The Great Helmet Debate


Courtesy of
Courtesy of SFB579 on flickr

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 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.


11 thoughts on “The Great Helmet Debate

  1. I don’t disagree that helmets are great at reducing risk of head injury when one falls on their head. I doubt there is anyone who will disagree with that. I also don’t disagree that Toronto streets are somewhere where someone on a bike could be likely to fall on their head whether it be from poorly maintained streets, lack of infrastructure, carelessness on one vehicle operator or another’s part. This is part why I wear one (the other part is that I move quickly – on most commutes I top 40 km/hr, often over 50).

    My issue, though, is that I’m unconvinced that this means we have to make it a legal requirement that *everyone* wear one. If we feel that high risk of head injury means that we must legislate that protection be worn, then we have a lot more important things to look at than cyclists. After all, motor vehicle accidents aren’t even the leading cause of head injuries. They only account for 20% of them (i.e. 80% of head injuries happen off the road). The leading cause (28%) is falls. And the biggest demographic would be those 0-4 years old or 75+ (source: CDC – I don’t believe we should have mandatory toddler helmets – or even toddler helmets when they’re on the playground (though they *do* make them). I think grandpa is fine without his helmet, too. Even when he’s getting into or out of the bath or walking on my street with some neighbours who could be better about salting their walk.

    There are dozens of things with much higher risk factors that we don’t try to resolve with legislation. I’m curious why so much focus is on this particular issue, when if saving lives were a priority we could be looking at, say, banning transfats, mandatory skating helmets, outlawing cigarettes, requiring cars have a hardware-limited maximum speed of 120 km/hr (or better yet, GPS-limited to the maximum posted speed limit wherever you are). But in reality, many of those things are also ones where personal responsibility comes in to play. So I guess what I truly don’t understand (and this goes well beyond the helmet issue and more into a philosophical one) is if it isn’t about likelihood of a behaviour causing injury/death when unprotected (obviously it isn’t – we have *tons* more out there that is *far* more dangerous than riding on a city street without a helmet), what determines when we say “OK, this is serious, we need to make either the behaviour against the law or have mandatory protection of some sort”

    And why single out the victim – and in particular only *one* kind of victim. We’ve had 13 pedestrians die this year in Toronto and to the best of my knowledge, the one cyclist you mentioned. And yet, nobody seems to want to do anything to help the pedestrians. Where is the outcry for them? (no, a pedestrian “blitz” is not what I’m thinking here) How about looking at something that makes a *huge* difference whether the head is involved or not? Let’s look at speed limits: A pedestrian hit at 64.4 km/h (40 mi/h) has an 85 percent chance of being killed; at 48.3 km/h (30 mi/h), the likelihood goes down to 45 percent, while at 32.2 km/h (20 mi/h), the fatality rate is only 5 percent. ( Why the great wailing and gnashing of teeth when we talk about reducing downtown speed limits?

    So for me my biggest objection is that the only response to “people are dying on the streets” is to look at one road user and suggest mandating that they protect themselves without doing anything of substance to address the actual problem. It’d be like living in a city plagued by gun violence with a municipal government that refused to do anything to change enforcement or get guns off the streets but started ticketing people for not wearing their mandatory kevlar vest. It’s insulting, and it would feel a hell of a lot different even if they mandated the vests *and* did something about the root cause.

  2. How about a different angle, then? 🙂

    In Canada, nearly 200 cyclists died in 1975, when helmet use was effectively nil. In 2002, when helmet use has been estimated to run as high as 40%, there were only 63 cyclist deaths in Canada.. That’s a dramatic 70% drop in cyclist fatalities!

    Let’s look at a population with a similar ‘vulnerable user’ characteristic as cyclists on the roads — pedestrian fatalities over that same time period: nearly 1,100 in 1975, versus 350 in 2002. Again, that’s nearly a 70% decline. I’m not aware of any surveys of pedestrian helmet use, but I think we can safely assume it’s nearly zero, even today.

    The same studies claiming to show helmet effectiveness against brain injury also show a correlation between leg injuries and helmet use, because these studies have an almost universal flaw: they compare data between two completely different populations! Children helmet studies especially choose a helmet wearing population that are mostly middle class children with protective parents who live where bike paths are available, while the non-helmet population tend to be be children in heavy traffic neighborhoods who don’t have a mom taxi available to tote them to the corner store.

