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Wearing a cycle helmet may increase risk of injury, says new research

Paper presented at National Road Safety Conference in Telford

New research suggests that wearing a helmet may put cyclists more at risk of being injured in a road traffic collision.

The findings are set out in a paper entitled Effects of bicycle helmet wearing on accident and injury rates presented at this week’s National Road Safety Conference in Telford.

Former Cycling UK councillor Colin Clarke and author and journalist Chris Gillham analysed overall changes in accident risk with increased helmet wearing.

They looked at data from Australia and New Zealand, both of which have nationwide mandatory helmet laws, the US and Canada, where compulsion is widespread particularly for children but laws vary in local jurisdictions, and the UK, where there is no legal requirement to wear one.

Summarising their findings, they said: “Bicycle helmet wearing globally has increased over the past 30 years via promotion and in some cases legislation.

“Various reports have assessed the changes in wearing rates, accidents, injuries and cycling activity levels.

“A limited number of reports have analysed overall changes in accident risk per kilometres cycled, per hours cycled or in relationship to cycling levels via survey information.

“A significant number of findings suggest a higher accident/injury rate may result from helmet usage and there is strong evidence that helmeted cyclists suffer a higher rate of upper body limb injuries than non-wearers, suggesting a higher rate of falls than non-wearers.”

Besides highlighting an increased casualty rate among cyclists wearing helmets, they also noted that according to census data, the compulsory helmet laws introduced in Australia and New Zealand in the 1990s had led to a reduction in cycling.

For example, they highlighted that “Children’s cycling in New Zealand reduced from 23 million hours to 13.6 million hours in less than a 10 year period and currently is about 4 to 5 million hours per year.”

That ties in with one argument often put forward by opponents of mandatory helmet laws, namely that discouraging people from cycling through such legislation ultimately has an adverse effect on public health generally.

To put that another way,  the perceived reduction in casualties of cyclists brought about by making helmets compulsory is outweighed by the fact that such laws deter people from cycling, and therefore do not aid efforts to tackle more widespread issues such as obesity which exercise can help address.

In conclusion, Clarke and Gillham said: “The possible reasons for increased risk of injury per cyclist, particularly upper extremities, appear to be due to increased falls.

“It appears helmet use increases the accident rate by more than 40 per cent.

“This should be the subject of further research to determine why overall accident and injury rates outweigh head injury benefits provided by helmets.”

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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