Biking: to helmet or not to helmet?

Why the government is wrong to make cycling without a helmet illegal, even though I (almost) always wear one when I rides a bike.

The provincial government’s recent legislation telling cyclists (but not roller bladers or unicyclists) to wear a helmet—or else!—brought with it one of the most tiresome debates in cycling advocacy. In a nutshell, some people see helmets as worse than useless while others think it’s in the public interest to ticket anyone foolish enough to take a spin in a cloth cap.

There are several things I hate about this argument.

To begin with, people on the furthest end of both sides tend to bring a holier-than-thou tone to their arguments. Helmet evangelists are prone to an all-or-nothing approach. These are the people who yell at you for riding bareheaded as you roll slowly down the street to check your gears after a chain cleaning. Calling for legal backup on their position, they often resort to a guilt-mongering righteousness: “If we save just one life, prevent just one serious brain injury, it’s worth it.”

As Peter Walker remarked in relation to the United Kingdom, by that logic, we should ban fast food restaurants (and more to the point in this province, make it illegal to snowmobile without a helmet).

For their part, people who question the value of helmets tend to trumpet theirs as the only truly “evidence-based” perspective. Tell them a story about crash-related injuries being mitigated by a helmet and it will invariably be derided as “anecdotal,” not real “data.”

If my own irritation at such junior-debater tactics is anything to go by, many people just tune the sceptics out. That’s too bad. For while onlookers seem to see the new law simply as sensible and hope it will be enforced, this issue deserves far more attention and debate than it has received.

Why I think the new law is stupid

Most importantly, opponents of helmet laws argue that such measures discourage people from biking in the first place. Australia is frequently cited as an example of a place where the rate of cycling decreased significantly after a mandatory helmet law was introduced. If true—not everyone is convinced, although the argument also gets support from research on the United States—this alone would be reason enough to avoid making helmets compulsory.

Thing is, the health benefits of regular cycling far outstrip the risk of a serious crash. On average, cyclists live significantly longer than those who remain inactive. On a population level, the life-years gained dwarf the years lost to cycling fatalities. So in public health terms, any policy that discourages cycling is just plain wrong-headed. And that’s before you even begin to consider all the other socioeconomic benefits attached to cycling, which a major British government study recently found to be “off the scale” in relation to costs.

But why would helmet laws discourage cycling? There are many possible explanations: added costs, concern for aesthetics, extra hassle. Perhaps most significantly, helmet laws send the message that biking is dangerous, something to be feared. It is not.

As helmet-law-sceptics frequently note, countries with the highest rates of cycling—Denmark, the Netherlands—have very low rates of cycling injuries and fatalities, even though habitual helmet use is also very low in these countries.

This doesn’t make helmets useless, but it does tell us that helmet laws are not the best way to improve safety for bikers. Far better to invest in cycling infrastructure and otherwise create a pleasanter place to bike, for the more cyclists (and pedestrians), the safer the road for everyone — even drivers.

This law is political hypocrisy

Which brings me to my main reason for wanting to prick politicians’ self-congratulation over this amendment to the Highway Traffic Act: mandatory helmet laws once again make bikes and bicyclists the problem. And while most of our politicians love cycling in principle, very few of them have done anything to support it in practice. I would like to know if any of them actually ride a bike.

After many years of biking here, this past summer has left me in especial despair. First, some St. John’s City Councillors tried to weaken their own cycling master plan. Then, the fuss over sharing the East Coast Trail revealed fairly widespread hostility to mountain biking. Finally, cyclists were forced to endure the harassment of seemingly endless construction zones with all their flat-tire-causing debris, only to find that their interests were once again ignored in the resulting “improvements.”

Logy Bay Road offers a particularly egregious example. Ripped up for weeks, this would have been the perfect opportunity to install bike lanes on a road that gets a lot of bike traffic, at least by local standards. Instead, we were presented with a new, high-kerbed sidewalk that makes cycling there more dangerous than it was before.

As for the rules of the road, if our politicians really wanted to make them better for cyclists, they might consider the Idaho stop and dead red laws. Perhaps they could introduce financial incentives for cycling, something akin to the UK’s “Cycle to Work” scheme, while they were at it.

Why I still wear a helmet (most of the time)

With the occasional exception of cities with good cycle lanes or paths, where I’m biking at a moderate pace alongside many others, I still wear a helmet when I bike. Further, I do so despite debates about helmet-effectiveness. Even the strongest advocates recognize that helmets only protect against some kinds of injuries in some circumstances, although research is ongoing about how to make them better.

This is where anecdotal evidence comes in. There is no good public health argument for making helmet use the law. But public health focuses on populations. Anecdotes revolve around specific people in specific circumstances. When I ride my bike, I’m doing it as an individual who rides in a particular way and, unfortunately, does not live in a city as friendly to cycling as Copenhagen.

In short, I think our politicians have just introduced a stupid law that is going to waste police resources and do nothing to make cycling here safer.

Having said that, I understand why emergency room doctors and the parents of young kids may welcome it (although I wish the parents would make sure their kid’s helmet is fitted properly rather than just plonking it on their heads like some kind of talisman, and those family doctors now prescribing exercise to their patients might make a different judgement call).

As for the debate itself: we can only hope it will train attention on what needs to be done to make this place truly bicycle-friendly.

Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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