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Aussie helmet laws back in spotlight as A&E doctor backs compulsion

Lidless cyclists more likely to suffer serious head injuries, finds study at Sydney hospital

An Australian doctor who works in a busy accident & emergency department has conducted research that he claims supports keeping the country’s compulsory helmet laws, contradicting a study earlier this year that recommended repealing the legislation.

According to a report in the Herald Sun newspaper, in a letter to the Medical Journal of Australia summarising his research, Dr Michael Dinh of Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (RPA) said between 2008 and June 2010, some 287 cyclists had been admitted to the hospital’s trauma department.

Of those, 241 had been wearing a cycle helmet at the time of the accident, while 46 had not. The research found that 13% of the injured cyclists not wearing a helmet had suffered serious head injuries, compared to 3% of those who had been wearing one.

Dr Dinh’s letter stated: "It is the opinion of the trauma service at the RPA ... that mandatory bicycle helmet laws be maintained and enforced as part of overall road safety strategies."

Earlier this year, as reported on, two researchers at Sydney University claim that the compulsory bicycle helmet law, introduced in 1991, did not work and had requested a trial to be held to help ascertain what might happen if the law were repealed.

Associate Professor Dr Chris Rissel and a colleague at the university’s school of public health acknowledged that there had been a decline in head injuries since helmets were made compulsory, but said that was due to factors besides the wearing of a helmet itself, including improvements in road safety.

At the time, Dr Rissel said: ''I believe we'd be better off without it [compulsory helmet laws]. I'd recommend a trial repeal in one city for two years to allow researchers to make observations and see if there's an increase in head injuries, and on the basis of that you could come to some informed policy decision.”

Dr Rissel also pointed out that for many people, compulsory helmet laws are a deterrent to cycling in the first place since they reinforce the impression that cycling is an inherently dangerous activity, and that fewer people cycling in itself has a negative impact on wider general public health.

His research was partly based on a comparison of the ratio of head injuries to arm injuries found in cyclists admitted to hospital between 1988 and 2008, and therefore covering a longer period than this latest study, including a period before helmets were made compulsory.

Dr Rissel maintained that unless increased use of helmets had led to a reduction in the rate of head injuries, the ratio would be expected to have remained unchanged. Instead, he discovered that most of the decline in the rate of head injuries had taken place before compulsion.

He added that following the introduction of compulsory helmet laws, he and his fellow researchers observed ''a continued but declining reduction in the ratio of head injuries to arm injuries [and] … it is likely that factors other than the mandatory helmet legislation reduced head injuries''.

The issue of helmet compulsion is an emotive one in Australia, dividing even cycling lobbyists into pro and anti camps. Dr Rissel’s suggestion of a trial assessment, for example, received the backing of Stephen Hodge of the Cycling Promotion Fund, which promotes safe cycling in Australia, but was rejected by the chief executive of the cycling lobby group, Bike NSW, Omar Khalifa.

Meanwhile, police in Queensland, where as we reported earlier this month officers deflated the tyres on the bike of a teenage boy they discovered cycling without a helmet to prevent him from riding home, have come under criticism after it was revealed that other officers were riding round on quad bikes with no protective headgear.

A reader of the Sunshine Coast Daily sent the newspaper pictures of two helmetless officers riding their quad bikes, which can reach speeds in excess of 50 kilometres an hour on public roads. In the UK, Black Sabbath frontman turned reality TV star Ozzy Osbourne and comedian Rik Mayall both hit the headlines when injured in quad bike accidents.

A spokeswoman for Queensland Police told the Sunshine Coast Daily: “The quad bikes are registered for use on Queensland roads and under legislation, helmets are not required for the riders of quad bikes.”

She added: “The police were legally permitted to not wear helmets while riding the quad bikes. However, it is illegal to ride a bicycle or motorbike in Queensland without a helmet.”

The newspaper points out that it is illegal for members of the public to take to the state’s roads on quad bikes.

Simon joined as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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