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Helmet report is a headache

If all the research dollars that had been spent proving and disproving the effect of helmet laws on cycling rates and/ or injuries were spent of safer cycling infrastructure, we might have more kids on bikes. But that’s not the world we live in.

A recent report into children’s injuries has found that although the mandatory helmet law is associated with a 13% reduction in head injuries for five- to 19-year-olds, it’s also associated with a 9% reduction in cycling by this age group. Pinka Chatterji, from the State University of New York, and Sara Markowitz, from Emory University in Georgia, conducted a study of the effects of the helmet laws on children’s injuries for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

They say: “We do not know whether the reduction in head injuries associated with the law arises from more children wearing helmets when they ride bicycles, from children riding more safely in general (say by avoiding street riding), or simply from a reduction in the number of children riding bicycles”. The researchers also suggest that helmet laws may be associated with an 11% increase in injuries among five- to 19-year-old users of skateboards, roller skates and scooters.

There are so many caveats here that trying to figure out the significance of the results makes your head hurt. For one thing, the laws weren’t introduced to all US states at the same time. So the “pre” and “post” law periods vary. Moreover, a researcher’s decision to define the particular period to compare will also have an impact on the stats – for example if you compared the two years before the law with two years after, you would get different results to defining the pre and post period as ten or twenty years before and after.

It is not clear how well kept the death/injury stats are that they are using, but if it is anything like the situation in Australia, comparing historical records can be a nightmare as coding procedure changes; you find yourself working with records which don’t detail whether the death of a non-helmet-wearer included head injuries; and so on.

While it is unlikely that the pro- and anti-helmet lobbies will ever see eye to eye, it would be nice to see a decent sized study that allowed cyclists, ex-cyclists and potential cyclists to actually talk about the impact, if any, the laws have had on their behaviour. And to not confuse discussions about the effectiveness of a law with discussions about the effectiveness of a device.

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