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People disobeying helmet law may be more inclined to flout other laws, says academic

Cyclists who don’t wear helmets are more likely to take risks than ones who do, claim the authors of a new study from Australia into bike riders who were admitted to hospital with a head injury after a collision with a motor vehicle. The country where the research took place is significant, given its compulsory cycle helmet laws.

“Someone who is willing to disobey the law by not wearing a helmet might be more willing to disobey other laws,” said one of the report’s co-authors, Raphael Grzebieta, with the study published in the latest issue of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, which came out yesterday.

Examples of perceived risk-taking by non-helmet wearing cyclists included riding while drunk and disobeying traffic laws.

The conclusion that helmetless cyclists may be more prone to disobey such laws may of course not be directly applicable outside Australia in countries where helmets are not compulsory.

Researchers claimed that riders not wearing a helmet were more than 3.9 times more likely than those sporting one to suffer a head injury.

Wearing a helmet was said to reduce the risk of sustaining moderate head injury by 49 per cent, and of suffering a serious head injury by 62 per cent and a severe one by 74 per cent.

Another co-author of the study, Dr Jake Olivier, said: ''Having an opinion is one thing, but if you are going to make policies, such as repealing mandatory helmet laws, you have to look at evidence.

''The evidence says helmets work: they minimise the risk of injury. As the severity of the injury increased the benefit of wearing a helmet increased, which is very hard to ignore I think,'' he added.

The study was carried out by academics from the University of New South Wales's Transport and Road Safety Research Group and its School of Mathematics and Statistics, and has been published in the latest issue of the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention, which came out yesterday.

According to the article's abstract:

There has been an ongoing debate in Australia and internationally regarding the effectiveness of bicycle helmets in preventing head injury. This study aims to examine the effectiveness of bicycle helmets in preventing head injury amongst cyclists in crashes involving motor vehicles, and to assess the impact of ‘risky cycling behaviour’ among helmeted and unhelmeted cyclists. This analysis involved a retrospective, case–control study using linked police-reported road crash, hospital admission and mortality data in New South Wales (NSW), Australia during 2001–2009.

The study population was cyclist casualties who were involved in a collision with a motor vehicle. Cases were those that sustained a head injury and were admitted to hospital. Controls were those admitted to hospital who did not sustain a head injury, or those not admitted to hospital. Standard multiple variable logistic regression modelling was conducted, with multinomial outcomes of injury severity.

There were 6745 cyclist collisions with motor vehicles where helmet use was known. Helmet use was associated with reduced risk of head injury in bicycle collisions with motor vehicles of up to 74%, and the more severe the injury considered, the greater the reduction. This was also found to be true for particular head injuries such as skull fractures, intracranial injury and open head wounds. Around one half of children and adolescents less than 19 years were not wearing a helmet, an issue that needs to be addressed in light of the demonstrated effectiveness of helmets. Non-helmeted cyclists were more likely to display risky riding behaviour, however, were less likely to cycle in risky areas; the net result of which was that they were more likely to be involved in more severe crashes.

As a result of the country’s compulsory helmet laws, introduced in 1991, the issue of the effectiveness or otherwise, contentious enough elsewhere, is particularly heated among academics in Australia.

Professor Chris Rissel of Sydney University, a vociferous opponent of compulsion, has regularly published on the subject and has said that he believes factors other than the introduction of compulsion in 1991 lay behind a reduction in the rate of head injuries among cyclists, which he asserts was already in decline.

Like campaigners such as CTC and Sustrans in the UK, both of which are opposed to compulsion and believe that it should be an individual choice, he also insists the wider health benefits of cycling as part of an active lifestyle outweigh any arguments in favour of making riders wear a helmet.

In December 2011, Professor Rissel said that the number of bike riders in Sydney could be doubled if the law were repealed.

It has been estimated that levels of cycling in Australia fell by as much as 30 per cent after helmets were made compulsory, and the law has also previously been cited as a factor behind low usage of cycle hire schemes in Melbourne and Brisbane.

A study published in 2006 by Dr Ian Walker of Bath University found that motorists gave more space to cyclists without helmets when overtaking, compared to the room they gave those wearing one. 

Famously, he donned a blonde wig to establish whether drivers also gave extra room when they thought they were overtaking a woman. They did.

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.