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Mandatory helmet laws not all they’re cracked up to be

Ontario’s chief coroner released a review this week of cycling deaths in Ontario in which he suggests that, among 13 other recommendations, a universal mandatory bicycle helmet law for the province would go a long way to keeping the bicycling public
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Ontario’s chief coroner released a review this week of cycling deaths in Ontario in which he suggests that, among 13 other recommendations, a universal mandatory bicycle helmet law for the province would go a long way to keeping the bicycling public safe.

But statistics from jurisdictions that have imposed mandatory helmet laws show the effect of wearing head gear is not so cut and dried, nor is such legislation the most effective method of reducing injury and death.

The statistics among children are pretty clear though. Helmets work. Children are not experienced riders. They fall more often, so helmets provide a valuable, and much-needed, layer of protection.

Cycling advocacy group Share the Road, which counts among its board members Sudbury Olympic cyclist Devon Kershaw, argues that while most preventative health organizations endorse policies that encourage helmet use, there are pitfalls to enacting mandatory helmet legislation.

First, mandatory laws seem to have the effect of discouraging adults from riding, an opinion that seems to be buoyed by the experience in New Zealand which imposed such a law in 1994. By 2009, there was a 51-per-cent reduction in the number of hours people spent cycling — not the effect for which legislators were hoping.

Data on whether helmets provide significantly measurable protection in vehicle-bike collisions seems to be all over the map, with some research suggesting helmets do help and some suggesting little difference.

Share the Road also points out that helmets have the effect of encouraging more risky behaviour on the part of both cyclists and drivers due to the perception of safety that wearing a helmet engenders.

Work by Dr. Ian Walker, a professor in the University of Bath’s psychology department, suggests that when passing cyclists, drivers behave differently depending on whether the rider is wearing a helmet.

Drivers will pass closer to a rider who is wearing a helmet than one who isn’t, even though the risk of injury is the same regardless.
Share the Road argues there are other ways of improving safety and reducing injury.

Dedicated bike lanes for cyclists, for example. Share the Road points to the city of Amsterdam, and other cities that have invested in such cycling infrastructure, as an example. Amsterdam has incredibly low rates of helmet use compared to Canada (less than one per cent of riders wear them), but has impressively low injury rates.

But Amsterdam has more of a cycling culture than North America, where we’re more likely to jump in our cars to go somewhere than we are to climb on a bike. Creating cycling infrastructure here practically out of whole cloth could not happen overnight.

Also effective, argued the now defunct Ontario Coalition for Better Cycling (which battled mandatory helmet laws in the 1990s) is education. That group’s analysis of Transport Canada accident data from 1975-2002 found that driver and rider education programs and enforcement had a big impact reducing injuries and death.

What is clear is this: forcing everyone to wear a bike helmet might reduce injuries and death to a degree, but it will also discourage many more Ontarians from riding a bike at all. Any benefits to the health-care system that increased riding — and therefore increased physical activity — would be negatively impacted.

Encouraging more cycling should be a goal. It would improve Ontarians’ overall health, reduce the number of cars on the road and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These are good things.

Saddling Ontarians with yet another law that would seem to discourage this for apparently little benefit would serve no purpose, other than to improve the perception of safety.

And perceived safety is not real safety at all.

Posted by Vivian Scinto 



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