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Call to repeal law on bicycle helmets

The Australian media has been giving prominent coverage to research by academics from Sydney University that claims that the helmet law does not work and the country would be better off without it.

Researchers Rissel and Voukelatos, from the university's school of public health, said their research showed that although there had been a drop in the number of head injuries since the laws were introduced in 1991, helmets were not the main reason. General improvement in road safety from random breath testing and other measures were probably the cause, he said.

"I believe we'd be better off without it," he said of the law, recommending repealing the law in one city for two years to allow observations to inform future policy.

Dr Rissel said that although helmets protect heads, they also discourage casual cycling, where people use a bike to get milk or visit a friend. Scrapping compulsory helmet use, he believes, would reverse that, improve health rates and reduce injury rates because getting more cyclists on the roads would make motorists better at avoiding them.

To reach the conclusions, Dr Rissel analysed the ratio of head injuries to arm injuries among cyclists admitted to hospital between 1988 and 2008. He assumed the ratio would not change unless helmet use reduced head injury rates compared with arm injury rates. Their findings showed that most of the fall in head injury rates occurred before the laws came into force.

After the new laws, they found a continued but declining reduction in the ratio of head injuries to arm injuries. This was likely to be due to factors other than the mandatory helmet legislation.

UPDATE: Subsequently, Dr Rissel admitted that his study contained serious arithmetic and data-plotting errors. However, he said that when advised of the errors, he had obtained additional data from West Australia and Victoria which confirmed the original findings that general improvements in road safety before the helmet laws were behind the fall in head injuries among cyclists. It is hoped to publish this additional research in 2011.

Mon 16 Aug 2010

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