Good Helmet Study Misreported By Media

cyclingcrowdHere’s an example of good science being misreported, with the risk of creating yet more debate that removes focus from the real issues. This time, it’s about the efficacy of bike helmets.

In the reported study, “The research literature was systematically reviewed and results were summarized from studies assessing bicycle helmet effectiveness to mitigate head, serious head, face, neck and fatal head injury in a crash or fall.”

In all, 40 studies were selected, all analyzing bicycle injuries treated in a hospital or other reporting clinic setting. For cyclists involved in a crash or fall sufficiently serious enough to require medical attention, helmet use was associated with odds reductions of 51% for head injury, 69% for serious head injury, 33% for face injury and 65% for fatal head injury. Remember that this is for those injured sufficiently enough to need medical attention.

Good results and actionable information, eh?  Perhaps, perhaps not. It all goes astray when the mass media in its usually innumerate fashion ignores that the study results reflect only on injured cyclists needing medical attention, and then report as if the results applied to the general cycling population.

Other research assessing injury rates (pdf) inform us that the injury rate amongst the general cycling population ins North America is about 622 in 100 million trips.  That means that helmet effectiveness, which only comes into play once an injury-causing crash is underway, only happens in 1 trip out of every 160,000 or so.

Where does this leave us?

  1. Choose to wear a helmet, please. If you’re unfortunate to be in the very small percentage of those who find themselves in a crash, the helmet has a good chance of being your friend.
  2. Read media reports of research with a critical eye and look up the actual study or its abstract to check the facts.
  3. Beware of falsely reported science sticking in the public mind and being used inappropriately.
  4. Let’s continue to focus on strategies, like Vision Zero and protected bike lanes, that aim to reduce that 622 in 100,000,000 number to 0.

Author: Alan Medcalf

Alan is a post-corporate, volunteer, community builder living in Brockville, Ontario. He seeks to create sustainable lifestyle advantage for the community by creating opportunities for more people to choose to walk and to ride bikes. He promotes the health, social, environmental and economic benefits of active mobility.