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Philip Preville: The case for making bike helmets mandatory

Driving without a seat belt is considered absurdly reckless. Why isn’t cycling without a helmet?

Heads Will Roll

Any cyclist who’s ever been in an accident knows the feeling of being thrown upon the mercy of the grid. There is no way of predicting how the vectors will play out, nor any providence that can harness them, even for the most trifling mishap. All you can do is gird yourself.

Back in August, 47-year-old Joseph Mavec was cycling along quiet west end Wychwood Avenue when his bike’s front wheel got snagged in an old, unused streetcar track. My wife did the same thing eight years ago in the very same location and walked away with a scrape. Mavec struck his head on the pavement and quickly died. He was not wearing a helmet.

Fate was both crueler and kinder to Wendy Trusler. On July 19, 2000, Trusler was cycling north on Spadina toward College Street, back in the days when metal posts, not concrete curbs, separated the tracks from other traffic. She made a snap decision to cut across the tracks mid-block—and unwittingly into the path of a northbound 510 silently approaching at 50 kilometres an hour. “It was maybe 10 feet away from me when I saw it,” she says. “I only had time to turn my back to it.” The streetcar hit Trusler, and she bounced back and forth between it and the bollards for roughly five metres, the red rocket cracking the ribs on her left side, the posts snapping her right femur. By the time all moving bodies came to rest she had 17 broken bones, including her clavicle, shoulder blade, cheekbone and jaw. But she was wearing a helmet, and she suffered no cranial or brain trauma.

Even some cyclists who routinely wear a helmet are of the opinion that it would be of no help in major collisions involving trucks or buses, but you never can tell. Trusler has held on to that cracked helmet like some kind of grotesque keepsake, and even shows it off sometimes. Yet many people still react imperviously to her story. “I know a lot of cyclists who don’t wear helmets,” she says. “I speak up, but if the discussion isn’t going anywhere I just drop it.”

It’s a familiar one-way conversation: making pointless exhortations to cyclists who refuse to wear a helmet as a matter of principle. I’ve certainly done it. So has the province’s deputy chief coroner, Dan Cass. Just this summer, Cass released a report recommending that helmets be made mandatory for all cyclists in Ontario, not just those under 18 years of age. He reviewed every cycling fatality on Ontario roads from 2006 to 2010, and his findings were stark: 94 of the 129 cyclists who died were not wearing a helmet.

Cass’s work merely adds to the body of research on the benefits of bike helmets. Back in 2000, a review of 16 studies calculated that helmets reduce the risk of fatal injury by 29 per cent, and subsequent studies have concluded that helmets reduce the risk of head and brain injury by up to 88 per cent.

Despite this data, and his own, Cass’s call for a compulsory helmet law was not unanimously applauded. His report dedicated lengthy passages to the dissenting opinions of some of the cycling advocates on his expert panel. Their main objection was based upon research from Australia dating back to the early 1990s, which showed that mandatory helmet laws resulted in a decline in cycling activity. By extension, their argument goes, the overall health of the population will suffer due to increased idleness. In a nutshell: mandatory bike helmets will worsen the obesity epidemic.

The same argument is advanced by cycling advocates around the world to resist the implementation of mandatory helmet laws. One organization, the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation, is committed to debunking studies that support helmet use, including the ones cited above. To judge from CycleHelmets.org, the foundation’s members are cycling’s truthers: they’ve never read a study that wasn’t rife with flawed methodology or hidden bias.

In the 1970s, opponents of mandatory seat belt laws also invoked revisionist science to back up their argument. Today, anyone who insisted upon their right to drive without buckling up would be branded a fool. Likewise, it’s hard to divine how any cyclist, when confronted with the coroner’s findings, could ignore them in favour of some 20-year-old bicycle research from New South Wales. But that’s essentially what some of the bike advocates on the coroner’s expert panel did. Their argument tries to change the subject, turning a traffic safety issue into a public health issue. This is not ParticipAction; it’s about making cycling trips as safe as possible.

An awful lot has changed in the last 20 years—in Ontario and New South Wales and everywhere else in the world. Urban grids are crowded like never before, and Toronto is the perfect example. We’ve had a condo boom—not just downtown, but across the amalgamated city. The transit system is overflowing, and pedestrians flood the streets. And even though there’s no more road space downtown today than there was 20 years ago, vehicular traffic has gone up dramatically. The city’s own figures show that traffic in the core during the morning rush hour has risen by more than 20 per cent, from roughly 150,000 vehicles in 1991 to more than 183,000 in 2006.

This is a lot to contend with no matter how you travel, but it’s hardest on cyclists, who suffer a dreadful lack of dedicated cycling infrastructure. (The coroner, to the applause of his expert panel, also recommended more and better cycling networks.) You’d think that the perception of crowded, unsafe, road-ragey streets would deter people from cycling. Yet through all of these changes, an increasing number of Torontonians are hopping on two wheels.

The 2006 census showed a record 24,000 Torontonians commuting to work by bike. (The 2011 census hasn’t yet been crunched for cycling data, but it will almost certainly show another record rise.) Those numbers are increasing not in spite of a crowded grid, but because of it. Slim, quick and nimble, bikes have become the best and cheapest way to beat congestion. It’s nice to know that cycling makes people healthier and reduces their carbon footprint—but those are merely fringe benefits. The main reason for riding to work is to save time and money.

I’m convinced that if Ontario enacted a helmet law it would not result in a decline in cycling activity. More and more people are making the choice: they’d rather bike to work in 10 minutes than simmer in gridlock for half an hour, and they’re not about to get back behind the wheel just because they have to wear a lid. I would love to put this hypothesis to the test. So would the coroner’s office, which recommended that any mandatory helmet law be followed up with a comprehensive study.

In the end, however, the case for mandatory helmets is best made not through aggregate data, but trip by trip. If you ask yourself, before every ride, whether or not you’d be better off wearing a helmet, the answer is inevitably yes. Wendy Trusler was two months away from her wedding day when she was hit by that streetcar. Before she left the house, her fiancé, Cam Taylor, reminded her to wear her helmet. When she awoke in hospital that evening her first words to Taylor were, “I’m so sorry.” His reply: “We’ve got nothing but time.” Eight weeks later they were wed, and she danced the night away.

 

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