Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation: A Reliable Resource?

The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation (BHRF), and their website, is an organization  that serves as a hub for material regarding the efficacy of either bicycle helmets or helmet legislation. The BHRF has an editorial board who is “responsible for the content” of the website which is “subjected to multi-disciplinary peer review”.

The BHRF is not affiliated with any university or academic society, yet seems to be influential in the discussion of the efficacy of bicycle helmets and whether jurisdictions should mandate their use. For example, the recent Queensland inquiry into cycling safety contained six footnotes linking to the BHRF website. In a submission to the Victorian Parliament, Colin Clarke cites four BHRF websites which he uses as evidence regarding the effectiveness of helmet legislation in that state. Jennifer Mindell, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Transport and Health, has used BHRF graphs to argue “cycle helmet use does not yield a population level effect“. This presentation was a collaboration with BHRF editorial board members Malcolm Wardlaw and John Franklin.

On many occasions, I have come across comment boards discussing virtually anything related to bicycle helmets where someone will write something like “everything you need to know about helmets is on this website” This has led me to wonder about the reliability of the BHRF as a resource for bicycle helmet-related research. Can they be trusted to present a fair assessment of the available scientific evidence regarding the efficacy of bicycle helmets and helmet legislation.

In their policy statement, the BHRF exists “to undertake, encourage, and spread the scientific study of the use of bicycle helmets.” This seems quite straightforward and aligns nicely with the name of their organization. However, the policy statement then seems to devolve into a rant against helmets or helmet legislation. They state

  • closer investigation has revealed serious flaws in the evidence most frequently cited in favour of helmet effectiveness“,
  • helmet laws have led almost universally to large declines in the number of people who cycle“, and
  • the promotion of cycle helmets has been to brand cycling as an inherently hazardous activity.”

In my opinion, this comes across as anti-bicycle helmet advocacy and does not remotely resemble a research organization.

It is not uncommon for advocacy groups to be an integral part of research. For example, the declared purpose of the National Heart Foundation of Australia is to “reduce premature death and suffering from heart, stroke and blood vessel disease in Australia.” This is accomplished, in part, by funding cardiovascular research. The Amy Gillett Foundation is another advocacy organization directed at “reducing the incidence of death and injury of bike riders”. These two groups, and many more like them, are important sources for the spread of research to a broad, non-scientific audience. The big difference between these organizations and the BHRF is they serve to facilitate research and not as the final arbiter of an issue.

I suppose my initial impression could be wrong and they aren’t an anti-helmet advocacy group. So, what can be discerned from the material on their website beyond their policy statement? Are there well-reasoned arguments discussing both sides of the argument leading them to a clear conclusion? Are commentaries provided by experts in the field who actively publish in scientific journals? How does the BHRF editorial board stack up against established research journals? These are important concerns due to the ease at which ideas are proliferated over the internet and the difficulty in discerning the reliability of resources. As HIV researcher Dr Seth Kalichman puts it “The Internet has made pseudoscience as accessible, or perhaps even more accessible, than quality medical science.”

In a series of posts, I will discuss the BHRF editorial board, the supportive/skeptical articles they list, and articles that are missing from their website. I will also respond to their criticism of one of my papers (because how else is an academic supposed to address unfounded criticisms posted on someone’s website).