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Chris Bruntlett rides his bike on the 7th Avenue bikeway without a helmet while on his way home after work in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday June 21, 2012. (DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Chris Bruntlett rides his bike on the 7th Avenue bikeway without a helmet while on his way home after work in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday June 21, 2012. (DARRYL DYCK FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

public safety

Cycling helmet laws not so clear-cut on many issues Add to ...

Chris Bruntlett ditched his bicycle helmet for the first time last summer, even though it’s against the law to pedal without one in British Columbia.

He used to wear a helmet religiously, but that was when he lived in Toronto and had to navigate the city’s notoriously car-clogged, bike-lane-scarce streets. Vancouver, his home for the past four years, is a cyclist’s paradise in comparison. The West Coast city has more than 400 kilometres of bike routes, including two downtown thoroughfares recently lined with barriers to separate riders from drivers.

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“Vancouver is light years ahead of Toronto,” said Mr. Bruntlett, who designs residential buildings for a living. “The infrastructure is so good here that I felt a helmet was completely unnecessary.”

The father of two young children, who still wears a helmet at times, is not the only one flouting the province’s protective headgear rules. He’s part of an emerging movement in B.C. that is urging the government to repeal one of Canada’s oldest bike helmet laws and give adults the freedom to choose just as Ontario begins contemplating whether to make headgear mandatory for all riders in the wake of a chief coroner’s review that found only 26 per cent of 129 cyclists killed in five years was wearing a helmet.

The coroner’s helmet recommendation, one of 14 proposals aimed at bolstering bike safety across Ontario, is the most controversial. Helmet laws always are.

Opponents argue making headgear mandatory can deter some people from cycling, hamper bike-sharing programs, delay other safety measures such as cycling lanes, and prompt helmet wearers to take greater risks because they believe their heads are completely protected.

Then there’s the issue of intruding on personal rights.

“What’s next? Are we going to legislate protective eyewear? How about mouthguards?” questioned Mike Wedmann, 45, who dons a helmet when he cycles in Toronto but doesn’t think it should be mandatory. “How much do you do to protect people from themselves?”

But proponents of helmets believe the brain is worthy of protection, likening headgear to seat belts: Both reduce injuries and deaths and are used more often when legislated. Indeed, helmet use in Canada is highest in provinces where it’s mandatory for cyclists – 66 per cent in Nova Scotia, which adopted all-ages legislation in 1997, compared with 22 per cent in Manitoba, which doesn’t have a bike helmet law.

“I see people not wearing helmets and I’ll speak up every time. Head injuries don’t get any better with age,” said Northern Ontario resident Michael Doyon, who supports expanding the province’s helmet law to adults.

Mr. Doyon was in a bad bike crash about a dozen years ago. His 10-speed bicycle hit a deep crack in a highway and he flew over the handlebar, smacking the pavement. When he regained consciousness, emergency workers were hovering next to him. His helmet was cracked, but his brain was uninjured.

“The only reason I didn’t basically kill myself is because I was wearing a helmet,” Mr. Doyon, 62, said.

For policy-makers, though, the matter isn’t so clear-cut. Helmet laws are rare worldwide and research on their effects is not extensive or definitive.

Several provinces in Canada were, in fact, early adopters of helmet legislation after some Australian states began mandating protective headgear for cyclists about two decades ago. New Brunswick, British Columbia and Nova Scotia made helmets a must for all riders in the mid-1990s. Prince Edward Island followed suit in 2003.

In Ontario and Alberta (and soon Manitoba, with legislation proposed last month), bike helmets are mandatory for minors but not adults. Many pediatricians in Quebec want their government to act too, gathering at Ste-Justine Children’s Hospital in Montreal recently to urge helmets be made mandatory for cyclists under 18.

Initially, some surveys showed bike ridership dropped in Australian states after bike helmet laws were introduced, but it’s unclear whether the decline persisted. A Canadian study published in 2010 did not detect a decline in ridership in provinces with helmet laws, but noted children were less likely to wear protective headgear if the rule didn’t apply to adults.

But what about injuries? The number of serious head injuries from cycling has dropped in Canada, to 665 in 2009-10 from 907 in 2001-02, but, according to a yet-to-be published study, it doesn’t appear helmet laws are the chief driver behind the decline. In evaluating data from 1994 to 2008, Canadian researchers found that helmet legislation on its own had no measurable effect on the rate of hospitalizations for cycling head injuries. Other factors, such as increasing bike lanes and safety campaigns, might play a greater role.

“There is uncertainty whether this one tool, combined with everything else, makes a large difference,” said the study’s co-author Ryan Zarychanski, who’s a critical care doctor in Winnipeg and an avid cyclist who wears a helmet. “Does that mean legislation doesn’t work? I don’t know. It means it’s complicated.”

At the Sled Island music festival in Calgary on Saturday, Shane Rempel was to spend his day handing out bike helmets to people who pay what they can through donations. He’s part of Prohab Helmet Society, a non-profit organization founded in Vancouver in 2009 to encourage cyclists to use helmets.

One of the group’s main challenges is the helmet’s image. It’s trying to push protective headgear at a time when cycling chic is gaining popularity.

“The image barrier is huge for a lot of people. A lot of people are worried about messing up their hair or they think they look stupid in a helmet,” said Mr. Rempel, whose cousin died of a head injury after crashing on a bike in B.C. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.

For Mr. Bruntlett of Vancouver, which is playing host to a global cycling planning conference this week, his decision to flout B.C.’s bike helmet law isn’t about image. It’s about personal choice and about the bigger picture. He and others with the bike advocacy group Sit Up Vancouver believe helmet laws paint cycling as dangerous and are killing the utility bike ride – short, slow trips to the neighbourhood park or corner store.

“The message that you need a helmet to ride a bicycle ends up turning a lot of people away and they just end up taking the bus or their car instead,” Mr. Bruntlett said. “There are so many other ways, much more important ways, to make cycling safer.”

Bike helmet legislation and use in Canada

British Columbia

Law applies to all ages

Took effect Sept. 3, 1996

Fine: Up to $100

Helmet use: 59%

Alberta

Law applies only to minors

Took effect May 1, 2002

Fine: $69

Helmet use: 48%

Saskatchewan

No provincial legislation

Yorkton is the only municipality in the province with a helmet bylaw

Helmet use: 23%

Manitoba

Under-18 helmet legislation proposed last month

Helmet use: 22%

Ontario

Law applies only to minors

Took effect Oct.1, 1995

Fine: $60

Helmet use: 34%

Quebec

No provincial legislation

Some municipal bylaws

Helmet use: 26%

New Brunswick

Law applies to all ages

Took effect Dec. 15, 1995

Fine: $21

Helmet use: 51%

Prince Edward Island

Law applies to all ages

Took effect July 5, 2003

Fine: up to $100

Helmet use: 51%

Nova Scotia

Law applies to all ages

Took effect July 1, 1997

Fine: up to $128.75

Helmet use: 66%

Newfoundland and Labrador

No provincial legislation

Some municipal bylaws

Helmet use: not available

Yukon

No territorial legislation

Whitehorse has an all-ages helmet bylaw

Helmet use: 51%

Northwest Territories

Territorial legislation permits municipalities to pass helmet bylaws

Inuvik has an all-ages helmet bylaw, $25 fine.

Helmet use: 28%

Nunavut

No legislation

Helmet use: not available

Sources: Safe Kids Canada; Think First Canada; Statistics Canada 2009 survey

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