Study shows 46% drop in fatalities since introduction of Australia’s bicycle helmet laws

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A first-of-its-kind study by researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney (UNSW) has shown a clear link between the introduction of Australia’s mandatory bicycle helmet laws in 1990 and a drastic reduction in cycling fatalities.  

A world-first study of this type of legislation by UNSW shows that when Australia introduced the mandatory cycle helmet laws 29 years ago to reduce bicycling fatalities, they led to an immediate 46% drop in fatalities and have saved billions of dollars in medical costs since 1990.

Australia does not have national road laws as such, but after the state of Victoria brought in mandatory helmet laws in 1990 the remaining states and territories had followed suit by 1992. This study is the first in the world to examine the effects of mandatory helmet laws (MHL) applied on a national scale where those laws apply to all ages and are dutifully enforced.

“The statistics offer clear and solid, undisputable scientific evidence that mandatory helmet laws (MHL) were effective in reducing cycling injuries in Australia,” noted the study’s lead author, Professor Jake Olivier of UNSW’s School of Mathematics and Statistics and deputy director of the Transport and Road Safety (TARS) Research Center.

“There was an immediate 46% reduction in the rate of cycling fatalities per 100,000 population following the introduction of bicycle helmet legislation in Australia. “This decline has been maintained since 1990 and we estimate 1,332 fewer cycling fatalities associated with the introduction of bicycle helmet legislation to date.”

The findings of the study are in stark contrast with claims made by anti-helmet advocates who believe helmets do not reduce fatalities. Instead, they say that mandatory helmet laws (MHL) have deterred people from cycling and therefore have reduced the number of fatalities only by lowering participation rates. The authors of the study address this by pointing to numerous international studies including their own that found no strong evidence for MHL leading to fewer people cycling.
Study co-author, Professor Raphael Grzebieta also of TARS, commented, “There is an ill-informed, small, but vocal, group of anti-helmet advocates who claim that the MHL has been a disaster for cycling in Australia. This is simply not true. These are people that do not believe in scientific evidence. If Australian helmet laws were repealed there would be a sudden uptake in the rate of serious head injuries and fatalities among cyclists involved in a crash. The subsequent increase in hospitalization costs would further exacerbate the already overwhelming demand for crash trauma treatment at hospitals and cause a significant increase in health costs.”

Olivier, commented, “There are people who have made calls to repeal or weaken bicycle helmet legislation in Australia. The results from this study are not supportive of those initiatives. Instead, we call for strategies to improve cycling safety, such as appropriately designed segregated bicycle infrastructure, something that is sadly lacking in Australia when compared to European countries where there are often clearly designated spaces for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

“This senseless focus on helmet legislation detracts from the more important concerns about construction of dedicated cycling infrastructure, education of all road users, and supportive legislation to protect cyclists, such as minimum passing distances.”

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Adam joined the company in 1994, and has been News Editor of TTT since 2009. In his other role as Circulation Manager, he helped create the original Traffic Technology International distribution list 23 years ago, and has been working on it ever since. Outside of work, he is a keen fisherman, runs a drumming band, and plays an ancient version of cricket.

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