Intended for healthcare professionals


Trends in head injuries among child bicyclists

BMJ 1994; 308 doi: (Published 15 January 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;308:177
  1. W R Pitt,
  2. S Thomas,
  3. J Nixon,
  4. R Clark,
  5. D Battistutta,
  6. C Acton
  1. Mater Children's Hospital, South Brisbane, Queensland 4101, Australia
  2. Department of Epidemiology, Queensland Institute of Medical Research, Herston, Queensland 4029
  3. Department of Child Health, University of Queensland Herston, Queensland 4029
  4. Royal Children's Hospital, Herston, Queensland 4029 Queensland Radium Institute, Herston, Queensland 4029
  5. Queensland Radium Institute, Herston, Queensland 4029
  1. Correspondence to Dr.Pitt.

    Wearing of approved helmets by bicyclists has been recently made compulsory in several states in Australia and the United States, and similar legislation is being promoted in the United Kingdom. Those against helmets argue that they are not effective in collisions with motor vehicles. Evidence supporting helmet legislation has included decreases in the number of head injuries associated with wearing a helmet1 and a reduction in the risk of bicycle related head injury among helmet wearers in a case-control study.2 We examined trends in the incidence of head injuries and bicycle related injuries in Brisbane children by using injury surveillance data in a well defined population of 600 000 people.

    Subjects, methods, and results

    We studied all children admitted to hospital and about 75% of children attending emergency departments. Data on admissions were checked against the health department's patient register and deaths against necropsy files. Missing data were obtained by retrospective analysis of case notes. Demographic data are given in the accompanying paper.3

    From 1 July 1985 to 30 June 1991, 46 523 children under 14 years of age attended the emergency departments and 7156 were admitted to hospital. Head injuries not due to bicycle accidents fell significantly after age and sex were adjusted for (P<0.001) but no significant trend occurred in annual attendance or admission rates for all injuries. Bicycle related injury was the most common injury category, resulting in 3438 attendances, 658 admissions, five deaths, and 283 head injuries. Bicycle related injuries associated with motor vehicle collision were responsible for 292 attendances, 121 admissions, four deaths, and 73 head injuries. The rate of head injury from bicycle accidents fell from 47.34/100 000 (95% confidence interval, 36.30 to 60.72) in 1985 to 18.32/100 000 (11.76 to 27.24) in 1991 (P<0.001). Admissions to hospital with bicycle related injuries other than to the head were unchanged (P>0.6) (figure).


    Trends in bicycle related head injuries and injuries other than head head injuries, and trends in head injuries from all other causes, July 1985 to June 1991


    Collision with a motor vehicle caused only 8.5% of bicycle injuries and 25.8% of bicycle related head injuries. Because helmets are designed to protect the head in accidents when other vehicles are not involved, which is most accidents, the case for wearing helmets is sound.

    In 1986 about 2.5% of primary school children wore helmets.4 This had risen to 59% in June 1991, when compulsory helmet wearing was introduced.5 The decrease in bicycle related head injuries started before helmets became widely used and occurred against a background of unchanged admission rates for other bicycle related injuries and a decrease in head injuries from other causes. This suggests that the decrease is not due to decreased exposure of child bicyclists to injury.

    Our findings indicate that the reason for the decrease in bicycle related head injuries is more complex than just increased wearing of helmets. Nevertheless, the protective effect of helmets is supported by the large drop in head injuries in the 12 months before legislation, when public debate ensured high levels of awareness and helmet wearing.