- Feds no longer back 1989 Seattle helmet effectiveness study – City should modify its helmet law before bike share launches (Seattle Bike Blog)
Yet another incessant article has been published decrying the need to wear helmets in this country. Tom Fucoloro may indeed be right. The riders pictured in the inset image do not really look to be in danger. So why all the fuss about helmets?
After years of conflicting studies have thrown its results into question, both the Center for Disease Control and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will no longer promote the conclusion that bicycle helmets reduce head injury rates by 85 percent in light of meta-analyses of similar studies that found lower and inconclusive results.
The often-cited and influential 1989 study was conducted in Seattle by Robert Thompson M.D. for Group Health. It has been heavily influential in discussions about municipal all-ages bicycle helmet laws. Not surprisingly, King County is among the only major metropolitan areas on the planet to have such a law. After all, if you could reduce head injuries by 85 percent just by wearing a helmet, then of course we should make them mandatory!
Perhaps we have been looking at this issue the wrong way round? In virtually every medical study you have a group that gets the medicine or treatment under consideration and another that gets a placebo. You often run this as a “double blind study” where the person handing out the medicine only knows the number of the individual who received the medicine and the number of the vial of medicine dispensed. The doctors and nurses do not therefore know ahead of time which group any given individual belongs to.
For a study of helmet safety this would be difficult to do since it is obvious when a person is riding sans helmet. But since we have a test group that is ready and willing to subject their noggins to possible injury without benefit of a helmet it would seem that the best strategy going forward is to keep meticulous records of head injuries and to note whether the person sustaining them was wearing a helmet or not.
After a sufficient amount of time (perhaps a five year period) you could publish the results of the study and that could form the basis for the modification of existing safety rules regarding helmets on a state-by-state basis. It seems fair enough to let this happen since everyone riding without a helmet would be doing so of their own free will.
I think this could work and I urge states to try this out.
While we are at it I would love to see a similar study done in which a given city offers and intensive set of training sessions on Vehicular Cycling. This would include perhaps the full panoply of courses offered by the League of American Bicyclists. Riders receiving the training would take both a written test and field tests with perhaps renewal training every three years. After a 10 year period (or even 6 years) check the meticulous records of accidents encountered in a city to determine whether the training had any affect on the relative safety of riders who had taken the classes.
In addition it would be wonderful to have surveys conducted of the two groups (those with training and those without) to determine their relative levels of comfort at being able to handle themselves in city traffic. Again the data could be published and offered as another set of data points that might be used in determining the kinds and levels of training (if any) that might be offered to cyclists in a given area.