Let’s jump into the helmet debate, shall we?

Nothing seems to inspire more heated debate among cycling advocates and enthusiasts than helmets. Whether they should be worn by law, by suggestion or at all is a hot discussion topic these days. Everyone has an opinion.

This week the long awaited Coroner’s Report on Cycling Safety was released in Ontario. Ontario’s Coroner’s Office studied cycling deaths over the last few years and made 14 recommendations to improve cycling safety in the province. Among them was a suggestion that helmet use may reduce deaths, but came with a recommendation to study the real impact of a mandatory helmet law.

I always wear a helmet when I ride. I have since I was a teenager and the under-18 helmet law was enacted. I haven’t ever heard a good argument against helmet use, only vanity and machismo. I encourage everyone to ride with a helmet, because they do reduce injuries in many situations.

However, I am opposed to mandatory helmet laws for adult cyclists. I said so on Twitter yesterday:

Whether it’s mandatory or not, I’m going to continue wearing my helmet. I’ve seen too many heads cracked open already. #bikeTO
Greg Burrell

But I don’t think they should be mandatory any more than wearing one while walking. #bikeTO
Greg Burrell

This led to the usual question: if mandatory helmets have improved motorcycling safety, why shouldn’t we also mandate bicycle helmets?

First, while they both have two wheels, the similarities between motorcycle and bicycle end there. Motorcycle helmets are rated to absorb impact in a collision at highway speeds, at which motorcycles are designed to operate. Not wearing one and being in a collision means almost certain death.

Bicycle helmets are not designed for the same sort of impact. They are designed to absorb a fall from roughly rider height against a flat or curb-shaped surface. In other words, falling off your bike. They are not designed to protect against the sort of collisions that kill cyclists: being struck by a car at high speed, or being crushed.

@ How likely should an injury/fatality be before we use safety apparatus? Everyone calculates this differently, some ignorantly.

@ I’d say if the benefit of the safety equipment outweighs the detriment of decreased participation. Don’t know how to measure tho.
Greg Burrell

So how do you determine when it’s worthwhile to mandate safety equipment? It’s a fair question.

Road cycling is an activity where greater numbers mean greater safety, much more so than many other road users. If a driver sees a few cyclists once in a while, they’re an unexpected nuisance, an obstacle to avoid. With greater numbers, drivers see cyclists more frequently, and learn to expect us and respect our right to share the roads. That makes everyone safer. With a mandatory helmet law, some cyclists will choose not to ride, and some people who are considering cycling will decide not to take to two wheels. That means fewer cyclists on the roads.

Currently, cycling is on the rise in Ontario. All cyclists are safer because of the increased participation, although some individuals are less safe because they choose not to wear a helmet. If helmets become mandatory, fewer cyclists will ride, and those who do will be less safe because of it. See where I’m going with this?

Furthermore, with fewer people cycling, political pressure to improve cycling infrastructure decreases. Many of the Coroner’s better recommendations, like more complete road planning for all users, improving early age cycling safety education, and enacting a one-metre passing rule become less likely to be implemented. These are the things that will really make a difference.

That’s why I say mandatory helmets for adults will result in an overall safety reduction. Those of us who continue to ride will be less safe, and conditions will not improve any time soon. So, even though I wear my helmet everywhere and think everyone else should too, I say no to mandatory helmets.

About Greg Burrell

Greg is an accountant, cyclist and political observer living in Toronto, Canada with too many cats.
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  • I think you’ve hit on the key points in this debate. I wear a helmet myself but would prefer not to. I wear a helmet largely due to fear of interaction with cars. The last time I fell off a bike on my own was in 2004 when I was on a long ride in extreme heat and made the poor decision of going down an uneven and extremely steep road. If there was a wide network of separated bike lanes I likely wouldn’t wear a helmet.

    One argument against helmets that I find interesting is the insulating factor. To what extent does a helmet help to overheat a cyclist in hot weather? To what extent might that lead to cyclists making poorer choices than they would otherwise? I still choose to wear a helmet, but these are questions I wonder about.

  • Anyone I have talked to who wear helmets are like yourself, against
    making it law. Many people I talk to from BC said they would wear a
    helmet whether it was law or not, but think it’s time to repeal the law

    Local radio (St. Catharines), all but two callers/emailers (out of about
    20) were against making it law. The majority of callers who rode bikes
    wore a helmet but didn’t want it law.

  • Someone once told me that the Netherlands did a study on whether to make helmet-wearing mandatory, and they determined that the increased health costs from injuries would be less than the decreased health costs due to more cycling. Don’t know if it’s true, though!

  • I really like your take on this.  Keep doing what you can to further a sensible broad-scale discussion about this very touchy and emotionally driven subject!