The idea that helmets are a good idea when out and riding, it goes without saying, is a widely-accepted one. Sometimes it’s mind over matter, inspiring a greater feeling of security on the busy, occasionally precarious streets of Canada’s cities. At other times, there’s a very real, urgent need for them, particularly in competition or when riding on technical ground. Usually it’s as simple as the brain inside your head needing protection. But more specifically, in many cases when helmets are worn by Canadian riders, it’s because it’s the law.
In keeping with that, it’s presumed that helmet laws mean lower rates of injury requiring hospitalization among cyclists. According to a study published recently by the University of British Columbia, though, that’s simply not the case.
The research was conducted at UBC’s School of Population and Public Health, with a focus on the injury rate sustained by cyclists across the country on an annual basis — approximately 3,700 in all. When looking at those numbers, professor Kay Teschke, who published the study’s findings, noted that 25% of those injuries involved serious head trauma. The research didn’t include more athletic, challenging cycling pursuits such as cross-country riding, it should be pointed out, but focused instead on traffic-related injuries suffered primarily by commuters. Analyzing the data, Teschke found that the law of the land in provinces where helmets are mandatory — like British Columbia — got more people wearing them, but did little to reduce the rate of serious, hospital-worthy injury.
In fact, helmet use had almost no effect at all, she said.
“Hospitalization rates varied substantially,” Teschke told Canadian Cycling Magazine, explaining the findings. “For all injury causes, sex was associated with hospitalization rates; females had rates consistently lower than males. For traffic-related injury causes, higher cycling mode share was consistently associated with lower hospitalization rates. Helmet laws were not associated with hospitalization rates for brain, head, scalp, skull, face or neck injuries.”
Put simply, if there are more riders on the streets, then motorists are more likely to keep an eye out for them, she said. And the idea that helmets automatically amount to a reduced rate of injury? In some instances, helmeted cyclists ride faster, elevating the risk of a crash; in others, drivers feel they can drive closer to riders with helmets than riders without them, also raising the likelihood of calamity. In none of the studied scenarios was the possibility of serious injury reduced by helmet laws, she said.
So if helmet laws aren’t the answer, then what is? It’s simple, she says: if more cyclists equal fewer crashes — and therefore fewer injuries — then cities need to be built more progressively in order to accommodate their numbers.
“These results suggest that transportation and health policymakers interested in reducing bicycling injury rates should focus on factors related to higher cycling mode share and female cycling choices,” she said, her team’s research noting that women — who she says typically choose to ride slower and in areas with less traffic — sustained serious cycling injuries far less often than men. “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. This approach to safety is followed in Denmark and the Netherlands where cycling represents 20-plus percent of trips, routes separated from traffic are common, helmet use is rare, and injury and fatality rates are low.”
In short, the public, Teschke told Canadian Cycling Magazine, puts too much faith in helmet laws as a safety policy for cycling. “The results clearly show that other choices — e.g., those made on average by females like slower cycling speeds, low traffic or separated cycling routes — had a dramatic effect on injury risk, whereas helmet laws did not.”
“In my view,” Teschke summarized, “helmet use should be a personal choice and not mandated by law.”