The Western Australian Government has ignored a report in the West Australian newspaper (30th March 2006), which had raised hopes that it might review its mandatory cycle helmet law, enforced in 1992. New research cast doubt on whether helmet laws save lives, the newspaper reported. This followed publication of research in the British Medical Journal (Robinson, 2006) that there was no obvious reduction in percent head injuries when enforced helmet laws substantially increased percent helmet wearing. Instead there were obvious reductions in cycling, likely to have adverse impacts on public health and the environment.
The West Australian wrote that Planning and Infrastructure Minister Alannah McTiernan said Dr. Robinson's study would be reviewed. According to the newspaper, the cabinet minister found some parts of the research controversial and said it would be foolish to dismsiss it. "We would be very silly if we were not prepared to look at the research," she said.
However, other research with similar findings have not formally influenced policy. For example, a cost-benefit analysis published in 1999 by Delia Hendrie and colleagues from the University of Western Australia's Road Accident Prevention Research Unit concluded: "In monetary terms, it is unlikely that the helmet wearing legislation would have achieved net savings of any sizeable magnitude." (Hendrie, Legge, Rosman and Kirov, 1999)
Labor spokeswoman for planning and transport, Ms MacTiernan wrote to fellow MLA Jullian Grill In May 2000, as saying:
"While we have publicly supported compulsory bicycle helmets there are concerns now being raised about the effectiveness of this policy. Research suggests that compulsory helmet legislation may be counterproductive in public health terms. It could be argued that any safety benefits to cyclists may be offset by the decrease in the number of people cycling as a result of being discouraged by the helmet legislation. There are significant implications for people's health, and subsequent health costs, due to reduced physical activity."
In September 2005, Ms MacTiernan's acting chief-of-staff Richard Farrell admitted that there was no consistent data to allow reliable conclusions about the impact of the laws on community health. Ms MacTiernan said the Government had data about the health of people engaging in exercise but there was no cycling specific data.
WA Council for Civil Liberties president Peter Weygers told the West Australian that Dr Robinson joined a growing list of people concerned that mandatory helmet laws were harmful. But some health professionals have criticised any move to review helmet laws. Royal Perth Hospital trauma surgery director Sudhakar Rao said hospital data showed helmets reduced the chances of a serious head injury. He said it seemed a poor swap to have more healthy people but more with serious head injuries.
It is questionable whether increased public health is a poor swap for the increased injury risk of physical activity. Regardless, the research shows this does not happen in the context of cycling. Bike/motor-vehicle crashes cause the majority of serious head injuries to cyclists. Reduced cycling because of helmet laws reduces 'Safety in Numbers' (Jacobsen, 2003; Robinson, 2005b), increasing the risk to an individual cyclist of a bike/motor-vehicle crash and so increasing the risk of serious head injury.
WA's politicians have ignored the new research, a fate similar to the work of Delia Hendrie and her Roadwatch colleagues (Hendrie, Legge, Rosman and Kirov, 1999) at the University of Western Australia - recognised and apparently understood in private, but too politically sensitive to have any real influence on policy.
Hendrie D, Legge M, Rosman D, Kirov C, 1999. An Economic Evaluation of the Mandatory Bicycle Helmet Legislation in Western Australia. Road Accident Prevention Research Unit .
Jacobsen PL, 2003. Safety in numbers: more walkers and bicyclists, safer walking and bicycling. Injury Prevention 2003;9:205-209.
Robinson DL, 2005. Safety in numbers in Australia: more walkers and bicyclists, safer walking and bicycling. Health Promotion Journal of Australia 2005;16:47-51.
Robinson DL, 2006. Do enforced bicycle helmet laws improve public health?. BMJ 2006;332:722-725.