A new study says making the use of bike helmets mandatory under the law is pointless and doesn’t protect cyclists.
The study, which was published November 2 in medical journal BMJ Openis called “Bicycling injury hospitalisation rates in Canadian jurisdictions: analyses examining associations with helmet legislation and mode share”. UBC-based researchers Kay Teschke, Mieke Koehoorn, Hui Shen, and Jessica Dennis aimed to determine whether hospitalization rates differed between parts of Canada in which bike helmets are mandated and those that aren’t.
Canada’s laws on wearing bike helmets differ from province to province. Helmets are required for all people who ride a bike in British Columbia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. They are required only for those over the age of 18 in Alberta and Ontario. And Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec, Saskatchewan, and Canada’s Territories don’t require a helmet for anyone.
Helmet use in adults varies greatly across Canada. Nova Scotia ranks the highest, with 74.8% of all cyclist wearing a helmet, followed by B.C. with 71.3%. Manitoba was the lowest, with just 30% of all cyclists wearing a helmet, followed by Saskatchewan at 30.3%.
The researchers in the study pulled data from large surveys conduced by Stats Canada. They found that between 2006 and 2011 there were an average of 3690 hospitalizations per year from about 593-million annual trips. The study found that helmet legislation was not associated with hospitalisation rates for all injury or traffic-related injury causes.
The study points out that at least one other study found reductions in brain or head injuries of 8–29 per cent related to helmet legislation, but several others have found no effect.
One veteran cycling advocate in the U.K. says the results of the Canadian study don’t surprise him.
“Once again researchers have unearthed evidence which casts doubts on the usefulness of cycle helmets,” says Roger Geffen, Director of Policy at the Cyclists’ Touring Club, a cycling advocacy organization that dates back to 1878.”They not only provided limited protection – they are only designed for minor falls, not collisions – but there is also evidence that they may increase the risk of collisions happening in the first place, by making either drivers or cyclists less cautious, or indeed by increasing the risks of neck and other injuries.”
Geffen says any jurisdiction concerned about cyclist safety should look elsewhere.
“What’s clear though is that there’s no justification for health or safety professionals to bang on about cycle helmets as if they were a panacea,” he told ZME Science. “Their focus needs to be on reducing the risk of collisions occurring in the first place, by reducing traffic volumes and speeds, creating safe and cycle-friendly roads and junctions, tackling bad driving and reducing the risks from lorries. That’s what will help achieve more, as well as safer, cycling, in order to maximize the benefits cyclists gain from ‘safety in numbers’.”
The Canadian study says it found two conclusive pieces of data from their research. First, females had consistently lower rates of hospitalization than did males. Second, cyclists who traveled in groups had lower injury rates. The researchers cited another study that found male helmet users tend to increase their speed and approach other cyclists more closely, but that female helmet users did not.
“These results suggest that policymakers interested in reducing bicycling injuries would be wise to focus on factors related to higher cycling mode shares and female cycling preferences. Bicycling infrastructure physically separated from traffic or routed along quiet streets is a promising fit for both and is associated with a lower relative risk of injury,” concluded the study.