An insightful letter published in the British Medical Journal makes the point that we have a morbid preoccupation with cycle danger and that the British Medical Association support of compulsory helmets was based on a “single isolated study in unusual circumstances.”
Transport & Health Study Group said in its letter:
“For many years the British Medical Association opposed compulsory cycle helmets on the basis that they would reduce rates of cycling. It only changed this policy as a result of the Ontario study. Apart from this single isolated study in unusual circumstances (high rates of voluntary wearing and no enforcement of the law) all studies of the effects of cycle helmet legislation show that the rates of cycling fall. The serious doubts about the study raised by this new work must surely raise questions about whether the BMA should continue with this policy.
The BMA already says that legislation should only be introduced when rates of helmet-wearing are already high, as they were in Ontario, but this nuance is not widely recognised”
The letter — which can be read in full here, under the second headline — outlines how when you compare local bicycle and car journeys it is safer to cycle in England than to drive in France.
The authors end by saying “Whilst there are risks to cyclists that can and should be reduced it is time for us to also to consider the deaths that are caused by a morbid preoccupation with cycle danger.”
The letter follows a recent article in the BMJ written jointly by Bad Science author and academic Ben Goldacre and risk statistician David Spiegelhalter. They said:
“The enduring popularity of helmets as a proposed major intervention for increased road safety may therefore lie not with their direct benefits—which seem too modest to capture compared with other strategies—but more with the cultural, psychological, and political aspects of popular debate around risk.”
Meanwhile in the US the federal government has been forced to stop using the claim that helmets prevent 85% of head injuries. Cyclehelmets.org writes:
“US federal agencies The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have decided that they can no longer justify citing the claim that bicycle helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85%. No subsequent research has ever found a benefit anywhere near as great.
The agencies had been challenged under the Data Quality Act to show why they still continued to cite the earlier estimate, which is often seized upon to exaggerate the potential benefits of helmets and to support helmet laws.”
A road.cc article also point to a possible explanation why helmet laws have been found my many studies to be ineffective. It quoted a Norwegian study which said:
“With all the limitations that have to be placed on a cross sectional study such as this, the results indicate that at least part of the reason why helmet laws do not appear to be beneficial is that they disproportionately discourage the safest cyclists.”
The Norwegian research shows a weak case for helmets and the authors outlined how its findings are “inconsistent” a Cochrane review — such reviews are usually widely viewed as usually trusted in medical circles, but the Norwegian authors said the “study inclusion criteria applied in the Cochrane review are debatable” and point to a [undeclared] conflict of interest in the Cochrane review.