In this week’s episode of “I Can’t Believe We’re Still Talking About This,” researchers in Canada have determined that mandatory helmet laws have no impact on bicycling injury hospitalization rates across Canada. Other factors, namely mode share, were much more likely to affect the outcome.
A team of researchers led by Kay Teschke at the University of British Columbia (UBC) looked at bicycle-related hospitalization rates in different jurisdictions across Canada, some with mandatory helmets and others without. They also looked at other factors which may increase or decrease rates of hospitalization, such as infrastructure and mode share, and then analyzed the data to determine which factors influenced the outcome, and to what degree.
The study is interesting because it’s all contained within a fairly homogenous country with only minor variations in transportation policy, and minor variations in cultural norms around biking. The researchers analyzed each jurisdiction for exposure-based injury risk – the injury rate calculated as injuries per number of bike trips or per distance travelled by bike. “This measure allows between-jurisdiction comparisons of cycling safety, useful for assessing the value of different cycling conditions or laws that could guide future policy choice,” the authors write.
The factors that did have a measurable impact, the team determined, were mode share and sex. “For all injury causes, sex was associated with hospitalisation rates; females had rates consistently lower than males,” the authors explain. “For traffic-related injury causes, higher cycling mode share was consistently associated with lower hospitalisation rates.”
The authors suggest that transportation and health policymakers who aim to reduce bicycling injury rates should direct their focus to initiatives that increase cycling mode share and specifically rates of women cycling. “Bicycling routes designed to be physically separated from traffic or along quiet streets fit both these criteria and are associated with lower relative risks of injury,” they write.
Mandatory helmet laws have already been proven to reduce rates of cycling by either their inconvenience and discomfort, and/or by creating a culture of fear around biking. So if a high biking mode share is determined to reduce rates of injury, and mandatory helmet laws are determined to do basically nothing positive while simultaneously reducing the mode share, we are left only to conclude that mandatory helmet laws are counterproductive to public safety, and should be abolished.
Are we done now? Can we talk about something else?
Authors note: Suggesting an end to helmet laws is not to suggest and end to helmets. This is an evidence-based conclusion and limited exclusively to mandatory helmet legislation in the interest of public health, not a value judgement or opinion on anyone else’s personal choice. There are still many reasons one may want to wear a helmet and is free to do so. Biking really fast, biking in icy road conditions, biking in a city where you’re very likely to get hit by a car and are still waiting on that dedicated infrastructure, these are all good reasons to wear a helmet. Being male, apparently, is a good reason to wear a helmet.
Wear one, don’t wear one, it’s your choice. The point is, the laws are harmful.
Hilary Angus is the Online Editor at Momentum Mag. She recently started wearing a helmet because she drank too much beer and fell off of her bike and her mother made her promise to wear it, bike lanes or not. @HilaryAngus
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