Can a bike share program work when helmets are mandatory?
UPDATE: Join Daniel Fontaine for a live discussion on the issue of BC's helmet laws and the bike share initiative. The event is sponsored by 24 Hours Vancouver and starts at 1 pm on Wednesday, June 27th. Click here to join the conversation.
Around the streets of Metro Vancouver, a significant number of cyclists don’t wear helmets. This is despite the fact that in 1996 helmet use became mandatory for everyone riding a bicycle on our roads and bikeways.
Now that Vancouver politicians have decided to sink a few million tax dollars into subsidizing a new bike share system, the issue of helmet use is heating up. That’s because many bike share proponents believe that in order for the scheme to stand a chance at success, Victoria is going to have to abandon its province-wide helmet law.
Both cycling and health advocates have been abuzz on how to handle this thorny public policy issue. Front-line health care providers who work in our hospitals and emergency wards are adamant that helmets save lives and prevent serious head injuries.
Meanwhile, Vancouver’s former city planner Brent Toderian is advocating to relax helmet laws in order to make cities more cycle friendly. He argues public officials should be looking at the macro health benefits of more people cycling, rather than simply focusing on individual injuries.
Even avid cyclist and former NPA city councillor Peter Ladner weighed into the debate. He told The Province, “I think people should wear helmets, I always do. But for short rides it is not necessary.”
The debate has become so intense that cycling advocates have even suggested that if they are forced to wear helmets, so too should car and truck drivers.
This is one debate where I find myself being swayed by both sides. Removing helmet laws will encourage more people to cycle — which is a good thing. But, it would also lead to an increase in the number of serious head injuries.
On the whole, the libertarian side of me is leaning toward supporting the elimination of the mandatory helmet law. While I personally would never ride a bicycle without a helmet, I think government making it illegal is likely doing more harm than good.
What will be interesting to watch at 12th and Cambie is how Vision Vancouver politicians will react to the issue of cyclist safety and the helmet law. If you recall, they pulled out the safety card as the justification to construct separated bike lanes back in 2008. If they oppose the helmet law now in order to prop up their bike share scheme, will their critics accuse them of hypocrisy?
If you recall, it was a little over a year that councillor Geoff Meggs went through a stop sign and had an accident while riding his bicycle. He was hospitalized and suffered from a pretty nasty injury. I have no doubt the fact that he was wearing a helmet helped prevent anything more serious from happening. Therefore, it will be interesting to see if he is prepared to advocate for the elimination of the helmet law for bike share users.
With Vancouver taxpayers spending millions of dollars on a new public bike share program, the time is right to revisit whether we still need a helmet law or not.
- post by Daniel