Cycling advocate says helmet laws 'counterproductive,' but doctor disagrees

A Halifax cycling advocate says if a law forcing adult cyclists to protect their heads with helmets was repealed, bicycling would actually be safer in Nova Scotia.

Tristan Cleveland told CBC's Information Morning that Nova Scotia's law discourages cycling and doesn't have a noticeable impact on safety.

"When we make people think that biking is more dangerous than it actually is and discourage people from biking by forcing them to wear helmets, we are discouraging people from getting outside, getting active and that is just counterproductive from a health perspective," he said.

Cleveland said it makes sense to maintain helmet laws for children.

He said research suggests the risks of bicycling in cities has been overstated, including research from the University of British Columbia that showed a similar level of risk for walking and bicycling in urban environments.

"So if it's safe for people to walk outside without wearing a helmet, it's also safe for adults to choose to not wear helmets where they feel safe," he said.

Cleveland also cited research in the British Journal of Medicine that looked at the impact on safety of helmet laws in jurisdictions worldwide, including Nova Scotia, and said it didn't find any difference.

Cleveland said a policy that encourages cycling safety should focus on ways to encourage people to take up two wheels.

"Something that the evidence does show very strongly is that the more people that bike, the safer it is," he said.

Policies such as helmet laws that make people feel like cycling is dangerous, or that make bike-sharing programs difficult, may harm more than they help, Cleveland said.

'The only protective measure,' says doctor

Const. Shawn Currie of the Halifax Regional Police said every year, there's less need to enforce helmet laws.

"More people automatically put the helmet on, and don't even think about it," he said.

Dr. Robert Green is the medical director of Trauma Nova Scotia. He said while improving cities to make them safer for cyclists is important, that doesn't diminish the need for helmets.

"Those of us in the medical field see the repercussions of cycling-related trauma and they're severe, and any measure that we can provide to protect our cyclists is very, very important. In fact, this is the only protective measure that we really have," he told CBC's Maritime Noon.

"The overall good far outshines the little inconvenience of putting a helmet on."

Bike-sharing program possibilities

Cleveland said repealing helmet laws for adults would create more opportunities to get more cyclists on the road, such as bike-share programs that allow riders to pick up and drop off bicycles at a network of self-serve stations.

He said Tel Aviv and Mexico City repealed their helmet laws a few years ago to implement bike-sharing programs.

"I'm hoping that since Halifax and Dartmouth would just be so perfect for bike share, that that will help provide the motivation for making the change that we need," said Cleveland.