Imposing Bicycle Helmet Laws in Montreal: Good Idea or Not?

Imposing Bicycle Helmet Laws in Montreal: Good Idea or Not?



Lately, in Montreal, there have been a lot of cycling accidents reported in the media. These reports have resulted with the general public having the perception that cycling is highly dangerous. According to the most recent report made by Vélo Québec, in 2010, when Quebecers were "asked what keeps them from using bicycles as a means of transportation, four out of ten [of them] mention the risk of accident or injury. One third of cyclists see this risk as a deterrent, and 43% of non-cyclists agree. This perception is not confirmed by reality: in 2009, there was one death per 120 million km covered by bike in Québec".

The Issue

At the core of this issue, there are several proposals to partially solve this problem, including among those the imposition of a law to force cyclists to wear helmets. Proponents of this idea, cite numerous head injury reports involving cycling, arguing that city officials should step up with a mandatory helmet law to protect cyclists. Opponents, however, estimate that people have enough government intrusion in their lives, and should not be told what to do. In addition, there is concern that helmet laws would deter people from cycling, thus limiting the growth of this activity or refraining cyclists of casually using the bike-sharing system (Bixi). But before proposing any ideas or reaching conclusions, it is important to examine the cycling accident figures to have a better idea of what is actually going on.

Some Facts and Figures

The most recent assessment done by the Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal (SPVM) is shown as follows: "In Montréal, the assessment of incidents between road vehicles and cyclists reveals that there are nearly 650 collisions annually. In 2011, the number of fatalities among cyclists remained the same, at 10% of all traffic fatalities. In 3 out of 4 fatal collisions, the cyclist's behaviour was the cause. This year, cyclists suffered 6 more serious injuries than in 2010 and 112 fewer minor injuries. It is important to note that helmets are becoming far more popular, reducing the risks of head trauma among cyclists." The same Vélo Québec 2010 report cited before confirms the SPVM's assessment: "More and more Québec cyclists own a bike helmet: 45% owned one in 1995, 61% did in 2000. This percentage climbed to 67% in 2005, reaching 74% in 2010. Thus, 2.3 million Québec adults own a bicycle helmet. Helmet use is increasingly common among adults. In 1995, the net rate of helmet use was 36%. Fifteen years later, it was 57%. In 2010, 65% of cyclists, under 18 years of age, wore helmets, a 3% increase since 2005. Of these children and teens, 62% said they wore a helmet at all times". On top of this, the SPVM has significantly increased, over the past 5 years, the amount of violations given to cyclists, which range from skipping a red light or failing to ride in the proper direction: in 2007 the Police issued 1877 violations, which have increased steadily every year for a total of 6809 violations in 2011 alone.

A general assessment on cycling safety, done by Vélo Québec shows the following statistics: "The number of cyclists who died due to an accident in Québec has remained stable for some years now. In 2005, there were 16 road fatalities; four years later, the toll was unchanged. From 1990 to 2005, five out of six deaths (84%) were the result of accidents involving a motor vehicle. In half of cases (49%), the cyclists collided with a car and in 30%, with a truck. Collisions between two bicycles or with a pedestrian were extremely rare: they accounted for just over 3% of cases. Finally, 13% of deaths were the result of falls or of collisions with stationary objects. From 2004 to 2009, the number of serious injuries fell by 40%, from 189 to 114. Cycling causes fewer injuries than most other physical activities. There are 11 medical consultations for every 1000 cyclists. This is half the figure for downhill skiing, three times less than running, four times less than baseball. (...) As many studies have shown, the more cyclists take to the roads, the fewer accidents occur. Faced with a greater number of cyclists, drivers are more aware of their presence. And as most people on bikes are also drivers, more cyclists also mean more drivers who are aware of cyclist behaviour and safety. From 1987 to 2010, the total number of bicycles more than doubled in Québec, and the number of regular cyclists has increased by 50%. Nevertheless, there was a parallel 58% decline in cycling accident deaths. Moreover, serious injuries fell by 72% and minor injuries, by 52%. In this respect Québec is not an isolated case. In the Netherlands, from 1980 to 2005, the popularity of cycling increased by 45% while the number of road accident victims fell by 58%. Canadian provinces that have invested most in cycling have seen an increase in cyclist numbers and a decrease in cycling accident death rates. This has been the case in Québec".

