Australia is one of the few countries in the world with mandatory helmet laws for motorcyclists and bicycle riders. They were introduced in 1991 in New South Wales and have been the subject of controversy since. A recent study provides evidence supporting the importance of wearing helmets in reducing the risk and severity of head injury, particularly for bicycle riders.
Dr Michael Dinh from the University of Sydney and colleagues studied 348 adult patients admitted to hospitals following bicycle and motorcycle accidents in Sydney for one year between 2008-2009.
They found that cyclists who didn't wear helmets were almost 6 times more likely to suffer a head injury than those wearing helmets, and more than 5 times more likely to suffer a severe head injury. The benefits for motorcyclists were not as marked but still significant, with those without helmets 2 times more likely to suffer a head injury and 3.5 more likely to suffer a severe head injury compared to those without helmets.
Head injuries are rated on a scale from mild to extremely severe, based on a ranges of factors including level of consciousness following the incident and length of coma.
These outcomes also have implications for hospital care. The study found that patients who suffered severe head injuries from not wearing a helmet cost hospitals 3 times as much in treatment. For those who suffered a severe head injury, median hospital costs for non-helmeted patients were $72,000 while for those with helmets the figure was $24,000.
Older riders were more likely to wear helmets than younger riders. The average age of helmet wearing cyclists was 41, compared to 35 for non-helmet wearers, and for motorcyclists the average ages were 31 for those wearing helmets and 25 for those who did not.
The study was published in the Medical Journal of Australia. It supports previous research on the subject. In 2011 Dr Jake Oliver and colleagues from the University of New South Wales and the Sax Institute studied the number of head injuries before and after the mandatory helmet laws came into effect. They found that head injuries fell by up to 29%.
There are clear benefits from helmet wearing that clearly outweigh concerns about mandatory helmet laws reducing the number of cyclists. Studies such as those by Dr Dinh and Dr Oliver have also prompted debate about the usefulness of mandatory helmet laws in the US. More information can be found here.