Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Simplistic solutions to complex problems: the helmet debate

The Ontario Coroner's Report on cycling deaths is available here.

As I am a cycle commuter, you probably expect me to have an opinion on the renewed cycle helmet debate it has spawned. I do. I was burning to write up a blog post about it.

But someone else has already done me one better: Jim Davies of Ottawa asks the question, "What is the best bike helmet?" And he neatly covers all the big reasons why a mandatory helmet law recommendation is the the stinking turd in the middle of a coroner's report full of gems, and absolutely the worst possible thing for Ontario cycling.

Read it. Understand it. Remember that every time we get into the debate about helmets, ask yourself if you're arguing if helmets should be mandatory, or simply whether helmets are a good idea. That latter question is very much in doubt: answering it by enacting law would be a travesty.

And all of this is taking away from the fact that there is a lot of good in the Coroner's report. Let's consider:

Safer Infrastructure: A provincial "complete streets" strategy and updated cycling plan. Paved shoulders for provincial highways.

Education: For cyclists. For motorists. For truckers.

Legislative Improvements: Overall Traffic Act review. A 1-metre passing law. And side guards for trucks!

All of the things I list above would contribute positively to the safety and popularity of cycling, and to the overall health of Ontario's population. Spoiling the party, though, is a mandatory helmet law recommendation which would detract from each of these goals!

So what does the panel have to say for itself? I'll wrap up this post with with their own words. (Emphasis is mine, though. Editorial privilege.)

The issue of mandatory helmet legislation for all ages is much more controversial, and was the subject of much debate among the members of the Expert Panel. While Expert Panel members were in agreement about promoting helmet use by all cyclists in Ontario, there was disagreement as to whether mandatory legislation was the best way to achieve this goal. There were three general arguments advanced against mandatory helmet legislation.

The first related to the potential for mandatory helmet legislation to decrease the overall number of cyclists. Proponents of this view cited the experience in Australia, where the introduction of mandatory helmet legislation was associated with a drop in cycling activity. Some research exists which suggest that the health benefits of helmets may be outweighed by the detrimental effects on overall health in the population through the decrease in cycling activity in jurisdictions where helmets have been made mandatory.

The second argument against mandatory helmet legislation relates to the view that government may see mandatory helmet legislation as “the answer” to cycling safety, with the result that other measures recommended in this Review (improved infrastructure, legislative review, education and enforcement activities) are de-emphasized or not acted upon. 

The third point raised by members of the Expert Panel is that helmets are, indeed, the last line of defence and of value only after a collision has occurred. Instead of mandating the use of helmets, it was argued that efforts should be focussed on preventing the collision (through strategies such as improved infrastructure and expanded public awareness and education programs) – in other words, if one prevents the collision, helmets become unnecessary. In addition, some stakeholders felt that mandatory helmet legislation sent the message that the responsibility for safety rests with the cyclist alone, rather than being a shared responsibility of all road users.
(Coroner's Report, page 23)

Powerful stuff. Bike and drive safe, folks.

1 comment:

  1. Well said! (I wish I could have been as articulate when communiticating this idea to non-cyclists)