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Cyclists may not like them, but helmet laws work

A cyclist rides with a helmet near Parliament Hill on July 8, 2010. Provincial governments should force anyone riding a bicycle to wear a helmet, says the co-author of a new report that found helmet use varies greatly across Canada.

Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Mandatory bike helmet rules may be viewed by some as overbearing, intrusive and anathema to the romantic wind-in-the-hair image of cycling. They do, however, appear to be effective.

A Canadian study indicates that provinces that force cyclists to don helmets have the highest helmet use. The more comprehensive the law, the better, it found.

"The time to pass legislation was probably 10 years ago, but it's not too late," said Ryan Zarychanski of the University of Manitoba, principal researcher of the study.

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Helmet use is linked to a reduction in head injuries. But critics of mandatory rules often say laws can be a turnoff for would-be cyclists, who see helmets as everything from cumbersome to hot to unfashionable.

Nonsense, say the authors of the study, which appears in the August edition of the journal Injury Prevention. After studying health data, they found that helmet legislation introduced in two jurisdictions, PEI and Alberta, had no negative impact on bicycle use.

Meanwhile, the two provinces with helmet laws applying only to under-18s - Ontario and Alberta - showed lower compliance rates than provinces with across-the-board laws, even among the younger age groups.

"We want to tell kids that everyone wears a helmet; it's not just because you're small that you have to," said Dr. Zarychanski, an emergency-room physician in Winnipeg.

The findings were like a stick in the spokes in Canada's cycling capital, Montreal, where many if not most of the cyclists heading home on a downtown bicycle path Tuesday afternoon were helmet-free.

Even the province's main cycling lobby, Vélo-Québec, opposes helmet laws. Suzanne Lareau, head of the group, said bicycle paths and a strong bicycle culture, along the model of European cities, have contributed more to cycling safety than helmets have.

Montreal is closer to cities such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where helmet use is rare but cycling widespread, she said.

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"[Mandatory laws]put into people's heads that bicycling is so dangerous that you've got to wear a helmet," Ms. Lareau said. "It's also saying that a helmet is a panacea. But that's false. A car can hit you at 70 kilometres an hour, and helmet or no helmet, you have very little chance of coming out alive."

That appeared to be the view among many of the cycling commuters heading home on one of Montreal's jammed bicycle paths. Marie-Ève Bournival doesn't wear a helmet and frowns on making them mandatory.

"I like to have the freedom to choose to wear one or not," the 25-year-old said. "It's my safety. And if I were hit by a car, I don't think a helmet would make a difference."

Geronimo Inutiq, riding bare-headed, said that helmet-free cycling is part of Montreal's " laissez faire attitude."

"I find helmets encumbering and uncomfortable," he said.

But downtown office worker Nicolas Poisson, his head encased in a Bell helmet, favours a law. "A lot of people don't wear them, and they seem to be the biggest daredevils. In the end, when they get hurt, all of society pays for them."

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Canada is a patchwork of bicycle helmet laws. British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and PEI have laws applying to all ages; Quebec, Newfoundland, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the territories have none.

Helmets were used by 73 per cent of cyclists in Nova Scotia, where helmets are mandatory, compared with only 27 per cent of cyclists in Saskatchewan, where no law exists, according to the study. In Ontario, the rate was 40 per cent.

Charles Tator, a Toronto neurosurgeon and founder of ThinkFirst, a non-profit organization for the prevention of brain injury, said he sees too many injuries in his practice brought about by not wearing a helmet.

"You can buy yourself protection for a small amount of money," he said. "And these can be lifelong injuries."

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More

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