I like my head the way it is. So I like to wear my bicycle helmet – it makes my head feel safe. But I did a quick google and the statistics say the helmet does Jack. Mandatory helmet laws might even be dangerous. WTF?!
This is relevant at the moment, because the public bike scheme starting up in Melbourne is wondering how they’re going to get the punters into helmets. If helmets are provided, they will probably be ill-fitting, sweaty and literally lousy. Mmm mmm.
Could we change the laws, so all the the V-Liners from Traralgon and the sun-burned pommy tourists wobble off without a helmet? Could we do that?
1. If your head is going to hit something, you better hope its got a helmet on it. Obviously.
2. Australia brought in universal mandatory bike helmet laws in the early 1990s.
3. The laws are not associated with a significant decrease in cyclist head injuries in Australia.
Now, if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that these 3 facts don’t really follow. I found out that there’s complicating factors. Here’s two of them
1. Heads with helmets on are slightly more likely to hit things when they fall off bikes, due to increased size and mass.
2. People overestimate how safe the helmet makes them, and do stuff bare-head cyclists wouldn’t.
I read more on both sides. Most of them are from such luminary institutions as the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, or the pedal club of Smalltown, USA. The only piece not accompanied by about 15 pages of personal cycling anecdotes is from the Road Accident Prevention Research Unit of the University of Western Australia.
It argues that compulsory helmets prevented an estimated 20-44 head injuries (of which 84 % were only moderately severe) per year in WA between 1992 and 1998. That’s an 11-21% decrease in bicycle head injuries.
An 11-21 percent decrease! Sweet! We should do it. Right?
Maybe. Some risks aren’t worth defending against. The UWA study estimated costs of the mandatory helmet laws, including promotion and enforcement and the costs of helmet purchase. Under the various assumptions, the estimated net benefit of the scheme is between -$15.1 million and $2 million. They’re saying mandatory helmet laws could be good, but are more likely not worth it.
That’s not definitive. I kept reading. I found a cool article in the British Medical Journal by Dorothy Robinson, a Professor of Statistics. She was not happy about mandatory helmet laws.
She argued the laws dissuade riding. The UWA article mentioned this, but only as a relevant factor they had to exclude from calculations. But Robinson had stats: In Melbourne, counts before and after the introduction of the law found a 42 percent fall in child cyclists, and a 29 percent fall in adult cyclists. In NSW they only counted children, and found a 35 percent fall.
That seems surprisingly high to me.
If people don’t cycle they may substitute a PT or car commute, instead of other exercise. Robinson cites UK research indicating that the years gained due to health attributable to cycling outweigh those lost to head trauma by 20:1.
So should the Victorian Government seize the day, and use the public bike scheme to sneak through a change in the law?
I did a pop survey, and people say they would feel unsafe riding without a helmet. But maybe that’s a good sign – we could end up with high helmet use and freedom of choice. I wouldn’t mind the feeling of the wind in my hair.