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Coroner right to urge mandatory helmets for Ontario cyclists

The Toronto Star: Coroner right to urge mandatory helmets for Ontario cyclists

Published On Tue Jun 19 2012

Cyclists refusing to wear a helmet have several practical reasons to go bare-headed. Helmets can be bulky, hot and uncomfortable; they’re inconvenient; they mess up a rider’s hair, and they cost money that could be spent in more pleasant ways. All true. Indeed, there’s just one reason to wear a bike helmet, but it trumps everything else — helmets save lives.

That view is backed by a wide range of experts and it received fresh support this week in a coroner’s report on 129 recent cycling deaths in Ontario. Deputy chief coroner Dr. Dan Cass came to a blunt conclusion: “Helmet use by all cyclists can and will decrease fatal head injuries.” His report called for changing the Highway Traffic Act to make helmets mandatory for all cyclists, regardless of age.

This reasonable safety measure is long overdue. Almost three-quarters of those who died in cycling mishaps from 2006 to 2010 were not wearing a helmet. And 71 cyclists, among the 129 fatalities examined by Cass, sustained a head injury that caused or contributed to their deaths. It’s reasonable to assume a significant number of those lives would have been spared had riders been wearing head protection. At risk of repeating a cliché, wearing a bike helmet is a no-brainer.

Whoa, not so fast, say opponents of a mandatory helmet law — many of whom are, ironically, prominent cycling advocates. They argue that such rules are counterproductive in that they discourage bike riding, hurting people’s health by keeping them inactive. And there’s a body of evidence, much of it from Australia, casting doubt on the effectiveness of helmet laws even in preventing injuries.

The problem with such research is that it tends to be low quality, Cass said in an interview. He cited an Australian poll asking people, before and after passage of a helmet law, how much they cycled. Considerably fewer said they biked afterward, but that’s not sufficient basis for government policy.

“There are certainly good studies” that show the benefit of mandatory helmet laws, Cass said. He recommended that, before bike helmets become mandatory, Ontario public health experts conduct a sweeping inventory of cycling activity. That data would serve as a “baseline” against which changes wrought by the law could be scientifically measured.

Queen’s Park needs to mount up and get rolling on this. Ontario lives would likely be saved by a helmet law. And the province could do cyclists and researchers around the world a favour by providing precise and reliable data on the impact of having to wear a helmet.