No Connection Between Fewer Head Injuries And Bike Helmet Laws; Do We Really Need To Wear Helmets?

Do Helmet Laws Have Any Value?
While the helmet laws around the globe have decreased the incidence of injury, there is no established connection to the decrease and the laws. Helmet | Jer Kunz

Bicyclists are, unfortunately, among the most vulnerable and injury-prone motorists. A study by Beck et al indicates that unprotected exposure during biking increases risk for injury. To alter one's exposure, one can either change the duration of travel or take safety precautions, like wearing protective gear such as a helmet or knee pads.

From that 2007 study, researchers gleaned that traffic injuries could be easily avoided by implementing safety tactics; among these was helmet use for all cyclists. According to a 2011 study performed by Emanuelle Amoros and colleagues at the French Institue of Science and Technology for Transport, helmets can reduce the risk of brain injury after collision by 88 percent, head injury by 85 percent, and facial injury by 65 percent.

When lawmakers were faced with such information, helmet laws were put into place for all bicycle riders. Legislation that requires helmet use has been put into effect in Australia, New Zealand, ten Canadian provinces, and in some parts of the United States. The laws have been mandated in the effort to reduce head injuries and fatalities.

However, a new study by Ph.D. candidate Jessica Dennis and colleagues at The University of Toronto claims that while the laws have decreased the number of bicycle- related injuries, the rate of that decline was not altered after the legislation was put into effect. This implies that injuries were already decreasing and the law did not contribute much to that decrease.

The shocking part of the study is that while the number of injuries may have decreased, the prevalence of head injuries, in spite of the helmet laws, did not change.

Dennis and colleagues have found, using data from the National Trauma Registry Minimum Data Set and hospital admissions information, that from 1994 to 2003, there was a 54 percent decrease in head injuries among young people living in Canadian provinces with helmet laws. While that is a promising decrease, there was also a 33 percent decrease in head injuries among the same demographic in Canadian provinces without helmet laws in effect.

Provinces with and without helmet laws seemed to experience the same downward trend of bicycle-related head injuries.

If laws to enforce helmets are likely to increase use of the protective gear, how is the rate of injury unaffected by a law that's essentially meant to prevent injury? Explanations for this are twofold.

This study was performed in Canada, observing that as the helmet law came into effect, provinces enacted bike lane laws that gave bicyclists safer and low traffic routes to follow, instead of the dangerous streets they had travelled and shared with other motorists. This would have decreased injuries, without a helmet law, since cyclists were no longer exposed to risky situations.

Similarly, helmets may decrease injury, but may not do away with them entirely. The study relied mainly on hospital admission records for information about rates of head injuries related to cycling. If a person gets into a minor collision and is wearing a helmet, they may not get a serious enough injury to go to the hospital. Dennis and her associates argue that these people who were not seriously injured, and thus did not become part of the study, created the lack of correlation between the helmet laws and decrease in injury.

In a sense, the helmets do help, but more must be done to establish a steadfast correlation between the use of helmets, thanks to legislation, and the decrease in head injuries.

Dennis has concluded that the decrease in head injuries after the passing of the helmet law is mostly due to other changes made around the same time, such as bike lanes and awareness of biker safety. She indicated that the contribution of helmet laws to the decrease in hospital admissions for bicycle-related injuries has been minimal.

However, by no means does this propose that helmet laws are already defunct: there is simply not a correlation between just the helmet law and the decrease in injury. Rather, many factors have contributed to the decrease in injury and increase in safety.

It is likely that because of this study, more people will be inclined to use a helmet on their bike this summer since the decrease in easily avoidable injuries cannot be overlooked.


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