The great helmet debate just won’t end.
When a 40-year old Toronto cyclist died last week after falling from his bike and hitting his head, people noticed – at least they noticed he wasn’t wearing a helmet. And so began the most recent battle of “should we” or “shouldn’t we” legislate helmets for adult cyclists.
The local media outlets covered the story. Toronto Police Services issued a press release. Opinions ran wild in the Twitterverse, the loudest screaming “personal choice.”
A CBC Metro Morning debate occurring days later between Yvonne Bambrick, communications director of the Toronto Cyclists’ Union (TCU), and Sgt. Tim Burrows of Traffic Services, made it clear that “choice” is the lynchpin of this argument.
The official position of the TCU is that it “supports and encourages helmet use, but [it] also supports the current laws that allow adults to make that choice.”
The same day, the cycling website BikingToronto.com hosted a forum on helmet use. Site founder Joe Travers had this to say “Helmets save lives, as do safe infrastructure & higher numbers of cyclists. I personally wear one, but don’t fault people who don’t.”
That’s where I get lost.
Lots of things in life should be based on personal choice: who we love, where we live, Team Edward or Team Jacob. But choosing safety is not something we, as a society, have allowed individuals to do for a long time.
Employers are required to abide by WSIB rules to protect workers. We have Canadian Aviation Regulations for flight, and the Highway Traffic Act to rule the road. We have life jackets in boats, seatbelts in cars, and motorcyclists and e-bike riders (who reach a maximum speed of only 35kmph) must wear helmets.
We are a regulated society and we’ve collectively given the government permission to make these rules. So why are we letting cyclists off the hook?
Maybe it’s because cyclists aren’t taken seriously enough. Maybe it’s because, despite the evidence, not everyone believes that helmets protect cyclists. But I think it is because people are so busy arguing that helmets aren’t the cure to cycling fatalities that few prominent advocates are willing to stand up and say that helmets are a step in the right direction.
Any advocacy is good for cyclists. But refusing to actively encourage safety equipment, particularly for inexperienced cyclists, in the name of “choice” is just dumb.
Helmets work. They’re not perfect, but they work. In a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, it was found that “riders with helmets had an 85 percent reduction in their risk of head injury … and an 88 percent reduction in their risk of brain injury.”
They’re easy, and other than ruining your hairdo, helmets don’t cause harm.
Some people criticize helmets because they won’t do enough if a cyclist is hit by a car, or because they may give some cyclists and drivers a false sense of security. But I’ve yet to hear anyone tell me that having an extra layer between one’s head and the sidewalk in the event of a fall is not a good idea.
Arguments against legislation often assume helmet laws will deter cycling in the city and, as Bambrick puts it, “make cycling look less safe than it is,” but I don’t buy it. The automobile industry survived seatbelts and airbags. People still build pools even where they’re required to put a fence up. Our history of regulation shows us that people adapt.
The reality is that cycling isn’t completely safe. Better infrastructure and education would go a long way in making it better, but we’re not there yet.
So in the meantime, why not protect your head? If the government believes in consistency, soon you may not have a choice.