Surprising Research on Bicycle Helmet Laws — and Why It Matters for Gun Research

March 11, 2013 | 9:45 am
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

An article in The Atlantic on Friday discussed the importance of bicycle helmets. It also discussed recent research around the effectiveness of helmet laws, and different ideas that people have around mandatory helmet use based on that research. That makes me think about research around guns. Say what? Let me explain.

More than 20 states require helmets for younger bicycle riders. No states currently require helmets for adults.

Yet the science is clear. Helmets prevent brain injuries. This is true through research and through anecdote. A 2012 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found that people without helmets are more than three times more likely to die in a crash. Other research shows that helmets prevent head injuries by as much as 85 percent (full disclosure: my first professional job was for what is now known as the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance. I used to breathe these statistics.)

Several years ago, I was heading down a hill on my bike when a driver turned in front of me. I had two choices: slam into the side of his SUV or swerve and lose control and launch myself into the street and hope for the best. I chose the latter and landed first on my left shoulder. A tenth of a second later, my head hit the ground. I can remember my head bouncing off the pavement. The helmet I was wearing absorbed the impact and cracked in two, just as it’s designed to do. I emerged with a separated shoulder, and was late to dinner. But I didn’t even have a headache. I am part of the 85 percent.

Kid on a bike

Recent research shows that bicycle helmet laws lead to a decrease in brain injuries but also a decrease in bicycle use. This research can be used by policy makers to determine the best ways to promote public health. Photo: Flickr user Chris Yarzab

So we should make everyone wear a helmet, right? Well, it might be more complicated than that. Recently, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) went through great pains to explain why it opposes mandatory helmet laws. WABA takes this stance because the “impact [of helmet laws] on cycling rates (especially in jurisdictions implementing or seriously studying bikesharing) is clearly negative.”

Simply put, fewer people ride bikes. That means more people miss out on the positive health and social effects of regular exercise through transportation—which can be the only exercise that some of us get. And the more people who ride bikes, the more public support there will be for protected bicycle lanes and other planning decisions that make cyclists safer.

WABA’s argument against mandatory helmet use makes even more sense in light of a study put out last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The authors argue that in states with youth helmet laws, “the observed reduction in bicycle-related head injuries may be due to reductions in bicycle riding induced by the laws.” In other words, the helmet laws don’t work as intended.

Armed with this research, we can have a more informed discussion. Should we keep helmet laws so there are fewer brain injuries? Or should we lift them so that more people will ride bicycles? Should we focus on laws that are more restrictive or on public education and social incentives? In my personal view, the libertarian approach here might make the most sense.

Which brings me back to gun-related research—research that was, until recently, discouraged by the federal government. The president has directed the CDC to resume gun-related research. This is a good move. When we know more about the causes of firearms injuries, we will be better prepared to prevent them.

And here’s the important point: sometimes, the evidence will point us in the direction of more regulation—whether that means background checks or better mental health screening or something else entirely. Sometimes, it will point us in the opposite direction. But we should encourage and fund research, and allow public health scientists to take the science in whatever direction it leads them. Our discussion about gun laws should be just as grounded in facts as our discussion about bike helmets.