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Cyclists with and without helmets make their way along a bike path in Montreal in this photo from August, 2010. (Graham Hughes for The Globe and Mail)
Cyclists with and without helmets make their way along a bike path in Montreal in this photo from August, 2010. (Graham Hughes for The Globe and Mail)

EMILE THERIEN

Not just for kids: Bike helmets should be the law for adults Add to ...

The tragic death of a cyclist in Ottawa on July 30 will almost certainly raise further concerns about safe cycling. First off, no one should jump to any conclusions about what happened leading to the death of that woman. More often than not, quick fixes sacrifice long-term progress for short term actions, without doing anything to address the underlying causes.

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That fatality aside, isn’t it about time cyclists assume the same responsibilities for using public roads as other users do? It is called “Sharing the Roads.” Is licensing, along with all the other responsibilities it entails, including liability insurance and safety courses, now in order? If not, why not? It would be interesting to know how many city councillors would support such a sensible, public safety, good public policy licensing scheme. I suspect not many. It is called political will.

Safe cycling starts with the cyclists themselves: This is an indisputable fact.

A study released in the summer of 2010 found that mandatory bike-helmet laws are effective in reducing cycling injuries and fatalities and are no impediment to ridership numbers. Ryan Zarychanski, an assistant professor of community health services and internal medicine at the University of Manitoba, who co-authored the study that investigated this matter, said that an “all ages” law should be adopted by all provinces. In June, 2012, Ontario’s chief coroner urged the provincial government to expand its bike-helmet law to include adults after reviewing the circumstances of 129 cycling fatalities since 2006. The coroner found that almost three-quarters of the cyclists who died were not wearing protective headgear. All cyclists are required to wear helmets in Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In Ontario, the law only applies to cyclists under 18 years of age. Last December, then-minister of transportation Bob Chiarelli, in response to the chief coroner's recommendation, said he would like to consult Ontarians before deciding whether to require adults to wear helmets. This consultation has not taken place. In the interest of public health and safety, the current minister, Glen Murray, should undertake this consultation.

Cycling on roads meant for cars, trucks and other motorized vehicles can be a dangerous form of transportation. Incidents attest to this danger. But, the good news is that bicycle crashes have gone down in line with the general drop in traffic fatalities in Canada. That said, between 50 and 70 cyclists are killed each year by cars. Statistically, a cyclist is safer than a motor vehicle driver or passenger – plus, cycling offers positive health and environmental benefits.

The majority of cycling fatalities – more than 60 per cent – are incurred by riders who are more than 19 years old. Of these fatalities, close to 80 per cent were not wearing a helmet. The lower rate of deaths and injuries for child cyclists is good news. Community bike safety programs and increased helmet use deserve much credit for this improvement. But why has the population of adult cyclists’ fatalities gone up? Demographics are likely a factor; the under-20 age group is now a smaller part of the population than it was 15 to 20 years ago. About 90 per cent of cycling fatalities are caused by cyclists being struck by motor vehicles. Adult cyclists are more likely to ride in heavy traffic or less-than-ideal conditions. For instance, individuals who cycle to work or tour long distances increase their exposure to the hazards of traffic. Intersections can be particularly challenging.

Head injuries, which account for an estimated two-thirds of cyclist fatalities, can be largely prevented by wearing a helmet. Children must wear a helmet by law in most provinces. Adults, by and large, are given a choice as to whether or not to protect their heads. Would fewer adults be killed in bike crashes if more wore a helmet? According to the Ontario Coroner and Prof. Zarychanski the answer is yes. The Canada Safety Council, the Brain Injury Association of Canada and other reputable public health and safety organizations also say the answer is yes. Then why are so many adults so reluctant to wear helmets? Is this an issue of public health, injury prevention and commonsense? Or, is it simply a case of far too many slow learners.

That said, is compulsory legislation the future for all riders, regardless of age? Isn’t this the kind of legislation municipal councillors and Medical Officers of Health right across Canada should be lobbying for? If not, why not?

Emile Therien is a public health and safety advocate and past president of the Canada Safety Council

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