Should Bicycle Helmets be Mandatory

This column was inspired by a discussion on MTB Kanata

Whenever I see someone on a bike without a helmet, whether on the trails or the road, no matter how expensive or fancy the bike might be, I always assume the rider is not a serious cyclist, because a serious cyclist would be wearing a helmet.

So should we be legislating common sense and requiring everyone to wear a helmet by law. I think we can all agree that legislation on it’s own is not the answer. We simply do not have the enforcement resources. Public education and changing attitudes is always the best answer. That is ultimately what reduced impaired driving, though increased sentences, as a sign that society’s attitudes had changed, was a big part of that.

However legislation can be an important part of a public education campaign. The example of seat belts is an excellent example of how that works. We have mandatory seat belt laws. The police do not devote extensive resources to enforcement but occasionally do blitzes as part of the public education campaign. We see these less and less as public attitudes have changed and we now have extremely high seat belt usage in Canada as a result of this combination of legislation and public education. This is how mandatory bicycle helmet legislation would work.

One of the biggest ant-helmet law argument is the individualist argument, or the right to be stupid it does not affect you argument. We live in a country with a social contract. This is not the capitalistic individualist United States. We have Canadian values that include caring about each other. But we also have a much more practical stake. We all contribute to a publicly funded universal health care system - and opting out is not an option. So we all have a practical stake in preventing needless deaths and injuries. As cyclists we also have a stake in keeping injuries down to avoid excuses to put restrictions on cycling. Mountain bikers, in particular, know the impact concerns about injuries and liability have on trail access.

Some have suggested we only have legislation for children, which is what we have now and it is not enforced and completely ineffective. The main reason it is not effective is because it is hypocritical. Children and young people do not respond well to hypocrisy. It is like the parents you see on the trails or paths everyday telling their children “don’t worry you only have to wear your helmet now when I’m watching, when you get older like me you won’t have to wear a stupid helmet”, which is what they are telling their children when they go out riding with their children and do not wear a helmet themselves. We teach best by example, and worst by hypocrisy. That is why we see so many young people, for some reason mostly girls, riding their bikes with their helmets dangling from their handlebars.

A huge part of public education in today’s society is the influence of role models. This is what started the discussion on MTB Kanata. Stunt riders performing at the Tour Nortel, ironically a fund raiser for the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), were doing dangerous stunts without wearing helmets, setting the worst example you could find (unless the idea was to create future business for the hospitals head and brain injury wards). Yes, I’m shaking my head too. There was actually controversy about whether this was a bad idea with the suggestion if children follow the example of their heroes and get injured it is their own fault for being stupid and having parents that raised them to be “morons”.

Children, and adults too, are highly influenced by role models, their heroes, particularly in today’s mass media society. I remember seeing a photo of Lance Armstrong riding without a helmet in the Tour de France. It was explained to me that, while helmet use is mandatory during most of “The Tour” at certain stages it is not (apparently because the risk is less at those stages). This just sends mixed messages, particularly when you have photos of the world’s number one cycling hero riding without a helmet. If everyone always wears a helmet you would have a level playing field and you would be sending a message that hard core riders always wear their helmets, rather than the message that they do not, leaving children wanting to imitate their heroes, such as the helmetless riders at the children’s hospital fundraiser.

So if public education is the answer who should be doing the education. Public authorities such as schools certainly have a role to play, and the probably are not doing enough. You would also expect an organization that calls itself Citizens for Safe Cycling (CFSC) to perform that role. While CFSC does do rider safety training, their main emphasis, when it comes to helmet use, is to mount an extensive campaign against mandatory helmet laws while paying lip service to the benefits of wearing a helmet. Their position on bike lanes, that I and many other cyclists agree provide a safer and much less scary riding experience, is also really perplexing.

CFSC, and others, argue that requiring people to wear helmets will deter people from riding because of the helmet costs. Helmets meeting safety standards can be purchased for $20. They also argue that it will scare people away from cycling because they will think it is dangerous. Would anyone argue that young (or old) hockey players should not be required to wear safety equipment because it might scare them away from the sport. The fact is cycling does have risks, but learning how to cycle safely and wearing a helmet will make it a relatively safe activity. That is what should be promoted, not underplaying the risks to encourage people to cycle.