  3. If wearing a helmet will make an individual safer while riding a slow bicycle in the city because it protects their head, why are you not pushing mandatory helmet laws that make individuals safer for other activies that can be policed? People run fast and can fall and hit their head. If runners had to wear a helmet, we could make these people more safe. People roller skate and ride skateboards, and could fall or slip on ice and hit their heads. What about this group of people? Have you done research on the number of hear injuries that automobile users suffer? They may wear a seatbelt, that does not protect their head. If this group of people also wore helmets, we could protect them too. Also, in the winter, people can slip on ice or snow. Why do you not want to make helmets for everyone in the winter? I hope at this point you understand why singling out a mode of transportation for extra protection can not be fully effective for your cause, protecting peoples heads. If you look to countries where cycling as transport is successful, they do not have helmet laws for adults. Making helmets mandatory forces people to carry a helmet around with them at all times if they want to use a bicycle. How is it Germany, Holland, and Denmark have not had mandatory helmet laws but have the safest regions for riding a bicycle in the world?
    looking at melbourne australia where helmet laws are mandatory, how come the bike share program there is not successful where it is in EVERY other city it has launched. what are the numbers for brain injuries, and bicycle accidents there? I bet that IF head injuries are down since the laws came into play, it is not with the same ratio of overall ridership.

    My theory on mandatory helmet laws comes down to a simple equation:

    What percentage of people need to carry a helmet 24/7 to achieve a 100% bicycle mode share for A) Mandatory Helmet laws or B) No Helmet laws.

    Please review your ideas, and take a look at for facts on bicycle safety and the propaganda that can easily be fed to us considering that the automobile industry spends on advertising is close to or more than the entire bicycle industry has total.

  4. Holy, man. How did you all find me so quickly?

    I knew these responses were coming. And like Todd Tyrtle and I have discovered, we don’t really “disagree” per se. But when people say legislate helmets, a group of people jump and say “but cyclists aren’t the only ones who get hurt” and “quit picking on us”.

    That’s not the same argument as the one I’ve made (or at least tried to make). We already legislate basic safety equipment for all other vehicles we use. For that reason alone, it doesn’t make sense that we wouldn’t have safety legislation for bikes. Why is no one standing up and saying “I don’t think E-bike riders should be forced to wear helmets” or “Seat belts should be a personal choice”?

    Simply listing off a bunch of other ways people can get hurt has nothing to do with this issue. Obviously we can’t protect against everything. We can’t protect everybody. People falling from scaffolding also die from head injuries. Maybe they should wear a helmet. But that’s a separate issue.

    If you’re talking consistency, you have to look at similar scenarios: ie other vehicles.

    Legislating helmet use is not picking on cyclists some poor, helpless group that needs protection. We already pick on every other vehicle group.

    The argument that we shouldn’t legislate helmets because they don’t in Copenhagen also doesn’t apply here. They already have safer infrastructure and a better bike culture in Copenhagen. It’s apples and oranges.

    But with that said, infrastructure doesn’t keep you from simply wiping out sometimes. Everyone knows someone that has wiped out and hit their head and no amount of infrastructure would have stopped it. Shit happens. The part that I really don’t get is why you wouldn’t wear a helmet? Simple, why not? I’d rather overprotect myself and give into the man (or whoever we’re fighting) than live as a vegetable for the rest of my life.

    On her metro morning appearance, Yvonne Bambrick said she doesn’t wear a helmet because of a study that said helmets give drivers a false sense of security. That is an interesting point, and really unfortunate. But in the same breath, she also said she’d wear one in the suburbs where drivers are more hostile. This argument doesn’t add up. If you truly believe that helmets cause you some harm, you shouldn’t wear one. Period. But if you believe they would save you in the suburbs where streets are better maintained, wider and have fewer hazards (save for the drivers) then you absolutely should wear them in the city. Our roads are plagued with pot holes, manhole covers, sewer grates in the wrong direction, streetcar tracks, etc etc. The chances of falling without interacting with a car are decent.

