I wrote this article for a website, partially for my own information because I am a big advocate of wearing a bike helmet. When I started mountain biking, a helmet was a no brainer (ha!). After several minor crashes, I was glad that I was wearing one. This article really forced me to be a true journalist and explore both sides of the issue, despite my obvious inclination to the one side. I have always found it difficult to be truly objective because of my opinionated nature. This was a tough one.
Bicycle Helmets: To Wear or Not to Wear
Good bike driving skills a better way to prevent injuries and fatalities
On an early August day in 2009, Simon Hurley was on his mountain bike on one of Calgary’s 700km of pathways, heading southbound near the community of Riverbend. Coming down a steep incline to a hairpin turn, Hurley lost control of his bike and slammed his head on the asphalt pathway.
“I know I was going too fast, and I know it was my fault,” Hurley said. “It happened so fast that I really didn’t know what had happened until I was lying on the grass with my bike beside me.” Hurley ended up with some minor scrapes and is convinced the helmet he was wearing prevented serious injury.
All bike helmets must be approved for sale by a safety body like the Consumer Product Safety Commission. The design of bike helmets has not changed much over the past twenty years. Impact foam (crucial to reduce the force of an impact) is still the main element of a bike helmet, though ventilation holes (to cool the head) have increased.
Hurley could have not worn his helmet. That would have been fine with city bylaw officers. Currently, there is no law in Alberta that requires the mandatory wearing of bike helmets – except for those under the age of 18. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and British Columbia are the only provinces that have made it law for all cyclists to wear helmets. 1.
The issue of mandating the use of bike helmets through law is a relatively new idea. Only in the last 20 years has it become commonplace. Before 1989, there were no jurisdictions in the world that passed laws requiring cyclists to wear helmets. Australia was the first country to pass a mandatory helmet law in 1990. 2. The issue entered North America soon after, with the province of Ontario passing an under-18-only law in 1995. 3.
Safety and health are generally regarded as the reasons why helmet laws have been mandated. Rising health care costs, the increase in the awareness of health and well-being, and requests from special interest groups are also factors that have pushed governments to issue laws that they hope will protect their citizens. Law makers point to sports as an example. Olympic cyclists have always worn helmets. Tour de France riders are always seen wearing bike helmets. Professional mountain bike racers who negotiate the roughest of terrain wear them. These, however, are competitive athletes under pressure in exceptional circumstances where high speed can play a part in a life-threatening injury. The casual cyclist is more affected by helmet laws.
A lot of cyclists who have been involved in a crash may claim, ‘the helmet saved my life.’ According to the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation (BHRF), “despite the considerable effort that has been put into research about cycle helmets, there is no real-world evidence that helmets have ever resulted in the net saving of even a single life.” 4. After helmet laws went into effect in the Australian province of New South Wales, fatalities went up, not down. In the British Medical Journal, a report concluded that the amount of people cycling declined and people’s risk compensation increased. The report said, “helmet laws are counterproductive and governments should instead focus on measures that lead to clear drops in casualties, such as campaigns to against speeding, drink-driving, and failure to obey road rules.” 5.
Despite the good intentions of government officials, many long-time cyclists are against helmet laws and what they perceive as being burdened with yet another law that imposes upon their personal freedom. Ken Kifer was a cycling safety advocate who sought to teach people about the health benefits of cycling and the proper, safest way to do it. “Cycling is no more dangerous per hour than taking a walk or riding in a car and much less dangerous than other common activities,” said Kifer. “Should we wear a helmet everywhere we go?” 6. Ironically, Ken Kifer was killed by a drunk driver in 2003 while riding his bike near his home in Scottsboro, Alabama. The driver veered across the road, struck and killed Kifer.
The Ontario Coalition for Better Cycling (OCFB) also wants to prevent cyclist injuries by preventing accidents through education of cyclists – not through mandatory helmet laws. This special interest group was successful in lobbying the Ontario government to make the helmet law apply only to those under 18, as adults were able to make up their own minds. The OCFB says that helmets make cycling look so dangerous that it scares people from cycling. “We wear no special protective headgear for other every day activities such as walking and driving a car, even though our heads are exposed to similar risks for far greater lengths of time.” 7.
Although Simon Hurley was not required by law to wear a helmet, he has continued to wear it whenever he rides his bike. “Like seat belts, it’s just common sense.”
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