Thursday, November 11, 2004

Helmet hair sucks, but what can you do?

With his latest column, Andrew Coyne has not convinced me that there are not compelling reasons to make it mandatory to wear a helmet while bicycling. He cites sketchy statistics that say that bicycle helmets aren't "great lifesavers," but there are plenty of sketchy statistics that say otherwise. For example, two thirds of bicycle accident deaths are from traumatic brain injury and "a very high percentage of cyclists' brain injuries can be prevented by a helmet, estimated at anywhere from 45 to 88 per cent."

Po-tate-oh, po-tat-oh... Anyone who has ever gone spiralling head over heels off their bike and landed on their head (me!) knows that a helmet is probably all that stood between them and living in a wheelchair for the rest of their lives.

More annoying than Coyne's stance is his machismo about the issue. "What has become of us?" he writes. "How did we contract this morbid aversion to risk? When did we turn into such wusses?" All right, all right... Go shoot a deer or something.

It's one thing to go all adolibertarian and rebel against authority and decide that you're not going to wear a bicycle helmet in order to Fuck The Man. It's another to say that those who value their safety are wusses...

The way I figure it, if the government can make us wear seat belts, they probably have just as much right to make us wear helmets. I guess it's rationalized as a cost to Medicare or something...

Anyway, what interested me about Coyne's article was this bit:
Is there, first, an epidemic of bicycle deaths that demands this legislation? Are children and adults cracking open their heads with appalling regularity? No, they are not. Across Canada, cycling deaths in the last 15 years have averaged 78 per annum. That's 78, out of something in excess of 10 million cyclists (defined as people who had ridden a bike in the last three months), or about one death for every 128,000 cyclists. There are more deaths, most years, from falling out of bed. [Ed. note: I'd like to see Coyne's strong statistical basis for this.]

What is more, the rate has been falling steadily for most of the last 30 years. (From 1975 to 1987, cycling deaths averaged 128 per year.) Is that because of mandatory helmet laws, enacted in six provinces over the last decade? No -- pedestrian deaths have fallen by almost exactly the same proportion in that time, notwithstanding the scandalous absence of pedestrian helmet laws, and for the same reason: because fewer cars are crashing into them. Most traffic deaths are caused not by cyclists or pedestrians falling on their heads and killing themselves, but by motorists in large, heavy vehicles, against which helmets offer little protection. Drunk-driving laws save lives. Bicycle lanes save lives. Helmets do not.
Okay, ignore that last line about helmets not saving lives and let's talk about the smart part: Yes! Most bicycling deaths are caused by collisions with motor vehicles. I agree entirely that the effort being put into making helmets mandatory -- frankly, if people don't wear them, well, too bad for them -- should be put into making cities safer for bicyclists.

Bike lanes save lives. The helmet law is a patronizing and unimaginative solution to our problems, somewhat akin to putting parachutes in office buildings to prevent death by terrorist attacks. Let's attack the problem at the root and make our cities more bicycle friendly.


I have an admission to make: Though I bicycle as my main method of transportation in Toronto, I don't wear a helmet. Why? It's uncomfortable and gives me helmet hair! That's the truth! Also, I think I'm invincible and smarter than cars! True, also! Even after a near-death experience where a helmet probably saved my life!

So, really, who am I am fault Coyne for his machismo? I'm a vain idiot!

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