Winnipeg city council is considering making helmets mandatory for adult cyclists. As a safety move, wearing a helmet is a good idea; a helmet, obviously, protects a person’s head should they be thrown from a bicycle. But a mandatory helmet law only addresses part of the problem.
According to data compiled by Transport Canada, increased helmet use among cyclists from 1975 to 2010 had no effect on traffic-related fatality trends. When compared against pedestrians, fatalities among cyclists decreased at roughly the same rate. Better driving practices among motorists were credited as having a greater effect.
According to the Canadian Automobile Association, most bicycle injuries and crashes occur during afternoon rush hour, while one in three cyclist fatalities occur at night or in places where there’s artificial lighting. Cyclists are most likely to be killed or injured at an intersection or location where there are traffic signals. Sixty-four per cent of cyclist deaths resulting from traffic crashes took place on city roads with a speed limit up to 70 km/h.
Common collisions between a motor vehicle and cyclist involve drivers cutting off a cyclist when making a right turn, colliding with an oncoming cyclist when the motorist makes a left turn, and passing a cyclist with insufficient clearance.
Not much that helmets are going to do about that.
But if the city is considering mandatory helmet use, maybe it can mandate some other things to address these factors.
Let's start with bike lanes on all streets. If the problem is motorists and cyclists in the same lane, separate them.
For a city such as Winnipeg, that is constantly ripping up its streets for repair, would this expense really be much different if phased in with existing repair work? Or perhaps the city should extend its dedicated cycling infrastructures, such as the paved bike paths in Quebec City, Edmonton, and Calgary? (Oh wait, a $300-million cycling and pedestrian infrastructure plan for Winnipeg was axed by city councillors, as Robert Galston has noted on these pages. Perhaps cyclists’ safety isn’t the top priority.)
We can also address cyclist and motorist behaviour.
Cyclists should ride on the street and obey traffic laws. Motorists should change lanes to pass cyclists.
Motorists should not be passing cyclists in their own lane, running the risk of clipping them with a mirror or blowing them off balance through turbulence. (The one-metre rule should be the bare minimum, but it’s not specified in the Highway Traffic Act; it’s at a motorist’s discretion how much room to give when passing a cyclist.) The city should promote the practice that motor vehicles must change lanes to pass a bicycle, as they must do to pass a car, truck, bus or motorcycle.
This isn’t even mentioning the upside to actual cycling infrastructure, be it bike lanes on existing roads or dedicated bike paths. Safer conditions for cyclists mean more people on bikes and fewer in cars, lightening traffic congestion. And cycling infrastructure makes urban life more attractive, as Brainerd, Minn., found out. That community invested heavily in a bike path system and in addition to encouraging more people to live there, its tourist numbers have increased as well.
Before the "it-could-never-work-here" howls begin, consider it wasn’t seatbelt requirements alone that have addressed motorist deaths. Airbags and innovations in vehicle design that help absorb impact are factors, as is better road design and road-clearing practices, and better education for drivers.
Helmets, while a good idea, are like seatbelts: they minimize damage but don’t solve the problem. Winnipeg drivers and cyclists can tackle part of the solution together, through safer driving practices; but for real change, city hall has to stop giving cyclists the evil eye and actually do something about infrastructure.
Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board.