australia claim to have settled for once and for all the question of whether compulsory helmet laws in the state of New South Wales have indeed led to a reduction in head injuries among cyclists.

Their assertion, reported by ABC News, is the latest chapter in a long-running argument ignited last August by a paper by Clinical Associate Professor Chris Rissel and Dr Alex Voukelatos of the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney published in the August 2010 issue of the Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety (JACRS).

The Journal subsequently retracted that paper after fellow academics held that the data it was based upon were flawed, a criticism that Dr Rissel accepted, although he said he continued to believe that factors other than compulsory helmet laws, such as better road safety generally, were behind a fall in the number of head injuries recorded among bike riders after their introduction in 1991.

Now, however, some of Dr Rissel’s critics led by Dr Jake Olivier and a team of researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and the Sax Institute have published their own research in the Accident Analysis and Prevention Journal which they claim supports their view that helmet laws did result in a reduction of head injuries suffered by cyclists.

Their research suggests that there was a 29 per cent reduction in head injuries from the period immediately before the laws coming onto the statute book and the period immediately after.

"We set out to perform the most comprehensive analysis possible on the subject while addressing any data limitations and possible confounding factors," said Dr Olivier in a press release.

"What we found provides compelling evidence that the legislation has served its purpose in reducing bike-related head injuries and any repeal of the laws would only put lives at risk," he continued.

UNSW's Chair of Road Safety and Professor Raphael Grzebieta, co-author of the study, commented: "It shows what we've suspected for a long time — that you would be unwise to 'hit the road' without a helmet."

Funding for the research was provided by the NSW Department of Health, the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority, the Motor Accidents Authority and the Australian Government Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research – all bodies that opponents of mandatory helmet laws might view as having a vested interest in keeping legislation as it is.

Researchers from UNSW’s Injury Risk Management Research Centre and the Sax Institute studied trends in NSW hospital admissions among cyclists and pedestrians, making a comparison between the rate of head injury relative to arm injury, and another for head injury relative to leg injury, for the months either side of the law being enacted.

They discovered that there was a significantly greater fall in head injury rates among cyclists than among pedestrians, and that head injuries declined at a greater rate than leg injuries, which they said was evidence of the benefits of compulsion.

"We endeavoured to identify the effect of the legislation on head injury rates as distinct from other road safety interventions and we've shown that the improvements could only have come from the helmet legislation," added Dr Olivier.

However, he emphasised that compulsory helmet laws were not the only solution to ensuring that cyclists are safer while riding their bikes.

"Cyclist safety is a complex issue driven by a range of factors,” he explained. “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."

Professor Rissel, however, continues to assert that compulsory helmet laws should be scrapped because he believes they "do more harm than good," pointing to a reduction in the number of people cycling since their introduction.

"The health benefits to physical activity through more people cycling really outweigh the injury risk that there is," he told ABC News.

"If someone doesn't take up cycling because the helmet law is a barrier to them, there is nothing to say that they won't take up something else."

Richard Birdsey, Vice-President of Bicycle New South Wales, acknowledged that compulsory helmet laws, which he supported had been a "hugely contentious issue," but added that they had clouded what he saw as the issue that most needs to be addressed, road safety.

"We really feel that it is a bit of a distraction in terms of people debating backwards and forwards as to whether they are a good thing or not," he explained.

"We'd really want to see the Government, community groups and motoring groups working towards making our roads safer for all road users, including cyclists.

"Many people I speak to on the road say that they like riding without a helmet, others say they would never even dream of getting on a bike without one.

"Certainly I never would and a helmet has saved me on a couple of occasions," he concluded.
 

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.