Skip to Content
Streetsblog USA home
Streetsblog USA home
Log In
Streetsblog.net

Study That Spurred Bike Helmet Fetish Was Repudiated By Its Own Authors

11:26 AM EDT on April 28, 2015

The authors of a study that helped foment the public and governmental obsession with bike helmets later issued research that undermined their initial findings.

Cyclists in Melbourne, where helmet use is mandatory. Photo: Wikipedia
Cyclists in Melbourne, where helmet use is mandatory. Photo: Wikipedia
false

The 1989 study, by Frederick P. Rivara, Diane C. Thompson, and Robert S. Thompson, found that helmet usage reduced head injury by 85 percent, and the risk of brain injury by 89 percent.

Network blog Wash Cycle reports that other researchers were not able to replicate the results -- a red flag. And a few years later the original researchers issued a report, recently reprinted, that basically repudiated their landmark study.

These numbers have been repeated ever since by a variety of medical and insurance organizations and government agencies, despite the fact that "later efforts to replicate those results found a weaker connection between helmets and head injuries." In fact, in 2013, in response to a petition from WABA, the CDC and NHTSA agreed to remove these estimates from their website.

Thompson, Rivara and Thompson did another study in 1997 that shows no connection between helmet use and serious injury. In a review of questionnaires filled out by 3,390 cyclists injured over a three year period, they determined that "Risk for serious injury was not affected by helmet use (OR=0.9)...[and]...neck injury was not affected by helmet use." Instead they determined that:

"Prevention of serious bicycle injuries cannot be accomplished through helmet use alone, and may require separation of cyclists from motor vehicles, and delaying cycling until children are developmentally ready."

Their other conclusions (looking at just the abstract, because I don't have access to the full article) include:

  • 51% of injured cyclists wore helmets at the time of crash.
  • Only 22.3% of patients had head injuries and 34% had facial injuries.
  • Risk of serious injury was increased by collision with a motor vehicle (duh), biking faster than >15 mph, young age (<6 years), and age >39 years.
  • Risk of neck injury was increased in those struck by motor vehicles, hospitalized for any injury, and those who died.

Elsewhere on the Network today: In light of the unrest in Baltimore, City Notes compares the way black "riots" have been mythologized in the history of urban decline, compared to white violence toward blacks. Cyclelicious offers a different take on media reports about young Baltimore cyclists. And The City Fix reports Mexico City's notorious congestion is hindering economic growth.

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Streetsblog USA

NYC Debuts Public E-Bike Charging for Delivery Workers

Finally, they’re taking charge! The city’s first public e-bike charging station opened in Cooper Square on Thursday — the start of an overdue six-month pilot that is part of a “Charge Safe Ride Safe Action Plan” for delivery workers that Mayor Adams announced last year.

March 1, 2024

Friday’s Headlines Have Questions

What's an optimal rebate to get people to buy e-bikes without wasting money on those who were going to buy one anyway?

March 1, 2024

To Recruit Transit Workers, More Than Just Higher Pay Is Needed

Labor shortages continue threatening public transit systems, and a new report adds another layer to the conversation.

February 29, 2024

Talking Headways Podcast: Streets for Skateboards

Aaron Breetwor on skateboards for transportation and designing streets for safer skateboarding.

February 29, 2024

Agencies Need to Use Federal Funding to Buy Land for Transit Oriented Development

Transit agencies do not prioritize transit-adjacent housing development often because they lack funding to acquire land.

February 29, 2024
See all posts