Bicycle Helmets: Should Bicycle Helmet Laws Be Mandatory for All Cyclists?

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Ontario is not the only province spinning its wheels over mandatory bike helmet laws.

Just as the chief coroner is recommending Ontario make it illegal for cyclists to ride without a helmet, a longstanding debate over B.C.’s helmet law is heating up.

Vancouver last week proposed a bike share scheme similar to Toronto’s Bixi bikes — which it might have done sooner if not for the helmet law. Although the city has said the program will include a helmet share system, the news has led to renewed calls to scrap the law by cycling advocates and at least one B.C. Liberal Party member.

Ted Dixon, the party’s policy chair, said the law deters some residents from cycling, while others simply ignore it.

“It discourages utility cycling. On a hot summer day, say you want to go a few blocks on your bike to pick up a loaf of bread,” he said. “It’s best decided by the individual how risky that could be.”

Share the Road. Recently the Deputy Chief Coroner of Ontario reviewed 129 cyclist fatalities between 2006-2010. 71 cyclists of the 129 that died, were not wearing helmets and sustained a head injury that caused or contributed to their deaths. The coroner reached the conclusion that "Helmet use by all cyclists can and will decrease fatal head injuries".

Dixon stressed he was speaking out personally, not on behalf of his party. However, he has launched a proposal to make repealing the law part of the B.C. Liberals’ 2013 campaign platform.

Erin O’Melinn, executive director of HUB, a Vancouver cycling coalition, agreed the law is a deterrent to some cyclists. “The focus should be on improving infrastructure and educating drivers instead of ticketing adults who choose not to wear a helmet,” she said.

Over 4,000 cyclists were slapped with $29 tickets for not wearing a helmet in B.C. last year, according to the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia.

B.C. Justice Minister and Attorney General Shirley Bond said in an emailed statement there is no clear evidence linking mandatory helmet laws and decreased ridership.

“We’re committed to reducing injuries and fatalities on our road system and having a mandatory helmet law in place is consistent with that goal.”

In 2010, B.C. had nine cyclist fatalities, compared with 25 in Ontario — a province with three times the population. Of those nine, seven were not wearing helmets, despite the law.

Ontario deputy chief coroner Dan Cass agrees there is not enough evidence, and recommended the province study the results if it enacts a law of its own.

“Let’s evaluate it,” he said. “Let’s see if it really does have an impact, instead of relying on inconclusive and flawed data from other jurisdictions.” 

Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island also have mandatory helmet laws. Manitoba recently considered an all-ages law, but chose to enact an under-18 law similar to Ontario’s instead.

Cycling advocates often point to European cities such as Copenhagen, where few cyclists wear helmets but fatalities are rare thanks to well-designed bike paths, greenways and a pro-cycling culture.

In the U.S., 22 states have mandatory helmet laws for youth, but only a handful of cities require them for all ages, including Oklahoma City, Okla., and Dallas, Texas.

Most of Washington State requires helmets — but one small city, Milton, decided to scrap its law earlier this month. The police reportedly struggled to enforce the law, and were worried about liability if an accident happened to a cyclist not ticketed for not wearing a helmet.

Last month, New York City councilman David Greenfield put forward a motion for a mandatory helmet law in New York City, where 21 cyclists died in road accidents last year. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has opposed the law.

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One thoughtful comment

  1. Some cities & towns have it in bylaws.

    When it became a bylaw, I looked into the statistics. I found that falling off a bicycle while wearing a helmet is safer than not wearing a helmet concerning head injuries. I also found that a styrofoam & plastic hat is laughably insufficient as protection against multi-ton projectiles traveling exponentially faster; head injuries can be the first cause of death, but not the last. Considering the chances for location of injury (higher face&neck&side), I found that the only credible helmet is the head&neck full motorcycle helmet, which I occasionally wear by choice. A good example of bad reasoning is the helmet legislator whose nephew was found dead with head injuries, but also crushed underneath his ATV.

    My conclusion was that children who fall off bicycles should be required to wear helmets. The reasoning behind local bylaws was “it sets a good example for the children”, where I think the opposite is true. I hate mandates for children (since I escape those mandates) and absurd legal-system shaming for parents, so an officer explaining to a child why a helmet is for their protection could be a formative experience. It’s still paternalistic, but not absurdly so.

    Educate, Don’t Legislate.

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