Newspaper Article

      No to Ontario's Helmet Legislation

      Mike Barry, Toronto bicycle store owner, feels mandatory bicycle helmet legislation is discriminatory. The facts show why. In Ontario, of every 25 who die on roads from head injuries, only one is a cyclist. Of every 17 admitted to a hospital with a head injury received on roads, only one is a cyclist.

      Cyclists are less of a burden on the health care system than average Canadians. Heart disease kills 35,000 Ontarians every year but cycling reduces the risk of heart disease by 50%. British medical studies show that 20 life years are gained from cycling for every one lost through death and injury. There are other benefits too. A person on a bike isn't driving a car. Result - less pollution and less congestion. No wonder in Holland, where cycling without a helmet is not an issue, the government has set a national target of 50% of all trips by bicycle. As Windsor physician, Dr.Tom DeMarco says "it's better to cycle without a helmet than to not cycle at all".

      Helmet laws also create the false impression that cycling is dangerous, even though studies consistently show cycling is safe. A 1994 provincial survey of over 1,000 Ontarians including 609 cyclists, found only 2 cyclists who had suffered a head injury which required medical treatment the previous year. It explains why retired naval commander Dick Henly of Ottawa doesn't wear a bicycle helmet. "I know how to minimize my risks and those posed by motorists. Besides, the risks are about the same as getting run down by a bus as I walk across a downtown street". Dick should know. He has clocked over 1 million kilometres on his bike. His head is still in pretty good shape.

      That's not to imply there are no risks. But the dangers of cycling are so grossly exaggerated that a climate of paranoia exists which has the effect of discouraging cycling. This situation has been largely created by an alliance of headline-seeking politicians and a manipulative safety industry, all with aid of a far too uncritical news media.

      Myth also masks the limited protective value of a helmet. Less than 30 fatal cycling accidents occur in Ontario each year. All result from motor vehicle collisions. About 20 involve head injuries. The injuries to all parts of the body are usually massive. A half inch of polystyrene covering one third of the head makes little difference to the outcome. In Ottawa, four of the last six cyclists killed wore helmets. The Canadian Standards Association (CSA), test requires a helmet to withstand a drop from 1.5 metres. It simulates a fall and provides protection against an impact of about 20 km/h. That is a lot less than the overzealous promoters of helmet legislation would have us believe. The most widely quoted study, copies of which the province sends out by the ton, claims an 85% reduction in risk of head injury from helmet use. An Australian statistician who noticed no such reductions in injury rates were occurring in her country following helmet legislation, used the report's methodology on other data in the study. She found one could conclude also that helmet use reduces the risk of injury to other parts of the body by 72%!

      Such mythical powers inevitably lead to the notion of the bike helmet together with it's corollary, bike helmet legislation as a panacea. In reality, it is anything but. In Australia, cycling has declined permanently between 25% and 40% among different states since mandatory helmet use started to be implemented in 1991. For every Australian cyclist who donned a lid for the first time, four others quit cycling. Worse still, the state of Victoria reports that after three years of legislation, there is no decrease in the rate of head injury. In New Zealand, official disappointment is being reported because its helmet legislation is not achieving expected results. Sadly, these experiences will likely be repeated here. Last year's survey found that 16% of Ontario's cyclists say they will either defy the law or quit cycling.

      A more positive alternative would be to promote the benefits of cycling. Since fatalities and serious injuries have fallen while cycling has increased over the last few years, the government can honestly show that the cycling environment is improving. In promoting cycling among our young folk, bike safety should be emphasized. Unlike adults, kids cause over 80% of their own bike crashes. This demonstrates the need for skills training. In the Canadian Cycling Association's (CCA) nationally sanctioned skills program, students are taught the rules of the road and the safe vehicular method of cycling, skills which can be applied later when the students learn to drive a car. The importance of safety equipment - brakes, lights at night, and yes, helmets - is also taught. And although a competent cyclist is ten times less likely to be involved in a crash than other cyclists, CCA's program is not widely available. To address the problem of availability, CCA's program should be adopted and incorporated into the school curriculum.

      Toronto cyclists like Mike Barry who believe that helmet legislation should be dumped to protect the gains that society accrues from cycling are right. As former British cabinet minister W.F Deedes once commented "you cannot legislate or regulate for every conceivable accident or mishap which may befall the human race".

      Avery Burdett

      (Versions of this article were first published in August 1995 in the Ottawa Citizen, Kingston Whig-Standard, Peterborough Examiner, and the Kitchener-Waterloo Record).

January 1996
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