Helmets are almost off the hook when it comes to reasons why most Dunedin adolescents do not ride bikes to school, a study shows.
But not entirely.
One in five pupils blamed the requirement to wear helmets for why they do not cycle.
Barriers to young people getting to and from school using active methods of transportation are under intensive scrutiny through the ongoing Beats (Built Environment and Active Transport to School) study.
New Zealand is one of many countries around the world which have legislation making the use of cycle helmets mandatory, and in its study of Dunedin high school pupils, the Beats team has decided to include this requirement in its study questions.
“At the time we were designing the study, we heard from a few teachers and principals that some young people were avoiding cycling because of having to wear helmets – so we decided to explore that,” Beats study lead researcher associate professor Sandy Mandic said.
In the study, 774 young people aged 13-18 years, from all 12 Dunedin high schools, answered an online questionnaire about their cycling behaviours and their perceptions of cycle helmet use as a barrier to cycling to school.
The results showed that very few Dunedin adolescents cycled to school – just 2.1% – while 93.5% said they never cycled to school.
Those who used active transport to school were much more likely to walk.
However, 22% of the young people said they would cycle more to school if helmet use was not mandatory.
“So, only one in five adolescents perceived that that cycle helmets are a barrier to riding a bike to school,” Prof Mandic said.
“That was fewer than we had thought there would be.”
However, this was not the whole story – there were several additional barriers to cycling, including distance to school and route perceptions, as well as some ethnic groups who saw helmets as a barrier.
“Adolescents who usually cycled with friends also perceived helmets to be a barrier,” Prof Mandic said.
However, among the cohort of young people who regularly cycled to school, helmets were not perceived to be a problem.
Prof Mandic said the research team was definitely not arguing that helmet legislation be revoked, but that the findings provided a picture of the influence of an array of different factors on active transport.
“These findings could be used to design education interventions, especially around working with young people to change attitudes,” she said.
“Such things could be offered as part of cycle skills training.”
The Beats study team planned to examine young people’s perceptions of wearing cycle helmets in rural areas during its Beats rural study.
This would include Wanaka, where there were high rates of cycling to school, Prof Mandic said.
“We want to compare the attitude to helmets in a town that has a cycling culture.”