Life Health

Why aren't bicycle helmets mandatory? 0

Marilyn Linton. (DAVE ABEL/QMI Agency)

By Marilyn Linton, QMI Agency

A man rides his bicycle through water fountains in front of the skyline in Toronto July 12, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

A man rides his bicycle through water fountains in front of the skyline in Toronto July 12, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Blinch

A body, a bicycle and an ambulance.

I saw these things a block before we got to them. Beside me in the passenger seat was my 12-year-old grandson and hoping to protect him from what we would eventually see (my lane of cars had to move right past the poor guy sprawled on the road), I babbled on about safe cycling and careful driving.

“I just hope he had a helmet,” I said as my car crawled past the man. My grandson surveyed the sad scene. “Nope, no helmet,” he intoned. “And he’s old!”

Old enough to know better. And why in Ontario do we have helmet laws to protect kids under the age of 18 on bicycles, but still no laws in place for adults?

In British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, all ages must wear a helmet to ride. Earlier this year, Ontario’s chief coroner released a report that recommended, among other things, the implementation of mandatory helmet legislation for cyclists of all ages. But there’s no action yet.

Helmets for all cyclists is something Dr. Charles Tator has been fighting for – to no avail. The coroner’s data is so compelling, says the Toronto Western Hospital neurosurgeon and brain injury expert.

“People who are anti-helmet never claim helmets don’t work. They say they are too hot, you are taking away my freedom, or they just hate helmets,” Dr. Tator says. “Some claim they ride defensively or only go on streets where there isn’t much traffic.”

Helmets don’t protect against other injuries such as broken bones or bruised ribs, say disbelievers. Making helmets mandatory will create a culture of fear and make some people give up cycling, the argument goes. And helmet laws are only one part of a bigger plan to make cycling safer for everyone. Some sites, such as vehicularcyclist.com, maintained by Ottawa cyclist Avery Burdett, claim helmets have no effect on fatalities. Burdett’s philosophy is cycling “is an enjoyable low-risk activity.”

But Think First, the national injury prevention organization which Dr. Tator launched and is now part of Parachute Canada, believes the laws should be changed.

“We need comprehensive helmet legislation for street activities that are manually or pedally operated – bikes, skateboards, roller skates, inline skates and scooters,” says Dr. Tator. “And for all ages.”

To set the record straight, helmets won’t necessarily protect against concussion, Dr. Tator explains. “Concussion is due to the jiggle of the brain in the skull and the jiggle is related to rotational acceleration, something which helmets don’t protect against.”

What helmets can do for cyclists, he adds, is to protect against “the big injuries. By big injuries to the brain we mean blood clots in the brain, torn brain and bruised brain.”

These so-called catastrophic brain injuries are due to linear acceleration, which means the brain continues to move against the skull even though the skull has hit the ground.

“That crashing around of the brain against the skull can cause bruising, tearing and blood clots. So yes, cyclists wearing helmets may still get a concussion but they’re protected against the big injuries; they won’t die and won’t end up in a chronic hospital for the rest of their lives,” he says.

Helmets prevent death and severe disability, Dr. Tator concludes. “And they do a wonderful job of that.”

Which half are you?

Parachute Canada has surveyed Toronto on two separate occasions over the past decade. On both occasions, they found adult use of bike helmets is just under 50%. “Without legislation we are just not moving fast enough in terms of increasing the use of helmets among adults,” says Dr. Charles Tator. “The adult brain is worth protecting.”

Helmet laws work

In 1990, Victoria, Australia required all cyclists to wear a helmet. Helmet wearing rates immediately climbed from 31% to 75% within a year, and the insurance claims from cyclists killed or hospitalized from head injuries decreased by 70% in the second year after the law.

Numbers tell the story

In studying 129 cycling deaths across Ontario since 2006, the chief coroner found only 26% had on a helmet. According to Think First, non-helmeted riders are 14 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than helmeted riders; 85-88% of critical head and brain injuries can be prevented through the use of a bicycle helmet.

Air hats, anyone?

Aware that many cyclists consider helmets ugly and bulky, Swedish industrial designers Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin have developed the Hovding – an invisible helmet which is really a fashionable collar that looks like a snug neck shawl. Equipped with sensors, the collar, when activated, inflates around the head like a protective helmet. Its estimated cost is $600, (hovding.com).

Poll

Do you wear a helmet when you go for a bike ride?

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