Study shows all-ages helmet law improves safety without deterring riders

By Christina Yantsides

The King County Board of Health (BOH) All-Ages Bicycle Helmet Law requires that anyone riding a bicycle, regardless of age, must wear a helmet (for more on the history and specifics of the law, read this). Public Health is a strong supporter of helmet laws, which are an important strategy to prevent serious injury and death from bicycle crashes. The bike law has been the source of much discussion, with some applauding it and some bemoaning it. A recently published study in the Journal of Community Health found supporting evidence that the All-Ages Bicycle Helmet Law has actually helped improve bicycle safety – without decreasing ridership.  This new study is consistent with previous reports showing benefits from helmet use.

So what are the recent Journal of Community Health study findings?

When comparing the time periods before (2000-2002) and after (2004-2010) the Bicycle Helmet Law, the helmet study results showed the following;

  • A reduction in bicycle-related fatalities. In Seattle and King County, there were a total of 35 bicycle-related fatalities from 2000 to 2010. Before the law was passed there was an average of nearly 5 fatalities per year compared to 3 fatalities per year after the law was passed. While not solely attributable to the bicycle helmet law, the bicycle helmet law was an important contributing factor in reducing bicycle-related fatalities.
  • A significant decrease in bicycle-related major head trauma. While there was no change in the number of bicyclists with overall head trauma, researchers found a 19% decrease in major head trauma as a proportion of all bicycle-related head trauma in Seattle after the law was passed. This means many serious head injuries may have been prevented all together by helmet use.
  • Elimination of helmet-preventable fatalities among children. The study findings suggest that children have also benefited since the bicycle helmet law went into effect. Since 2005, there have been no bicycle-related helmet-preventable fatalities for children (those under age 18). This is increasingly important as we continue to promote bicycling and bicycle safety in Seattle and the rest of Washington state through various efforts, including the Seattle Bicycle Master Plan, Child Death Review, Seattle’s Vision Zero and Washington State’s Target Zero.
  • No evidence of decrease in ridership. The study findings dispel the notion held by a few residents that mandatory helmet laws decrease bicycle ridership and prevent people from riding bicycles. While data is not available for ridership and helmet use for the entire City or County, there is an increase in the incidence of all bicycle-related trauma, which likely indicates an increase in ridership. It is unlikely that this increase in trauma is due to an increase in injuries per rider as, in addition to the helmet legislation, there have been environmental and infrastructure changes implemented in both Seattle and King County aimed at encouraging bicycling as well as increasing bicycle safety.

Maximizing bicycle safety and promoting health through physical activity for all requires a multi-pronged approach. In addition to continuing to promote and increase helmet use, other important elements include improving and designing roads for users other than cars, including bicycles as well as transit users and pedestrians. Reducing speed limits is yet another approach to promote bicycle and pedestrian safety. Seattle is paving the way ̶  just last month the Seattle City Council approved lowering the speed limits from 30 mph to 25 mph on many downtown streets and from 25 mph to 20 mph on residential streets.

And, while helmets can be an extra financial burden, agencies throughout King County provide low-cost or free bicycle helmets. Check out Public Health’s list of where to get free or low-cost bike helmets and fitting assistance in King County.

Christina  is a proponent of bicycle safety and health equity and works within the Violence and Injury Prevention team at Public Health – Seattle and King County.

Featured photo via Flickr.