A new study by researchers in New South Wales, Australia (“NSW”) has generated a lot of buzz of late concerning the usefulness of bicycle helmets. The paper by M. Bambach, et al., published in the April 2013 edition of the journal Accident Prevention and Analysis, was reportedly intended to examine the whether or not helmets were effective in reducing head injuries in collisions between a cyclist and a motor vehicle or if the safety benefits were primarily limited to low speed collisions or falls. However, the paper has generated a considerable amount of attention due to its finding that helmet usage can also impact the willingness of a cyclist to take risks.
The study’s authors examined a variety of information concerning the type and severity of injuries sustained by cyclists in NSW, and crossed referenced them against data concerning the circumstances of the accident. Their conclusions demonstrate that helmets convey significant protection, both in low speed accidents or falls, as well as in the event of a collision with a motor vehicle. The authors determined that cyclists who collided with a motor vehicle and were NOT wearing a were nearly twice as likely to suffer a “moderate” head injury, 2.6 times more likely to suffer a “serious” head injury, nearly 4 times as likely to suffer a “severe” head injury, and 4.6 times as likely to suffer a skull fracture. Reading between the lines, however, its very likely that these odds are under-stated, as the number of persons whose helmets saved them from head injury in their collisions cannot be known from the data.
While this most recent study may have produced resurgence in the discussion over the possible connection between helmet usage and risk taking in cycling, that topic is neither new nor limited to the study by M. Bambach, et al (2013). For instance, Spaite et al (1991) examined the incidence of non-head injuries as a marker for risky behaviors, and determined that cyclists who use helmets are generally more cautious by virtue of their lower rates of injury. Conversely, another study by McDermott et al (1993) concluded that injuries in general (excluding head injuries) were more frequent and more severe amongst riders who use helmets and thus determined that any enhanced safety of helmets did not arise from behaviors which were generally safer on the part of helmeted riders.
Authors who have conduced reviews of the various literature on this topic over the years have generally agreed that the statistics provide compelling evidence of significant benefits to wearing helmets while cycling. And given that those benefits extend not only to reducing head/brain injuries, but also to facial injuries and fatalities, and have been found to apply to high and low speed collisions alike, I for one will add my voice to those calling for regular helmet use.