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US study claims 20 per cent lower rate of child cyclist deaths in states with compulsory helmet laws

Researchers analysed data from 1,612 fatalities of under-16 bike riders from 1999 to 2010

A new study from the United States claims that states that have introduced compulsory helmet laws have seen a 20 per cent reduction in deaths and injuries among children who have been involved in a collision with a motor vehicle while riding their bike.

The study, carried out by three researchers from the Boston Children’s Hospital and one from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and published in the Journal of Pediatrics, compared fatality rates between January 1999 and December 2010 among cyclists aged up to 16 years in states that have compulsory helmet laws with those that have no such legislation.

Analysing data from the national Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), they identified 1,612 fatalities among cyclists aged 16 or under across all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In those states with compulsory helmet laws – 16 at the start of the study period – the fatality rate was found to be “significantly lower” compared to those without, after adjusting for variable factors between states relating to age and licensing of drivers, blood alcohol limits, and median household income.

"Past research shows that laws can be an important factor in helping parents adhere to best practice guidelines," said one of the researchers, William P Meehan III from Boston Children’s Hospital.

"For parents who feel like there is conflicting information related to child health, this evidence supports the fact that helmets save lives and that helmet laws play a role."

Meehan and his colleagues noted that since FARS data only capture injuries leading to a fatality within occurring within 30 days of a collision, the data were likely to understate the benefits of cycle laws.

Rebekah C Manix, also of Boston Children’s Hospital, said: "As a result of the data only capturing deaths, rather than all injuries, our findings likely underestimate the effects of the mandatory helmet laws, because we did not capture all pediatric bicycle-related injuries."

While the study firmly backs the implementation of compulsory helmet laws for children, critics will point out that it does not analyse head injuries alone, nor does it seek to analyse issues such as the impact of legislation on levels of cycling, although it does acknowledge some existing literature on the subject.

“Our findings are in contrast with a recent review of pediatric trauma patients in Los Angeles County that concluded that the statewide helmet law had no significant effect on helmet use or on the proportion of pediatric head injury patients who were helmeted,” the researchers acknowledge, before going on to outline some other studies that have similar conclusions to their own study.

In the UK, national cyclists’ organisation CTC opposes compulsory helmet laws on the grounds that any potential benefit that reducing head injuries might bring about – and there is far from universal agreement among doctors and academics on that point – is offset by the effect on general public health of having fewer people cycling in the first place.

The latest study comes less than a fortnight after a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and conducted by a PhD student at the University of Toronto, claimed that the introduction of compulsory helmet laws in parts of Canada had only had a “minimal” effect in reducing hospital admissions for cyclists suffering from head injuries.


Simon has been news editor at since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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