An Irish children’s hospital consultant has spoken out making the case for cyclists to be legally required to wear a helmet, arguing accident and emergency units see a spike in crash-related injuries during the summer months.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Radio 1 programme Dr Carol Blackburn, a paediatric emergency medicine consultant at CHI Crumlin, argued that the data from Australia is “well demonstrated” and said a mandatory helmet law would likely see “hospitalisations for significant head injuries reduced”.
“The data that we have would demonstrate that the safety of bicycle helmets for cycling collisions can reduce the instance of serious brain injury by up to 80 per cent and can reduce facial injuries by around two thirds, and that’s in children and young people colliding with other vehicles or just falling off their bicycle,” she said.
Asked if she wished to see Ireland follow Australia’s lead and introduce a requirement for cyclists to wear helmets, she said: “I think so. We know there is data in Australia that after the wearing of bicycle helmets was made a legal requirement, hospitalisations for significant head injuries reduced so there is an impact of it.
“Also compliance increases and it is a good thing for children to see and a good habit to get into. In many ways it is a simple intervention, helmets are not expensive any more, I think for most people if they can afford a bicycle a small additional cost for a bicycle would not impede them. The benefits are really quite well demonstrated internationally, so yes we would love to see it become a requirement in Ireland.”
As the weather improves through spring and into May, Dr Blackburn reports “we start to see children who come in having sustained injuries from road traffic accidents where they’ve come off their bicycles or scooters, but mostly bicycles”.
“Some of these injuries would include fairly significant head injuries; like moderate severity concussions, perhaps skull fractures or indeed facial lacerations and other injuries, a certain number of which would certainly be prevented if these children and young people have been wearing properly fitted bicycle helmets.
“On a bicycle a child is very exposed, there really is nothing protecting them from the elements if they are to collide with something or to come off their bicycle.”
The helmet debate is a well-trodden path, the science around wearing helmets complicated. A 2017 review by statisticians at the University of New South Wales found that, based on 40 separate studies, helmet use significantly reduced the odds of head injury, and that the probability of suffering a fatal head injury was lower when cyclists wore a helmet although, the authors noted, helmets cannot eliminate the risk of injury entirely.
Another study from the same year, from Norway’s Institute of Transport Economics, concluded – based on an overview of almost 30 years’ worth of analysis – that bike helmets reduced head injury by 48 per cent, serious head injury by 60 per cent, traumatic brain injury by 53 per cent, facial injury by 23 per cent, and the total number of killed or seriously injured cyclists by 34 per cent.
However, while they are certainly useful when it comes to lessening the potential severity of a serious head injury, helmets have proved markedly less effective when it comes to preventing concussion, a reality of their protective limitations recognised by only one in five competitive cyclists, according to a recent study.
“Our conclusions are not that cycling headgear doesn’t afford protection, but that more independent research underpinning new technologies marketed for reducing concussion is needed,” said the study’s lead, and former racing cyclist, Dr Jack Hardwicke last year.
In 2020, Eric Richter, the senior brand development manager at Giro also spoke out clarifying some of the “many misconceptions” about helmets, explaining how they “do not design helmets specifically to reduce chances or severity of injury when impacts involve a car”.
Away from the science of injury and helmets’ effectiveness, campaigners have argued that in the hierarchy of methods to protect cyclists, legal requirements for personal protective equipment should not be prioritised over reducing dangerous driving and building safe cycle routes, Chris Boardman in 2014 calling helmets a “red herring”.
Speaking to road.cc he suggested widespread use of helmets spreads the wrong message and “scares people off”.
“We’ve got to tackle the helmet debate head on because it’s so annoying,” Boardman said. “I think the helmet issue is a massive red herring. It’s not even in the top 10 of things you need to do to keep cycling safe or more widely, save the most lives.”
Research from Dr Ian Walker also found that drivers gave cyclists wearing helmets less room when overtaking, while last week we reported a new study from Australia that found that cyclists wearing helmets were seen as “less human” than those without.
> “Not at all surprised”: Cyclists react to research showing riders wearing helmets and high-visibility clothing seen as “less human”
That research came just days before Conservative MP Mark Pawsey raised the question of mandatory helmets in Parliament, suggesting: “If mandatory safety measures are acceptable for car drivers, they should surely be acceptable for cyclists.”
As recently as December his own government had shut down similar talk, the Department for Transport saying it has “no intention” to make wearing a helmet while cycling a legal requirement.