A major study of bike helmet use around the world from more than 64,000 cyclists has found helmets reduce the risks of a serious head injury by nearly 70%.
The study also found neck injuries are not associated with helmet use and cyclists who wear helmets reduce their chance of a fatal head injury by 65%.
The compulsory wearing of bike helmets in Australia has long been a source of frustration for some cyclists, who argue it reduces participation rates. Previous studies have indicated helmet use encourages risk-taking behaviour or does not reduce serious injury to the brain.
The findings were presented in Finland this week at Safety 2016, the world conference on injury prevention and safety promotion.
Olivier’s findings were particularly significant for serious or fatal head injuries and found the reduction was greater for these kinds of more serious injuries.
“Helmet use is associated with odds reductions of 51% for head injury, 69% for serious head injury, 33% for face injury and 65% for fatal head injury. Injuries to the neck were rare and not associated with helmet use,” the study found.
“These results suggest that strategies to increase the uptake of bicycle helmets should be considered along with other injury prevention strategies as part of a comprehensive cycling safety plan.”
The researchers cautioned that helmets were not a “panacea for cycling injury” and did not eliminate head or face injuries or offer protection to other parts of cyclists’ bodies. But it does make the case more difficult for those who oppose mandatory helmet wearing, they said.
However, critics claim that helmet laws put people off cycling, causing far wider weight-related health problems due to Australians favouring driving, or not moving at all. One study found that 16.5% of people say they would ride more often if they were not required to wear a helmet at all times.
Chris Rissel, a professor of public health at the University of Sydney, told a 2015 Australian Senate inquiry into the subject that cycling numbers dropped after the helmet laws were introduced in the 1990s, which made remaining cyclists more vulnerable.
“Drivers become used to seeing cyclists and adjust their behaviour, and infrastructure tends to be improved to better cater for cycling. Even if cyclists wear helmets they are less safe with fewer cyclists on the road than they would be with more cyclists about.
“Helmets are a barrier to new riders, particularly for occasional and non-regular riders. The need to wear a helmet reinforces the message that cycling is dangerous – with perceptions of danger a major reason people give for not cycling.”