Cycle helmets should be effective, says government report

But CTC argues study is flawed

Wearing a cycle helmet should significantly reduce the risk of head injury if you're involved in a road accident, according to a new report for the UK's Department for Transport.

The study – which looked at existing reports on helmet use plus police and hospital accident data – concludes that as long as they are a good fit and worn correctly, lids should be effective in preventing fractures and brain injury, both in the case of falls and accidents involving other vehicles.

This may sound like stating the obvious, but the helmet use debate rages on, with critics arguing that, among other things, wearing a lid can put cyclists at greater risk of being involved in an accident – as drivers tend to give riders wearing protection less room – and may give them a false sense of security.

UK cyclists' organisation CTC has condemned the report, by independent research body TRL, saying that the authors have identified shortcomings with previous research but "overlooked equally serious failings in their own work”.

For instance, they have investigated claims that helmets cause an increased risk of rotational head injury – something they have found no evidence for – but admit they have not included "detailed consideration of whether wearing (or not wearing) a helmet influences the likelihood of being involved in an accident", and have not examined links between compulsory helmet use and falls in cycling.

CTC campaigns and policy director Roger Geffen said: “After shooting down everyone else’s assumptions on cycle helmets, the report’s authors realised this left them without a pro-helmet conclusion, so they have cooked up some spurious assumptions of their own. CTC would just like to see an honest analysis of the case for and against telling cyclists to wear helmets which takes into account all the relevant issues.”

The report, titled The potential for cycle helmets to prevent injury a review of the evidence, aims to provide a comprehensive review of the effectiveness of cycle helmets. The key points are:

  • A predicted 10-16 percent of cyclist deaths could have been prevented if the victim had worn a helmet, according to a biomechanical assessment of more than 100 police forensic reports filed between 2001 and 2006.
  • Around 40 percent of cyclists admitted to hospital in England have suffered head injuries. Ten percent of those admitted between 1999 and 2005 after road accidents suffered injuries of a type and to a part of the head that a helmet may have mitigated or prevented. A further 20 percent suffered open wounds that a lid may have mitigated or prevented.
  • A helmeted head can fall at least four times as far for the same risk of injury as an unprotected head.
  • No evidence has been found to suggest an increased risk of rotational head injury with a helmet compared to without a helmet.
  • Cycle helmets are particularly effective for children, because both adults' and kids' lids are designed to withstand falls from 1.5 metres – because they aren't as tall, youngsters aren't likely to fall anywhere near this far.
  • Helmet use has increased steadily since 1994. In 2008, lids were worn by 34 percent of cyclists on major roads and 17 percent on minor roads, compared to 22 and eight percent respectively in 1999.

The report also reveals that, contrary to popular belief and speculation in the UK's mainstream media, only a tiny proportion of riders – around six percent – are injured in crashes caused by poor cycling, such as jumping red lights, ignoring stop signs and failing to use lights at night.

You can download a copy of the report, The potential for cycle helmets to prevent injury a review of the evidence, for free at www.trl.co.uk, although you'll need to create an account.

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