    What I’d really like is for us to move on from the helmet debate. The majority of people seem to think they do add safety. So can’t we just suck it up, wear a helmet, and then put all this fantastic energy towards fighting for bigger changes that we need?

  5. I’m still not convinced of the need to legislate this over any of the other preventable things that are likely to kill us. And I disagree that there’s little point in listing ways we could die. The point is that these are equally *preventable* ways to die that are more (in some cases *far more* likely to happen) than a bike accident. It has everything to do with the issue because the point is, apparently, preventing easily preventable death/injury. And if that’s our government’s job then yes, let’s have mandatory bike helmets, and a whole bunch of other things. But if this is *not* the government’s job then leave things as-is. It sounds to me like people are wanting to legislate based on perceived risk versus actual risk. But I suspect this isn’t likely to get sorted out any time soon.

    It is a bit upsetting, though, that this is becoming *such* a wedge issue – not just between drivers and cyclists, but between cyclists themselves. John’s choice not to wear a helmet, and my choice to wear one aren’t really all that relevant to a discussion about how to keep people safe on the street. Riding out there is pretty damned dangerous at times. What is legislating that John wear a helmet going to do for you, Lizz, or me? Not bloody much. And while I am not without compassion, I’d rather we spend time, effort, and dammit, *legislation* on things that can help everyone. But instead we’re arguing amongst ourselves and with others over this issue which, in the context of cyclist safety is going to do little, and for those of us who wear helmets is going to do *absolutely nothing*. Except perhaps discourage a number of people, including many target users of Bixi from riding.

    And one final question: Who is safer? An un-helmeted cyclist on a Copenhagen street or a helmeted one on Kingston Road?

    1. So you’re saying I’m the Rob Ford of cyclists?

      Also, again, my argument was in the name of consistency. I think it’s dumb not to wear a helmet, but I think it’s more useless to spend all this time being angry about people telling you to put on a helmet. It’s easy. Why fight it?

      (I’m sure someone is about to tell me why. Sigh)

  6. Nah – Rob Ford you are definitely not. I just think we might well be falling for the baiting of the media here. Not that I think there’s some massive GM-funded conspiracy (though, I will say that in the newspaper I used to work for, and likely most others, the #1 ad revenue by far came from automotive advertisers). We’re wasting time bickering about a hypothetical bit of legislation when we could be pushing for things we all agree on. And I suspect the number of things we all agree on are *huge*. And the fruits of that work help more people than the fruits of this argument. It seems to me that while I think wearing a helmet’s a good idea, insisting that everyone wear one or be fined is going to succeed in one thing: getting the majority of the cyclists without helmets off the road. And into the streetcars or cars. And if we say that half of the people sans helmet won’t ride without them, and that half the riders wear helmets, we’ve now just managed to legislate ourselves a 25% reduction in numbers. “Safety in numbers” drops (the point of my Copenhagen/Kingston Rd question), as does demand for infrastructure. Bixi can take their bikes and move them to another city as if you’re unwilling to constantly carry a helmet with you, using the service now means you risk a fine. So much for the spontaneous decision to take Bixi from Queen and John to Queen Station because the streetcars aren’t running due to an accident at Queen and Spadina. There’s a lot of blowback from “legislating common sense” here. And I can’t see how any of it will help you or me, or any other helmet-wearing cyclist.

    Sure, it’s low hanging fruit, and the media would love to see it happen but the costs, in my opinion, far outweigh the gains.

    I think we’re even saying similar things here. It’s useless to spend all this time being angry about someone’s not wearing a helmet. Why fight it? I see all sorts of behaviour that’s not something I would do and that I know is harmful and risky. I don’t expect folks to quit smoking just because of my raised eyebrow, though. I would also say that it sounds as if you and I are of the same camp – the avoiding conflict one. (well, apparently except here 😉 ). But not everyone is of that same type and not everyone likes to be told what to do no matter how good an idea it is. If you doubt me, ask the guy smoking at the streetcar stop to put his cigarette out because it’s unhealthy and the smoke burns your eyes. (And it’s a no-brainer that people should not smoke, and you’re subsidizing his health care…)

  7. Well, I must say that I find Todd’s arguments (and those of the Australian article) far more compelling than yours, Lizz.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s