Rather than worrying about potential brain injuries, we should focus more on infrastructural changes that would minimize collisions between cyclists and cars.
Did you know that Ontario’s chief coroner is currently studying pedestrian deaths in the province? If that study is anything like scores of others on the subject, it will find that head trauma is the major cause of death among pedestrians. Yet one assumes that when his report comes out, it won’t include a recommendation to make helmets mandatory for all people walking in public, and that such a recommendation won’t dominate the headlines and subsequent debate about his findings. Sure, some of the 113 Ontario pedestrians who die in an average year after being hit by cars would be alive today if they had worn helmets. But forcing walkers to wear head-gear is a wildly improbable suggestion that wouldn’t address the crux issues of pedestrian safety.
And yet, after studying cycling fatalities in Ontario, the very same coroner released a report last week that recommended, among other things, mandatory helmet use. The coroner listed a number of caveats about the proposal, noting that such a requirement would reduce the number of cyclists on the road, since people who don’t own a helmet or don’t feel like wearing one would be more likely to avoid taking the occasional ride. The report also expresses concern that helmets place the responsibility for the safety of cyclists solely on cyclists, and fail to reduce the likelihood that a cyclist will be struck by a car and injured—they only alleviate the severity of certain injuries. And the report suggests that the public could very well see the mandatory helmet recommendation as the single cure-all for cyclist safety, “with the result that other measures recommended in this review…are de-emphasized or not acted upon.”
And so it came to pass last week. Those “other measures” include investing in education and law enforcement, and making truck side-guards mandatory. But the report’s reluctant embrace of a helmet requirement ate up the headlines. “Coroner probing deaths wants cyclists in helmets,” said the Globe; “Helmets should be mandatory for all cyclists through Ontario: Chief Coroner Report,” said the Post; “Ontario coroner calls for mandatory bike helmets,” said CTV.ca. If you just skimmed the news reports, you might assume that protecting the heads of cyclists was the sole, magical key to unlocking a safe biking future.
Look, I wear a helmet on the rare occasion I take my bike on the road. I think everyone would be smart to wear one. But helmets are, in fact, the wrong solution to emphasize. The difference between a bare head and a helmet only becomes relevant after you’ve been involved in a collision. With cycling, as with pedestrianism, the focus shouldn’t be on trying to ensure some people sustain brain injury rather than death—it should be on preventing people from being struck by cars and trucks in the first place.
Just pretend, for a moment, that we were serious about actually making cycling a safe way to get around. If we were, the coroner’s primary recommendation should be put into play: the creation of “complete streets” that allow cyclists, pedestrians, and motor vehicles to safely share the road. The report also calls for a provincial plan to create more bike lanes and paths, as well as a commitment to fund such infrastructure.
If we were to take action on that proposal—as they have in Copenhagen and are starting to in New York City—we’d not only see fewer deaths as a result of collisions, but fewer collisions altogether. The safety provided by a real network of bike lanes would also make cycling an attractive option to many more riders (unlike helmet requirements, which make cycling more difficult and less attractive). Increased cycling would be good for people’s health, the vibrancy of our streets, and the environment.
Ever since the automobile was invented, we’ve been serious about pedestrian safety—serious enough to create a city-wide network of dedicated walking lanes separated from car traffic (we call them sidewalks) and implement a system of pedestrian crossings and traffic signals to reduce the risks of walking around. In those locations/crosswalks where pedestrians are still endangered, we discuss ways to improve pieces of vital transportation infrastructure.
With cycling, we have never been serious enough, collectively, to take such steps. So even when the office of the chief coroner points us in that direction, all we want to talk about is whether we can force anyone crazy enough to brave the streets on a bike to wear a helmet.