The impact of bicycle helmet laws on child safety

Nearly half of the states in the nation have passed laws requiring children to wear helmets whenever they ride a bicycle. In 2010, Illinois also considered passing the Child Bicycle Helmet Safety Act. However, this bill was never signed into law. Nonetheless, there is a common consensus that wearing a helmet increases safety by preventing serious head injury in the event of an accident.

A recent study in the journal Health Economics, however, puts this seemingly obvious correlation to the test. In the paper, researchers examine injury statistics and behavioral tendencies among children living in states where bicycle helmet laws are in place compared to a similar group of children living in states with no such laws. The results aren’t what you might expect.

The study found that although there was a reduction in head injuries among children riding bicycles in states with helmet laws (as well as a reduction in other bicycle-related injuries not involving the head), this downward trend was effectively negated by a parallel increase in head-related injuries stemming from other activities.

In other words, the social scientists discovered, it is not the requisite use of helmets that is causing a reduction in bicycle-related head injuries. Rather, as an unanticipated consequence of the legislation, children who would have ridden bicycles before are now more inclined to take up other activities—such as skateboarding—which do not mandate helmets but nonetheless have a high risk of head injury.

While the study reinforces our understanding that wearing a helmet can reduce head injuries, it questions whether a bicycle helmet law is the most effective way to increase the use of helmets among children.