A senior Sydney medical expert has condemned as "highly irresponsible" the comments of a leading British neurosurgeon who claims that cyclists who wear helmets are wasting their time.
Cycling advocacy group the Amy Gillett Foundation has also reiterated its support for Australia's bicycle helmet laws following controversial remarks made by British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, who claimed that many of his patients who had been involved in bicycle accidents were wearing helmets that were "too flimsy" to be beneficial.
Dr Marsh, who works at St George's Hospital in Tooting, London, cited evidence from the University of Bath that suggested wearing a helmet may even put cyclists at greater risk.
The research showed that motorists drove about eight centimetres closer to cyclists who wore helmets because they perceived them to be safer, he said.
“I ride a bike and I never wear a helmet. In the countries where bike helmets are compulsory there has been no reduction in bike injuries whatsoever," Dr Marsh said.
“I see lots of people in bike accidents and these flimsy little helmets don't help.”
But Professor Gordian Fulde, the emergency department director at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, said Dr Marsh had made "a highly irresponsible statement".
He said an increasing number of cyclists were being treated at his hospital's emergency department, and some patients' head injuries would be more serious if they weren't wearing helmets.
"We see all the time here people who have been saved by helmets from major brain damage," Dr Fulde said.
"The average bicycle now goes anything from 30, 40, 50km/h. The most important organ we have is our brain. We can lose a hand, heaven forbid, live without a lung, but even a small amount of brain injury can change people's personality, concentration, ruin their relationship. Even a small injury can be devastating.
"The brain is encased in bone. Nature has even, if you will, made its own helmet, and then we are covering that with more protection."
Dr Marsh made the comments while speaking at the Hay Festival during a discussion with author Ian McEwan, whose 2005 novel Saturday featured a neurosurgeon.
During the talk, Dr Marsh said he had been riding his bike for 40 years, wearing a cowboy hat, and had only fallen off once.
“I have been cycling for 40 years and have only been knocked off once. I wear a cowboy hat and cowboy boots. I look completely mad."
Helmets are not compulsory in the UK, unlike in Australia and parts of the US, yet the government encourages cyclists to wear one.
Research conducted by Dr Ian Walker, a professor of traffic psychology at the University of Bath, showed that motorists drove around eight centimetres closer when overtaking cyclists with helmets.
He suggested that drivers thought helmeted cyclists were more sensible, predictable and experienced, so therefore the driver did not need to give them much space when overtaking.
Non-helmeted cyclists, especially non-helmeted female cyclists, were less predictable and experienced, according to this study, and so motorists give them more room.
Tracey Gaudry, the chief executive of the Amy Gillett Foundation, said an Australian-standard helmet that was correctly worn offered cyclists more protection in the event of a crash.
"None of us can predict if a crash will occur, but many people who have crashed have been saved from a serious head injury because they were wearing a bicycle helmet," she said.
"The Amy Gillett Foundation endorses the use of helmets, and supports Australia's existing helmet laws."
Professor Michael Grigg, the president of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, said anything that could potentially prevent a head injury was worthwhile.
"I cannot imagine a parent today saying to their child: 'No, don't wear a helmet, I am sure you will be fine'," Professor Grigg said.
"I can't imagine how they would feel getting a call from the hospital saying their child had suffered head injuries in an accident.
"Head injury with lasting damage is a fear all parents have. Anything that can be done to avoid it has to be worthwhile."
Last month the Queensland Government rejected the recommendation of a parliamentary inquiry that had called for a removal of mandatory helmet laws for adults in that state.
Queensland's transport minister Scott Emerson said the decision to keep helmet laws the same was based on "scientific evidence that clearly supports the effectiveness of helmets in reducing head injuries".
"While I agree with freedom of choice, it is not in the public interest to introduce a trial that may increase any risk of head injuries to cyclists," he said.
James Cracknell, the British Olympic rowing gold medalist, was nearly killed while cycling in 2010 after he was hit by a petrol tanker.
He has said that he only survived the accident because he had been wearing a helmet and has described those who do not wear one as "selfish" as their actions can impact their loved ones.
"From a personal point of view I would be dead if I hadn't worn a helmet," he said. "A wing mirror smashed into my skull at 70mph.
"There is no downside to wearing a helmet except having messy hair. And you have to remember that eight out of 10 kids who have cycling accidents are not on the road.
"Even if you don't care enough about yourself to wear a helmet other people care about you."
A UK Department of Transport study has shown that helmets could prevent 10-16 per cent of cyclist fatalities, although this was also an estimate based on a small study.
Angie Lee, Chief Executive of the Bicycle Helmet Initiative Trust, said: “I hope he is going to take responsibility for the cyclist who gets injured because they take their helmet off following his comments.
“This may be his opinion but there are a lot more neurosurgeons and surgeons who would counter that argument.
“My advice would be the same as the Department of Transport's which is that helmets have a place in protecting the head.”
Mr Marsh, who retires in March, also admitted jumping red lights to get ahead of the traffic.
“It's my life at risk,” he said, "So I regularly cross over red lights.”
Fairfax Media with The Telegraph, London