How effective is the bicycle helmet law?

Going for a bike ride may seem like a safe enough pastime, but it can actually be quite dangerous. Bicycle accidents often lead to serious injury or even death—particularly among children. 57 percent of all bicycle-related injuries treated in emergency rooms are for children under the age of 20.

Under North Carolina law, any child under the age of 16 must wear a helmet anytime they ride a bicycle. The goal of such legislation is to promote safe bicycling habits early on in life and to prevent serious head injuries in the event of an accident.

The logic behind the law may seem pretty straightforward. However, a recent study sheds light on the unintended consequences that such regulations have had on this demographic.

The study

In considering the effectiveness of bicycle helmet laws, researchers typically look at data surrounding the most obvious cause-and-effect relationship: whether bicycle helmet laws reduce bicycle-related head injuries. A paper published in Health Economics, however, examines the effect of bicycle helmet laws from a unique perspective. It investigates how helmet laws impact children’s behavior surrounding bicycling and other activities.

Researchers compared the cycling behaviors of children in states with and without bicycle helmet legislation. Their findings—as expected—demonstrated that states with helmet laws had a lower incidence of bicycle-related head injuries in this demographic.

However, the researchers also discovered that this reduction in head injuries from cycling was accompanied by a parallel spike in head injuries associated with other activities. More to the point, the researchers found that when a bicycle helmet law was passed, it didn’t encourage children to ride a bicycle with a helmet. Rather, it dissuaded them from riding a bicycle altogether. Children tended to favor other sports instead—such as skateboarding—which also have a high risk of head injury but have no such helmet requirement.

Thus, while the safety benefits of wearing a helmet are not in doubt, the study questions whether helmet laws ultimately lead to fewer injuries in children.

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