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This article was published 27/6/2016 (1233 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Wearing a helmet when you ride a bike will reduce your risk of injury in an accident. The mandatory helmet law currently proposed by Winnipeg city council likely will not.
This seems like a contradictory statement, but unlike motorcycle-helmet and automobile-seatbelt laws, bike safety relies on a set of unique variables that require a more complex response than simply forcing everyone to wear a helmet.
A 2015 study by the University of British Columbia is the most comprehensive resource for this assertion. It looked at 11 cities in Canada over a five-year period, comparing hospitalization rates between jurisdictions with and without helmet laws. The study was one of the first to pro-rate injuries with the number of bike trips taken. Its conclusions could not find a definitive correlation between helmet legislation and hospitalization rates.
Helmets reduce the risk of head injuries by up to 85 per cent, and helmet legislation generally increases use.
Why then is it difficult to detect a decrease in hospital admissions for cycling-related head injuries in cities with helmet laws?
There are several potential causes worth discussing.
Bike helmets are designed to reduce head injuries in an accident and should not be discouraged, but there is some evidence to suggest helmet legislation can increase the chances of getting into an accident in the first place.
Some researchers suggest drivers may be inherently less careful when passing cyclists wearing helmets, reducing the safety margin needed to deal with errors in judgment and obstacles on the road. Studies show cyclists may also be emboldened by their protective gear, routinely perceiving reduced risk on the road, compensating by cycling faster, decreasing safety.
The effects on participation rates may be the most important factor when considering the effectiveness of legislation and is the reason many cycling advocates oppose mandatory helmet laws.
Although results are inconsistent, many jurisdictions find mandatory helmet use has a negative impact on the number of cyclists on the road.
After implementing helmet laws, several Australian cities reported a drop in cycling rates of between 20 per cent and 40 per cent. Vancouver saw a 30 per cent reduction in adult cyclists, Halifax dropped by 50 per cent and child helmet laws in Alberta resulted in a decrease in adolescent participation by 27 per cent, while adult cycling, which was exempt from the law, grew by 21 per cent.
Almost all research, including the UBC study, concludes one of the most important factors in bike safety is high levels of participation.
It has been consistently proven the number of riders has a far greater impact on bike-injury statistics than wearing a helmet.
This strength-in-numbers concept simply means motorists are less likely to hit cyclists when there are more of them around, indicating doing anything to discourage participation is counterproductive to achieving safety goals. With greater bike presence, drivers become more aware of the complexity of road movements, adjusting behaviour by slowing down, passing cautiously and shoulder-checking. It has been found when bike use doubles in a city the risk of a motorist hitting a cyclist typically goes down by about one-third.
Another significant factor reducing participation rates has been the obsessive public focus on helmet use. The stigma against not wearing one has become wildly disproportionate to the actual risk, creating the common perception cycling in cities such as Winnipeg is inherently unsafe.
In the helmet debate many people will relate a personal anecdote of someone they know who was injured while riding their bike or avoided injury because of a helmet.
The reality is, however, you are three times more likely to know someone who was injured falling off a piece of furniture. You are seven times more likely to be killed as a pedestrian than you are as a cyclist and almost 10 times more likely to sustain a head injury behind the wheel of a car than on the seat of a bike. Yet we don’t wear helmets in the shower, in the car or when we walk down the sidewalk.
For some reason cycling is the only activity perceived to be so dangerous that without a helmet you are considered irresponsible. This unfounded perception of danger has led to a decrease in cycling participation, in turn causing a true decline in bike safety.
With less than 20 per cent of bike accidents involving the head, only three per cent of road accidents involving cyclists and 40 per cent of cyclists already using helmets, it would seem dedicating already limited police resources to enforcement of a law with such negligible impact on road safety would be far more effective spent further combatting impaired and distracted drivers, who cause almost 25 times more fatalities each year than cycling accidents do.
The current debate over helmet legislation at Winnipeg city hall only serves as a distraction from the most important discussion in regards to bike safety — expediting the construction of a network of dedicated bike lanes.
In Copenhagen, Denmark, building 300 kilometres of bike lanes has resulted in almost as many daily bike commuters in that city as in the entire United States, with almost none of them wearing a helmet. Despite this, a Danish cyclist is five times safer than a Winnipeg cyclist. Most will dismiss this by saying Winnipeg is not Copenhagen, but even Copenhagen was not always Copenhagen.
They only started construction on that extensive bike network in the 1980s. The key difference is Copenhagen made the growth of cycling safety and participation a priority, and in Winnipeg, we simply have not.
Few Winnipeggers question the $150 million being spent on a train underpass that will save commuters four minutes a week, yet many will balk at the $135-million price tag of the dedicated cycling infrastructure in Winnipeg’s transportation master plan. The strategy calls for 80 km of protected bike lanes across the city, including a $7-million, 13-lane downtown network. No lives will be saved by an underpass, but investing in cycling infrastructure would have a direct positive impact on the 80 people per year hospitalized from cycling accidents.
If public bike safety is truly city council’s goal, it can only be achieved through dedicated cycling infrastructure. This has been proven over and over in municipalities around the world. Canadian cities such as Montreal and Vancouver have simply decided to build it. They have made cycling safety a priority, and participation has skyrocketed while injury statistics have plummeted.
We demonstrate urgency when increasing road-maintenance budgets or finding money for convenience projects such as underpasses and road widening, because we have made that a priority. Winnipeg’s 15,000 daily bike commuters and tens of thousands of recreational cyclists need more than ineffective helmet laws. They deserve a true commitment to making safety a priority, with investment in the infrastructure that is guaranteed to make a real difference.
Brent Bellamy is creative director at Number Ten Architectural Group.
Brent Bellamy is senior design architect for Number Ten Architectural Group.