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Brains matter 

Wheeled travellers have been complaining since the city began enforcing its helmet law in 1997. Sixteen years on, does it still—or did it ever—make sense?

  • Justin Lee

Bike helmets are so contentious an issue that even if they're not at issue, people have issues. Just in time for Bike Week, The Coast peers into the love-hate relationship we have with our helmets. 

Ben Wedge, co-chair of the Halifax Cycling Coalition, says he still gets emails over a mistaken Metro headline last November, claiming that the HCC was "pushing to make helmet laws extinct in Nova Scotia."  

In fact, while the idea to abolish the law received popular support at an HCC members' meeting, the board had not taken a position, and would later vote unanimously to continue support for the helmet law. 

But not before some reaction in the press. After the HCC's fictional anti-helmet-law stance was proclaimed in Metro, health and wellness minister Leo Glavine responded with an op-ed press release saying he will not change legislation that is "helping keep Nova Scotians young and old safe from injury while they enjoy a bike ride."

Nova Scotia started enforcing its helmet law in 1997. With amendments in 2007, the law makes it mandatory for all ages to wear a helmet "for all wheeled activities, whether on public or private lands and roads, skate parks or playgrounds." And contrary to popular belief, yes, you do need to fasten that chinstrap, or else you qualify for the $143.27 fine.

There seem to be (at least) two questions at play in the debate over helmets: First, do helmets work? And second, does helmet legislation work? 

The answer to the first question is almost always yes, though more and more we are realizing that helmets have limitations. 

In a recent story in Bicycling, Bruce Barcott found that while being pretty good at preventing your noggin from splitting open in a direct hit to car or pavement, the average bike helmet does next to nothing to keep our brains from jiggling inside our skulls, causing concussions and other "invisible" brain injuries. 

And while there's lots of research and design going on to build a better helmet, companies are loathe to make and sell helmets with safety claims beyond simply passing the US certification system (which also works in Canada) for fear of getting sued.  

And unfortunately for our delicate, jelly-like brains, Barcott says the certification system is stuck in a legislative mire that makes change in the near future unlikely.

The most oft-cited study on helmet efficacy was done back in 1989, before helmet laws existed, and before there were even any manufacturing standards for helmets. After interviewing hundreds of cyclists in Seattle-area emergency rooms, researchers concluded that "riders with helmets had an 85 percent reduction in risk of head injury."

Since then, a dazzling number of studies have produced slightly less impressive stats on the risk-reduction potential of helmets, but most agree it's significant.

So it's fair to say that helmets do work. Even cycling organizations who vocally oppose helmet legislation for adults recommend that riders choose to wear helmets. 

That brings us to helmet legislation. It seems like a silly question, because if helmets work, then duh, of course making people wear them will work, right? Well, it's not that simple.

A recent Canadian study looking at the relationship between helmet legislation and hospital admissions for cycling-related head injuries found that once you account for the existing pre-legislation trend in injury stats, there was "no independent effect of legislation" on the numbers of cyclists showing up with banged-up heads in emergency rooms.

In other words, things were already getting safer for cyclists, whether it be through safety campaigns, improved infrastructure or voluntary use of helmets. 

In a recent letter to the Chronicle-Herald, HCC board member Clive MacGregor pointed out that while effective, helmets are actually the least effective tool we have at reducing the hazards of cycling. If injury prevention is the goal, then building bike infrastructure–cycle paths, bike lanes, priority signals and bike boxes–is where it's at.

"We know without a doubt when you separate cyclists from cars it gets safer for cyclists," says Ben Wedge. "And it's more predictable for cars. They're not swerving for cyclists. It's better for everyone."

However, the growth of safe bike infrastructure in Nova Scotia is proving to be a much harder slog than the enacting of a helmet law. "Over the last 20 years, the government has simply enforced this helmet law and spent almost nothing on bike infrastructure," says Wedge. 

One of the most common arguments against legislation is that it's keeping people off bikes. And fewer people biking has its own repercussions: a less healthy population, and more accidents because, as the common wisdom goes, there's safety in numbers. 

Unfortunately, there's very little reliable information about our collective cycling habits. Going by Canadian census data, where people were asked how they get to work, Halifax showed a 12 percent drop in cycle commuters between 1996 and 2001. (Our numbers have since climbed back up to 1996 levels.) 

Then again, numbers dropped everywhere in the '90s, says Wedge. Recently they have risen most sharply in BC, under a mandatory helmet law. "The numbers are all over the map, so we can't confidently say it's preventing people from cycling," says Wedge.

Helmet laws do seem to be having an impact in cities with bike share programs. Bike shares thrive on the convenience of being able to grab a bike on short notice for inner city trips. They've seen great success in cities with solid infrastructure and no adult helmet laws, but two of the least successful bike shares are in Australia, where there's a national law requiring helmet use for adults.

The city of Vancouver is currently debating how to implement its bike share program, with press declaring a "cootie conundrum," as people express concern over shared helmets. 

But a cootie conundrum is a long way off for Halifax, where the priority for groups like HCC is just to get "safe cycling infrastructure in places where people actually want to use it," says Wedge.

Meanwhile Douglas Denny, the HCC member (and co-founder) who suggested HCC take up the cause of repealing the mandatory helmet law for adults back in November, would rather put his energy elsewhere.

"The whole helmet thing has really become a distraction," says Denny. "I think in another period of time, we're going to see if helmets are good policy or not. The jurisdictions that don't have mandatory helmet laws, if they continue to leapfrog ahead of us in terms of ridership and ability to get people on bikes, I think we'll know."

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