Forcing Helmets on People is Simply not a Good Idea

Taking a closer look at all these numbers reveals a very different perspective of what the media seems to be focusing on. There is no substantial evidence to suggest that cycling accidents have increased or that it is more dangerous than previously thought. What is even more interesting is the fact that the usage of helmets has substantially increased, despite having a law that requires using them. Some media reports keep pushing city officials to impose helmet laws, but the same reports do not seem to be showing the public the actual statistics. It would appear that the culprit in most bicycle accidents was not wearing a helmet, but, often, it is rather careless drivers or sometimes irresponsible cyclist behaviour. And although helmets do, in fact, protect against head injury, forcing people to do it does not seem like a solution to decrease accident occurrences. Instead, it seems that what is actually working is the expansion of the bicycle infrastructure and motorist awareness of cyclists.

A good example of how ineffectual bicycle helmet laws are is Australia. The Institute of Public Affairs Review based in Melbourne, Australia, published an April 2012 article that analyzes the implications and consequences of bicycle helmet laws in that country. Helmet laws were imposed for all ages in Australia since the 1990s, going as far as making it a criminal offense not to wear a helmet. Those laws, the article explains, have not improved injury rates and have caused general cycling discouragement. When looking at 20 years of research, no evidence has been found that wearing a helmet would cause lower cycling accident rates among riders. Though acknowledging the fact that helmets do protect against injury, the article contemplates also that head injuries are uncommon in cycling accidents. The author goes even further and discusses that cyclists who wear helmets engage in riskier riding behaviour than those who do not use them. As soon as the laws went into effect, cycling trips declined by about 30 to 40 per cent, and the author cites a survey that determined that people would ride bicycles more often if there were no such laws, which has prompted city officials in Sidney to recommend eliminating them altogether. Furthermore, the article finds more compelling data when comparing the health benefits of cycling with the accidents it causes: "By any measure, health problems associated with a lack of exercise are a far greater problem than cycling head injuries in Australia. According to the Heart Foundation, lack of physical activity causes 16,000 premature deaths each year, swamping the 40 or so cycling fatalities." The author concludes: "After 20 years, the results are clear: the compulsory bike helmet experiment has failed. We need to amend the law to allow adults the freedom to choose if a helmet is necessary when they cycle."

A Different Perspective

More recently, however, it is not just the media that is pushing an agenda on the public to impose helmet laws in cyclists. As it turns out, even doctors have called for the law, as it is shown in a recent CBC article: "Pediatricians are gathering at Ste-Justine Children's Hospital Wednesday morning to ask the Quebec government to make helmets mandatory for cyclists under the age of 18. (...) Dr. Tarek Razek, director of trauma services at Montreal General Hospital, agreed that creating safer spaces for cyclists around the city would have a greater impact than any other measure, including helmet use. But he said several studies have shown that helmet laws do not reduce ridership. (...) In Ontario, all cyclists under the age of 18 face $60 fines if they fail to wear a helmet. (...) The report said every single one of the cycling deaths in Ontario between 2006 and 2010 was preventable." While this cited doctor's opinion is hardly debatable, it is interesting to note he acknowledges the fact that creating "safer spaces" has more of an impact than helmet use. Though he manifested that "several studies" show there is no link between lack of ridership and imposing helmet usage, the Australian example seems to be the most compelling, because those laws have existed in that country for over 20 years, giving enough time to analyze the data. It is not possible to know for certain that what occurred in Australia would replicate here, but so far this seems to be the most plausible scenario. Additionally, while the CBC article cites the Ontario deaths could have been preventable, so could be a number of other activities, such as skiing, running, hiking, or even smoking. Focusing on only one element when there are even better options to prevent cycling accidents seems to be a narrow way of thinking.

Final Recommendations

It is easier to point out problems than to provide solutions or recommendations. People dying on the streets, because they simply go out riding a bicycle is a horrible tragedy. But accidents do occur, no matter what, even if the government attempts to prevent them from happening. The numbers are not going to be perfect when looking at cycling accident statistics. More often than not, the government makes the problem bigger than what it actually was. Officials in Australia were well intentioned and they probably responded to the majority of the public, when they imposed those bicycle helmet laws. But on the long run, it did not seem to work. One of the reasons as to why cycling is attractive to many people is the freedom. Taking that away from them means destroying that idea. With tons of rules to follow, imposing even more laws deprives individuals from having one of the last few experiences available to the residents of this great city.


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