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To Wear Or Not to Wear? That Is The Cycle Helmet Question

Posted 29.09.16 | By Dan Smith

It has been an age old debate, does a cycling helmet guarantee protection on the road, and should we all be wearing them? The approach to wearing them varies throughout the world, with some European countries, such as the Netherlands famous for their casual use, while Australia and New Zealand enforce mandatory lid wearing. A study was released by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) on 20 September 2016, focusing on the effect helmets can have in preventing injury, which has raised more questions about their use. In general, here at Vélo we always think it wise to wear one while you’re in the saddle, but we’re going to look into what has sparked this argument.

Helmet Heroes

This study conducted by two Australian statisticians Jake Olivier and Prudence Creighton at UNSW, analysed 64,000 cyclists from around the world. It found that helmets lower the chance of a fatal head injury by 65%, and that the risk of a serious head injury is reduced by almost 70%. This information in itself is striking, and provides more conclusive evidence that helmet wearing should be encouraged. However, the duo advised that it was not a ‘panacea for cycling injury’, and that injuries can still be sustained wearing a helmet.

It certainly adds weight to the argument that cycling helmets should be universally worn on the road, but does that encourage cyclists on to the road, and should they be mandatorily brought in? In addition, is it a simple case of more helmets worn the fewer casualties there will be, or does it take more riders being on the road to improve safety?

Compulsory helmet wearing in Australia first took effect in Victoria in 1990, quickly becoming widespread across the country after government lobbying from The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons. Since then, it has also been taken up as a universal requirement by New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, and the American city of Seattle. While several countries have brought in a partial, more flexible approach. In Australia, refusal to wear a helmet while cycling incurs a fine, which is thought to be one of the factors that have discouraged potential riders.

The Public Have Spoken

Here at Vélo, we have conducted our own survey to determine whether members of the public would be put off cycling if helmet wearing became compulsory, and if they feel helmets reduce the risk of serious injury.

It was a landslide victory on the latter, with 92% of our electorate believing that a helmet will improve their chances of avoiding injury on their bikes. What was surprising, however, was that of the 8% that feel that a helmet doesn’t make a difference, were a third of those under 18 who voted. The statistics were identical for both the male and female vote, and it seems that the public perception is very much towards the importance of wearing a helmet.

When it came to mandatory helmet wearing, the numbers were not quite as extreme, but still in favour of helmet use. 78% suggested that they would not be put off riding their bikes if this became regulatory. Again, of the 22% that would be put off by a compulsory helmet law, a large number were the youngest of those polled. A whopping 43% of the 18 and under voters believe that it would be a negative move, a stark contrast with the 87% of those older than 55 who would favour such a move.

Not The Complete Picture

So with this in mind, it appears that the public believe that wearing a helmet is important for cycling safety, and that a majority would not be put off compulsory wearing. However, this does not explain why the Netherlands repeatedly records the fewest fatal crashes in the world, despite such a small number of its riders wearing helmets.

With this being the case, is it as simple as there needing to be more cyclists on the roads to reduce accidents? Public health professor at Sydney University, Chris Rissel certainly believes so, suggesting that “In safety terms there is a phenomenon called safety in numbers… Drivers become used to seeing cyclists and adjust their behavior. Even if cyclists wear helmets they are less safe with fewer cyclists on the road than they would be with more cyclists about.”

So there we have it, there’s no doubt that helmets can provide protection on the road, but don’t come close to guaranteeing the safety of wearers. We think that alongside a helmet, it’s vital to stay vigilant on the road, so keep your wits about you. It’s becoming a safer time to be a cyclist, but there are still threats to be wary of.

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