Monday, July 9, 2012

Getting one's head around bike helmets

It was refreshing to read the letter to the editor in the Vancouver Province over the weekend, weighing in on the controversy over bicycle helmets. Bike helmet laws in BC (it's illegal to ride a bike without one in this province) have become a source of discussion, with the City of Vancouver planning to launch a public bike-share program, similar to the Bixis in Montreal (and elsewhere). The essential problem is that the bike helmet laws make it difficult to run a Bixi program, because of the various considerations -- hygiene, sizing, inter alia -- involved in putting helmets on people's heads.

During Velo-city 2012, which wrapped up the week before last in Vancouver (with the brilliant Charter to make sure cycling is fun for children -- huh?), one expert from overseas denounced bike helmet laws, saying separated bike lanes would prevent car-bike accidents and we shouldn't let a fear campaign get in the way of the Bixi program.

Tom Littlewood's letter does a great job of putting paid to that argument. I would add that, while there's no question fear plays too big a role in our society -- consider climate change hysteria, airport security and the latest health warning to get tested for HIV even if you don't shoot drugs or have sex with people you shouldn't -- in this case, the argument doesn't wash. As Tom points out, you can have a bad injury on a bike without the assistance of motor vehicles or your own carelessness.

When my wife first moved to Vancouver 7 years ago (before we were married), she went for a bike ride on the Stanley Park Seawall. Somehow, she lost control and fell, doing a head-plant against a rock. She was wearing a helmet, which was cracked by the impact. Aside from a few bumps and bruises, Amelia was OK, but there was no question that things would have been a lot different if she hadn't been wearing a helmet.

When I was a teenager living in West Vancouver, I rode my bike a lot, including to school, which was called Hillside for a very good reason: it was perched about a third of the way up Hollyburn Mountain. Riding down that very steep hill, I remember glancing down at the front wheel and seeing little shreds of rubber appear from my riding the brakes. I didn't wear a helmet -- none of us did -- but rather than rhapsodize now about the sense of freedom, the wind in my hair and the bugs in my teeth, I think back now in horror to what a damn fool I was not to be protected (I even rode home a couple of times from a job at Panorama Studios along the Upper Levels Highway, for the luvvaMike).

But maybe the answer isn't in having a law requiring helmet use. After all, it's near-impossible to enforce and frankly, police have better things to do (and in today's media climate, even if police did bust someone for not wearing a helmet, the person getting the ticket would be portrayed as a victim of police harassment). I have a modest proposal: make helmet use optional, except for children under the age of 12. But here's the key: people think they have a "right" to go helmetless and have that feeling of freedom. Fine. But as Abraham Lincoln (I think it was) once said, "my right to swing my fist ends when the other man's nose begins"*.

In other words, exercising your freedom is just fine, until you start affecting others; and the sad fact is, if you suffer a debilitating injury, you are now affecting taxpayers who have to pay for your care; you're also affecting anyone who's dependent on you for income, love and support.

Anyway, instead of making helmet use mandatory, write it into our laws governing public medical care that if you exercise your freedom to choose not to wear a helmet on a bike, you automatically forfeit your right to have your medical care paid by taxpayers if you suffer a head injury as a result. Some accidents are not preventable, but the head injury could be, so even if a car driver is 100% at fault, if that helmet could have prevented the injury, sorry, pal: you're on your own.

(Case in point: as I write this, sitting outside on my patio overlooking a traffic circle in the West End, a cyclist who was clearly already in the traffic circle and thus had the right-of-way had to hit the binders to avoid being hit by a car whose driver didn't know or care about the rules of the road. The cyclist was not wearing a helmet. Had there been a collision, it could have been extremely messy and regardless of who was at fault, he would have been the loser.)

To make things a bit more interesting, maybe require bike-sharing companies to post graphic warnings at their rental stations about the possible consequences of not wearing a helmet or else they're partially on the hook for medical costs, too. After all, they stand to benefit from repealing helmet laws; this would also level the playing field for the bike rental companies that make sure their customers are properly fitted with helmets.

There could be an avenue of appeal: a medical panel could give an opinion that a helmet would not have prevented the injury, anyway; and if there are severe multiple injuries, that would change the picture, as well.

Bringing the broader effects of exercising this "freedom" into the conversation is certainly something worth considering. After all, it only takes an eye-blink to go from having the wind in your hair to a feeding tube down your throat.

*It may not have been Lincoln, but usually, anyone who quotes Lincoln in a discussion of personal liberty is usually credited with winning the argument.


  1. In many of these opinion pieces on cycle helmet law, when you get right down to the middle of the article, you find that the author had an experience where someone they know suffered in a cycling accident. In some way, they think that this puts them in a unique position of perspective. I'm sorry, but you're wrong.
    Our society is becoming more and more risk averse to the detriment of people just trying to live their lives. Your "sensible" measure is someone else's infringement of civil liberties.
    But in the effort to make life as "safe" as possible, where does it end? Far more pedestrians are killed and maimed crossing the street than are from bike-related injuries. A very large number of serious accidents occur in the kitchen. Should we prevent cooking or at least legislate all the risk out of it?
    We hear now that with infitness and obesity on the rapid rise, people are avoiding cycling with bike share schemes because they don't want to carry a helmet around with the. That is the real issue. We try to tackle a small perceived problem and miss the bigger picture.
    Objective perspective is needed in this debate.

  2. Oh, and by the way, I pay taxes too and they pay for my health care. Advocating that I should not be covered for injuries obtained by accident is pretty disgraceful.
    Tell you what, let's take your proposal one step further.
    "John" is suffering from depression. He can't take it any longer and swallows a bottle pills to "end it all". The ambulance turns up and they manage to revive him. After he recovers and enters rehabilitation, the hospital sends him the bill. After all, he did deliberately try to take his life and it's not fair for society to pay for his health care is it?
    We should *never, ever* go down that road.