Helmets save cyclists’ brains

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The approach of the warm weather of spring and summer every year fills me with a mix of anticipation and dread. After a long winter, I look forward to time outside but at the same time, I know the warm weather will bring with it another year of serious head injuries among Manitoba cyclists -- injuries where the severity could have been lessened or the injury entirely prevented had the rider been wearing a helmet. As a pediatric neurosurgeon at Winnipeg Children's Hospital, every year I see children whose lives are forever altered, or horribly ended, by a cycling-related head injury.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/06/2010 (4541 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The approach of the warm weather of spring and summer every year fills me with a mix of anticipation and dread. After a long winter, I look forward to time outside but at the same time, I know the warm weather will bring with it another year of serious head injuries among Manitoba cyclists — injuries where the severity could have been lessened or the injury entirely prevented had the rider been wearing a helmet. As a pediatric neurosurgeon at Winnipeg Children’s Hospital, every year I see children whose lives are forever altered, or horribly ended, by a cycling-related head injury.

Almost always, the rider has not been wearing a helmet. The hardest part of my job is telling a parent their child will never be the same after a brain injury. When that injury could have been prevented by something as simple as wearing a helmet, it is even more tragic.

Recently, Statistics Canada released the results of their annual Canadian Community Health Survey. Their findings regarding helmet use among cyclists in Manitoba are shocking and must serve as a call to action by both the provincial government and indeed, all Manitobans. Only 22 per cent of Manitoba cyclists wear a helmet when they ride — the lowest rate of helmet use of any province in Canada and far below the national average. Rates of helmet use among cyclists were almost three times higher in Nova Scotia, the province with the highest helmet use and, by no coincidence, a province that since 1997 has had legislation mandating helmet use by cyclists.

Few would doubt the effectiveness of wearing a helmet when cycling. In a battle between your brain and the ground, the ground always wins. A helmet can make the difference between surviving an injury and death. It can turn what may have been a severe, life-changing brain injury into a mild one from which one can recover, or a mild brain injury into one where the rider walks away unscathed. The economic cost of a severe brain injury runs into the millions of dollars, the human costs, to the individual and their family, are incalculable.

Past government programs to increase helmet use in the province have included supporting injury-prevention education programs in schools and making helmets more affordable to students. While laudable, the StatsCan data confirm they are not enough and haven’t resulted in a significant increase in helmet use. What does work is legislation making bicycle helmets mandatory.

Nova Scotia had a dismal rate of helmet use (although still better than Manitoba’s) prior to legislation. In those provinces with such legislation, helmet use is higher and the incidence of cycling-related head injuries is lower. Estimates from Ontario suggest in spring and summer the life of at least one child is saved every month because of increased helmet use resulting from mandatory-helmet legislation.

Parents tell me making it a law to wear a helmet when cycling would make their children much more likely to wear one. Children, especially teenagers, say it would help overcome the peer pressure that keeps them from wearing a helmet and surveys in Manitoba suggest there is widespread public support for helmet legislation.

Those who oppose helmet legislation argue it is an unacceptable infringement by government on personal choice. Similar arguments were made when seatbelt legislation was introduced, and now most of us wouldn’t dream of driving without a seatbelt on.

Study after study has shown mandatory helmet legislation increases helmet use, does not result in a corresponding decrease in cycling activity and reduces the number of cycling-related deaths and serious brain injuries. In short, it saves lives. Among others, helmet legislation is endorsed by the Canadian Pediatric Society, Think First Canada, Safe Kids Canada and the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. Manitoba is one of only four provinces without some form of bicycle-helmet legislation. It is time for us to join the six provinces that do.

Patrick McDonald is a pediatric neurosurgeon with Winnipeg Children’s Hospital and a director of Think First Manitoba

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