Helmet laws, safety and numbers
Dr Dorothy Robinson from the University of New England, found ‘enforced helmet laws discourage cycling but produce no obvious response in percentage of head injuries’ (Institute of Public Affairs).
Put simply, doubling the number of cyclists makes cycling 30-50% safer.
Cycling is a very safe activity. It is about as risky as taking a walk or watching TV. Being hit by a car, on the other hand, can be rather bad for one’s health. Helmet laws are bad for cycling safety because they fail to address the main source of danger, and discourage cycling as a normal activity.
After helmet laws were introduced in Alberta, Canada, children’s cycling halved and injuries increased per cyclist.
With only 44% as many children cycling, there should have been only 44% as many injuries. The observed post-law number of injuries was 2.37 times higher than would have been expected for the amount of cycling. In contrast, the safety of adult cyclists (who were not affected by the law) improved. (http://cyclehelmets.org/1250.html
“If even just 10 percent more people were cycling instead of driving at any given time, traffic congestion would be significantly reduced on Australian roads with a commensurate reduction in risk to motorists, pedestrians and cyclists,” (Professor Rissel, University of Sydney School of Public Health.)
“The most likely major deterrent to more people cycling is helmet legislation, which is a significant feature of the cycling environment in Australia. Well over half a million more Australians could be riding bicycles if we didn’t have mandatory helmet laws, according to research conducted last year which showed one in five adults surveyed in Sydney said they would ride a bicycle more if they did not have to wear a helmet”. (http://sydney.edu.au/news/84.html?newsstoryid=9507
Another study recently published in the journal World Transport Policy and Practice demonstrates that on a per capita basis there were 37.5 percent fewer Australians riding bikes in 2011 than in 1985-86. This is despite Australia’s population increasing by 58.4 percent from 1986 to 2010.
While Australia’s reported cycling ‘boom’ over the past decade has seen increasing numbers of cyclists, there has been an effective decline in per capita cycling participation over 25 years, according to the study.
Overseas research is in concord with the Australian experience:
Major head injuries per year, Ontario, Canada 2004 : (CIHI, 2004)
Motor vehicle involvement, including pedestrians but excluding cyclists 49%
Other causes 6%
Cyclists less than 2%
As the proportion of major head injuries that are cyclists is lower than the proportion of all head injuries (although the populations differ), it would appear that on average head injuries to cyclists are less severe than those to other groups.
In the U.S., a similar pattern appears (http://cyclehelmets.org/1255.html
Average number of deaths per year over the period 1997 to 2007.
Activity Average TBI fatalities/year % of total
All causes 53014 100%
Motorists 7955 15%
Pedestrians 1825 3.4%
Motorcyclists 1361 2.6%
Cyclists 325 0.6%
Cycling is a very safe activity, more so than walking, swimming, climbing ladders, and only slightly less so than golf.