Why bike helmets may not be a good idea

Why bike helmets may not be a good idea


Robert Poëti to decide on mandatory bike helmet law in Quebec
Robert Poëti to decide on mandatory bike helmet law in Quebec

Robert Poëti, Quebec's Minister of Transportation has pledged to make the province's roads safer for cyclists when he makes changes to the province's Highway Safety Code this fall. Some hope one of those changes is a law making bike helmets mandatory.

One of them is Louis Garneau – a professional road racing and track cyclist who owns a Quebec-based biking apparel manufacturer that bears his name. As part of his safety code revamp, Poëti sought Garneau's council and those discussions had Garneau speculating on the eventual passage of mandatory helmet laws across the province.

“Me, I think it's coming. Maybe the minister wants to go in stages ... It could be that one way to change the law in one year, two years, three years. Will we start with children? I do not know ... I'm suggesting he decides,” he told the Journal de Montréal.

Currently, Quebec is one of five provinces or territories with no legislation whatsoever around wearing bike helmets. The others include Saskatchewan, Yukon, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories. Mandatory bike helmet laws for all ages exist in B.C. and all the maritime provinces with Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta requiring mandatory helmet use for all cyclists under 18. Though there is no law in Quebec, 50% of adult cyclists and 65% of cyclists under 18 do wear helmets in the province, according to Vélo Québec – the province's number one non-profit cycling organization.

The debate over whether bike helmets should be mandatory has reignited in the province in part because the decision to wear a helmet is being credited for saving the life of Radio-Canada journalist Isabelle Richer when she was hit by a truck while cycling near Rougemont in late June.

“On the edge of being criminal,”

Garneau told The Journal that he has seen too many devastating head injuries in his professional career as a cyclist not to be in favour of a mandatory bike helmet law for the province, even if his company makes bike helmets.

"I'm for [it] 100%. I would be in favour of a law even if I'm in conflict of interest. No bike helmet laws, for me, it really is not safe, on the edge of being criminal, "

Though the next day, Garneau took to Twitter to say he'd reacted too emotionally in the aftermath of Richer's accident and that he now wouldn't be in favour of a law in the short-term and instead would first increase safety by working on the attitudes of cyclists and drivers before a mandatory bike helmet law is instituted.

The Canadian Paediatric Society is in favour of mandatory bike helmet legislation anytime, citing research that shows helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 69 per cent and that mandatory helmet legislation increases helmet use.

“Fundamentally, when you look at the epidemiological evidence, there are consistent studies showing a significant risk reduction in head injuries with the use of helmets,” says Brent Hagel, an associate professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Calgary and co-author of the Canadian Paediatric Society's position statement on the issue in 2013.

“There's good evidence in Canada and other countries that when you implement helmet legislation the prevalence of helmet use goes up, so by getting more helmets on children, adolescents and adults, we can expect fewer head injuries and there's also evidence for a population-level effect. It's a good public policy strategy for reducing head injuries.

Unintended Consequences

But a 2011 study authored by two American economists shows that while mandatory bike helmet laws do reduce bike accident fatalities and increase helmet use, they also decrease youth involvement in cycling to a statistically significant degree.

“When you pass a helmet law that requires kids to wear a helmet there's about a three percentage point decline in kids who say they ever rode a bike that year,” says Mark Stehr, an associate professor at the LeBow College of Business at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“We don't have great evidence on the exact reason, but my take on it is, some kids just really don't want to wear a helmet and if you tell them they have to, they would rather just not ride their bike and do something else.”

It's this kind of finding that has Vélo Québec, the province's number one non-profit cycling organization, supporting increasing the number of bike lanes and education and awareness over mandatory bike helmets in the province

“The bad side of mandatory helmets is diminishing cyclists,” says Suzanne Lareau, CEO of Vélo Québec. “If you look in Australia – the country that's had a mandatory bike helmet law the longest (1991) has a diminishing of cyclists because Australians see the bike helmet as a problem and decide not to use their bike.”

However, she's only partially right.

“The magnitude in the reduction we found is substantially smaller than the magnitude of the increase in benefits that come from helmet use, which include increased safety and reduced fatalities,” says study co-author Christopher Carpenter of Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

Only One Piece of the Puzzle

For their part, the Canadian Paediatric Society supports increased education and infrastructure support as well.

“Helmet legislation is an important piece of the puzzle, but we can't neglect other areas of cyclist safety,” says Hagel. “Communities should look at traffic calming and environmental modifications that make cycling safer for everyone, such as separating cyclists from the drivers through bike lanes.”

But, mandatory bike helmet laws may not actually reduce the number of bike-related head injuries compared to those provinces without mandatory bike helmet laws. In 2013, University of Toronto researcher Jessica Dennis found that mandatory bike helmet laws did not reduce the number of hospital admissions for bike-related head injuries when compared against provinces with no mandatory bike helmet legislation. In fact, the benefit to having a law was minimal.

“Another bad impact of a law is expecting the police to fine children because they're cycling without a helmet,” says Lareau. “I prefer the police work on those who run read lights because this behaviour impacts everybody who uses the road. But if someone doesn't wear a helmet, it's not dangerous for anyone around. It's a personal choice.”

Focusing on Alternatives

The City of Montreal agrees. “The City of Montreal is in favour of helmets for cyclists, but on a voluntary basis. It recognizes the many benefits that can derive cyclists who choose to wear it, but believes that there is no need to legislate to make it compulsory,” says spokesperson Jacques-Alain Lavallée.

Instead, the city agrees with Vélo Québec and is investing in improving cyclist infrastructure.

“Although it can prevent major injuries, the helmet alone can't resolve the larger issue of road safety and active transportation. There will not be fewer accidents involving cyclists because they now wear helmets. We must first focus on education, accountability and awareness to change behaviour and encourage both motorists and cyclists to better share the road,” continues Lavallée.

Though he won't unveil the revamped Highway Safety Code until the fall, early indications are Transportation Minister, Robert Poëti will not make helmets mandatory in Quebec, telling the CBC: “Does it take a law to force people to wear a bike helmet in an urban environment or all over Quebec? I'll respond in another way. Did it take a law to ask our youth and our people who ski to wear a protective helmet? The answer is no."