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Friday, 27 October, 2000, 01:58 GMT 02:58 UK
Cycle helmets 'do work'
Much controversy surrounds the use of cycle helmets
Cycle helmets do protect against head injuries despite claims to the contrary, researchers have found.

Some campaigners say that cycle helmets are of limited use - particularly for adults.

But a team from Imperial College London has found that the number of serious head injuries among cyclists of all ages has fallen as a result of increasing helmet use.

Our results provide strong evidence that helmets work, and work well

Adrian Cook, Imperial College London

The researchers calculated the number of cyclists admitted to hospital with head injuries, as a percentage of total monthly admissions, between April 1991 and March 1995.

The patients were divided into three age categories: junior (6-10 years), secondary (11-15 years), and adult (16 years and over).

Numbers of emergency admissions among cyclists changed little over the four-year study period.

There were 8,678 incidents in 1991, compared with 8,781 in the year 1994-95.

However, the number admitted with head injuries fell from 40% to 28%.

Each age group showed a significant reduction:

  • a 9% drop among juniors
  • 11% among secondary
  • 13% among adults
The researchers say the findings indicate that helmets are of benefit both to children and adults.

They say that local publicity campaigns encouraging the voluntary wearing of helmets have been effective and should accompany national drives to promote cycling.

Lead researcher Adrian Cook told BBC News Online: "Many cyclists are still sceptical about the benefit of helmets and wearing rates in the UK are low.

"Our results provide strong evidence that helmets work, and work well."

Counter productive

However, some experts say that cycle helmets can actually increase the danger of head injury.

The theory is that that helmeted cyclists are lulled into a false sense of security and therefore take greater risks than their more vulnerable counterparts.

Independent researcher John Franklin analysed data in Australia, the first country to make cycle helmets compulsory.

He found that since the law was tightened head injuries had fallen by 11% - but there were 15% fewer cyclists on the roads, suggesting the risk has actually increased.

The British Medical Association is also concerned that making cycle helmets compulsory would put many people off cycling, and that the resulting lack of exercise would be more dangerous than the risk of head injuries.

A spokesman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said: "We welcome this research.

"It confirms a lot of other research over the years that shows that wearing a cycle helmet can reduce the risk of receiving head and brain injuries.

"Rospa recommend that all cyclists wear an approved helmet whenever they cycle."

Helmets contain a thick layer of polystyrene which absorbs the force of an impact.

It is, however, important for the helmet to fit well so that it stays in place during a fall, and the polystyrene layer can only be compressed once so helmets should be replaced after an accident.

The spokesman said that 173 cyclists were killed in road accidents in the UK last year.

The research is published in the British Medical Journal.

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See also:

01 Aug 00 | Health
Cycle helmets: The debate
23 Jul 98 | Health
Take the hard way, cyclists urged
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