Conventional thinking is that helmets protect the user from unexpected falls

Photo © AAP Image/Tracey Nearmy

Almost 20 years ago, Australia became the first country to make it illegal to ride a bike without a helmet. Now the helmet debate is rearing its head again.

University of New England statistician Dorothy Robins says of her studies that “if helmet laws were effective, we should have seen a reduction in head injuries. But instead, we saw a reduction in cycling, which leads to increased sedentary lifestyle diseases… actually increasing health costs.”

However the NSW Roads and Transport Authority research found helmets can reduce head injury by 60 per cent and brain injuries by 58 per cent in the event of a crash.

Professor McDermott, who spearheaded the original campaign to make bike helmets compulsory in Australia, says if the current laws were overturned head injuries would rise and it would be “as backward a step as it would be to tell motorists they don’t have to wear seatbelts.”

Recently, Sue Abbott was pulled over by the highway patrol in the NSW country area of Scone and fined for not wearing a helmet while cycling. She says she has not worn one in 46 years.

Ms Abbott believes wearing a helmet actually increases the risk of brain damage, and that forcing her to wear one is a breach of her civil liberties. She took her fight to court, persuading the judge at the District Court there is still no clear evidence of the benefit of helmets.

After spelling out her case, the judge decided he “fell down on [her] side of the ledger” and that “it’s one those areas where it ought to be a matter of choice.”

Associate Professor Chris Rissel, from Sydney University school of public health, says the Australian laws discourage casual cycling and recommends 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. He says “on the basis of that, you could come to some informed policy decision.”

The 7PM Project will be talking to Sue Abbott tonight.

 

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