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By Charles Pekow

Mr. Pekow, a seasoned Washington journalist, provides Bikexchange.com with continuing coverage of national legislative news on bicycling issues. 

A helmet law can do good. It prevents numerous head injuries, according to a study done by Northwestern University’s School of Engineering & Applied Science.

Since 1994, California has required anyone 17 and under to wear a helmet while bicycling. Previous studies have found that helmets save lives and prevent and reduce the impact of injuries, but they focused on helmet usage, not laws. Northwestern chose California for its study because in thee months of searching, the state Department of Health Services was the only agency it could find willing to provide sizeable appropriate data. Researchers delivered their findings at the recent annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington, DC .

“We don’t know much about helmet use and we tried to get around that limitation,” Northwestern professor Joseph Schofer related.

The study looked at all 44,069 hospital discharge cases from bicycle injuries in the state from 1991 through 2000 -- 13,717 before the law and 30,352 after it took effect. Researchers could compare data from three years without the law and seven years with it. And since the law doesn’t apply to adults, they became the control group. The injury rate among them didn’t change, certifying the results. The study also didn’t look at helmet usage or enforcement of the law, which calls for $25 fines for violators. (How many police or courts would slap a $25 ticket on a four year old?)

And sure enough, the percentage of traumatic brain injuries dropped by 18.2 percent among youth involved in accidents since the law took effect. The percentage of other head, face and neck injuries didn’t drop, however. Other injuries rose as a percentage by default. And the study didn’t count deaths, since they aren’t included in hospital discharge figures. Therefore, the report, called Bicycle Safety Helmet Legislation & Bicycle-Related Non-Fatal Injuries in California, concludes the injury reduction statistics “may, in fact, be conservative because most bicycle fatalities result from head trauma and the helmet legislation may have prevented some fatal injuries.”

The smaller the children, the larger the safety improvement. While children under nine suffered fewer brain injuries, those 14-17 didn’t. The authors surmise that “peer pressure was found to be an important factor for not wearing helmets (in previous studies) and it would be reasonable to assume that the older youth riders were subjected to more of it.” Schofer added “it could be parental influence on younger children. Parents can say ‘it’s the law.’”

And while the injury rate went down for whites, Asians and Hispanics, they didn’t for blacks and “others.” The report hypothesizes that “helmets are, on average, more of a financial burden for black and other racial groups.”

Finally, the injury drop occurred almost exclusively for boys – not girls. The study couldn’t explain why but suggested boys ride more and that increased helmet use would therefore prevent more injuries among them than among girls.

Children suffered fewer traumatic brain injuries regardless of whether the crash involved a motor vehicle.

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