Read more about CFSC policies.

Then there is the “I only wear my helmet when it is dangerous” argument. I can remember an experience riding on a relatively tame trail (Old Quarry) with a much more experience hard core rider than me and he crashed on this easy trail. Of course he was wearing a helmet. We tend to concentrate more on the dangerous stuff and less on the easy stuff, which actually balances out the risk. You cannot predict when you are going to need your helmet to protect you.

One of the best reasons to always wear your helmet because if you do you will always have it on when you need it. Developing a habit is the best way to avoid forgetting to wear it when you need it. Let me tell you a story about a rider who always wears his helmet, except that he decided he did not need it riding his trainer in the basement over the winter. On the way back from his first ride of the season on his mountain this helmet use proselytizer discovered he was not wearing his helmet. Luckily I did not need it on that ride.


tOM Trottier, VP Citizens for Safe Cycling said...

CfSC thinks helmets should not be mandatory for all adult cyclists because this discourages utilitarian cycling. Cycling without a helmet is still safer than walking by the roadside.

Studies have shown that where helmets have been made mandatory for all adults, cycling has been reduced. Some studies showed that the accident rate for the remaining cyclists went up. There may be a "safety in numbers" effect, where drivers get more accustomed to cyclists the more cyclists there are.

Most head injuries come from pedestrian falls and motor vehicle accidents. It would save 100x the number of lives if all pedestrians and motor vehicle occupants wore helmets.

We do encourage everyone to wear a helmet. It is useful insurance and a good platform for fluorescent/reflective stickies.

Studies have shown that mandatory helmets for kids do save lives. Kids are far more accident prone. They also have a fierce desire to cycle which is not diminished by having to wear a helmet.

Helmets are also a good practice for all bike racers and stunters, and are mandatory at the Tour de France for all stages now, all US bike races, and many others. Not only are these more risky, but the cyclists should be setting a good example.

See http://www.cycle-helmets.com/

Bike paths are encouraging for beginning and sedentary cyclists, and to get away from traffic, especially in our local parks and greenspaces. But they don't go everywhere, and the more paths there are, the more motorists think that cyclists don't belong on the roads.

Bike paths are less safe than roads for fast cyclists because of the walkers and dogs, and because they have many blind bends and steep hills, and because you are passing inches from people going in the other direction.

They are nice for a slow ride, or for a fast commute when deserted at 6am, but if you are exercising aerobically or want to commute safely and quickly, take the road. It's much safer.

See http://www.csua.berkeley.edu/~piaw/accident.txt

tOM Trottier said...

"Strange but True: Helmets Attract Cars to Cyclists
Although you might not want to leave your protective gear at home, just know that if you do, drivers will be a lot more scared of hitting you."


vic said...

I would hardly say that CFSC only pays "lip service" to promoting helmet use. Over the years that I have been a member, they have distributed literature and run workshops promoting helmet use, proper helmet fit, etc. Most CFSC members I have known also lead by example. CFSC strongly encourages helmet use, but not MANDATORY helmet use. They have good reasons for this...

Charles Akben-Marchand, CfSC President said...

...which is outlined here. I think it's fairly comprehensive. (All arguments below are contained therein)

I appreciate the attention and welcome the opportunity for further discussion on this. I can be reached at President@SafeCycling.ca.

If you look at the current law in Ontario, which requires those under 18 to wear a helmet, it is not enforced. Therefore, even if such a law improved safety (for kids), the law itself has no effect.

Whether or not it would be effective if enforced (see link above for my arguments on why this is not so), it currently is not, while our politicians can get re-elected, claiming they did something for cycling safety where they did not.

Remember that helmets do not prevent collisions or falls. They only prevent injury in the event of a fall. Proper cycling education will prevent the fall in the first place.

Despite this, our policy on bicycle helmets is, as stated above and on our Policies page to which you linked, that we strongly encourage people to wear a properly-fitted helmet that is no more than 4 or 5 years old.

Thank you again for the opportunity to comment on your blog.

Charles Akben-Marchand
Citizens for Safe Cycling