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UBC study finds no link between bicycle helmet laws and head injuries

The long-held view that bicycle helmet laws increase the safety of the public may have been proven wrong by UBC researchers. 

The study, published in October in the British Medical Journal, concluded that helmet laws do not correlate with hospitalization rates for brain, head, scalp, skull, face or neck injuries.

“What we found is that hospitalization rates did not differ between provinces with helmet laws ... and for provinces that didn’t have helmet laws,” explained Kay Teschke, one of the researchers who wrote the study. 

The study, which looked at cities across Canada from 2006-2011, used administrative data from hospitals for bicycle injuries, focusing on 10 major body regions. Cycling laws vary across the provinces of Canada where some require helmets only for minors, no helmets at all or — like British Columbia — helmets for all cyclists. While hospitalization rates across Canada also vary substantially, the researchers found that none of this related to the differences in laws, but instead was linked to two other factors.  

“We did find that for traffic related injury hospitalization rates, there were lower rates [of hospitalizations in areas] where cycling was more common,” said Teschke. 

The only other factor with a correlation to hospitalization rates was gender with males consistently being hospitalized at higher rates than females. 

The study itself was a collaboration between Kay Teschke, Mieke Koehoorn and Hui Shen from UBC’s School of Population and Public Health as well as Jessica Dennis from the University of Toronto. The study is also a part of a larger research project called Cycling in Cities, which is based at UBC and partnered with researchers from across Canada. The program focuses on factors that encourage or discourage cycling as well as the effect that transportation infrastructure has on safety.

“There has been quite a lot of research … on bicycle helmets, but very little research on other things that might make cycling safer or more dangerous…. I started the program to try to balance things out,” said Teschke. “The main part of this study wasn’t just to study the helmet laws, but to study another feature which was whether or not there was an impact of how common cycling is in these different provinces.” 

Teschke is hesitant about changing the legislation relating to children and hopes laws pertaining to adult cyclists will be reconsidered. 

“I think it’s reasonable to allow adults to have [that] choice [based on] what kind of situation they’re in and whether or not they feel more comfortable wearing a helmet,” said Teschke.