Cycling in Vancouver: Revisiting ‘The Great Helmet Debate’


Although bikes obeying stop signs is a close second, there is no more divisive issue related to cycling than that of the law requiring all cyclists to wear a helmet.

It amazes me how heated emotions get on this one issue. Helmet use has been in the news again after a helmetless man struck a pedestrian on Vancouver Island and died as the result of his injuries.

On April 1st this year, the Vancouver Observer took the helmet law to a “logical” place and suggested (tongue firmly in cheek) a helmet law for pedestrians.

In BC, the provincial helmet law was enacted in 1996 -the first in Canada. The City of Vancouver highlights the relevant parts of the Motor Vehicle Act. The Vancouver Police Department may issue helmetless bike riders $29 fines.

Helmet-law proponents

Helmet-law proponents cite studies that show wearing a helmet reduces the likelihood of brain injury when falling off your bike. Countless people who have fallen off their bike, struck their head, and not had a brain injury cite their helmet as the reason and emotionally support the requirement that everyone wear a helmet to save themselves and not become a burden on the public health care system.

Helmet-law opponents

Helmet-law opponents cite studies that show that bringing in helmet laws have, in a number of jurisdictions, had little to no effect on the rate of serious head injuries due to cycling. Countless people who have been cycling for years without a helmet and not fallen off their bike and suffered a brain injury point to themselves as evidence that there is no need to way a helmet. Opponents also cite studies that indicate helmet laws have suppressed bicycle use. Others view helmet laws as governments over-regulating people’s lives.

De facto helmet use in Vancouver

In Vancouver, helmet use varies by the type of cyclist. In my experience most commuter cyclists wear a lid. Almost all the hard-core roadies do too. The helmet use rate drops considerably when you look at the casual cyclists: those on the seawall, or just out cruising the neighbourhood. The helmet-law has been cited as an obstacle to implementing a bike-share program in Vancouver.

I’m not going to argue one side or another here. It’s almost impossible to find objective information on one side or the other: the statistics all seem flawed or skewed in some manner, and personal stories, while compelling, are anecdotes, not data. Instead, I’m interested in the discussion: Do you wear a helmet when cycling? All the time? Why or why not?

For what it’s worth, I always wear a helmet, and I require my kids to do the same.

Last modified: April 2, 2012

15 Responses to " Cycling in Vancouver: Revisiting ‘The Great Helmet Debate’ "

  1. Ruth says:

    I do because why on earth wouldn’t I? They’re not expensive, they’re not uncomfortable, and while I hope I never need it, if I do it will have been the best $30 I ever spent. Also, I make my daughter wear one, so in all conscience I have to wear one too.

  2. Brock says:

    Being a mountain biker for many years, not wearing a helmet just feels wrong.

    Being an Aussie from Melbourne, it is easy to see the reason the bike share program there doesn’t work is because of the compulsory helmet laws.

    A Melbourne newspaper wrote an article on the bike share program and compuslory helmets.

  3. Barrett says:

    There’s lots of evidence that helmets are ineffective, and possibly increasing your risk of harm in a crash. The fact is they just aren’t designed well. They’re designed for walking speed, and a single collision only. The number one cause of injury to cyclists are cars. When you get hit by a car, you impact twice. Once when you bounce off the car, and another when you hit the pavement. You’re also invariably going faster than walking speed.

    There will always be the crowd who thinks that wearing a helmet will make you safer – but that’s not what the data says. Those wearing helmets are hit more often, and cars pass closer to cyclists wearing helmets.

    Clubs have to wear helmets – in order to be part of a cycling club or team you must have a cycling license, which dictates that you wear a helmet in any sanctioned activity, which means racing, or just out for the Saturday ride with the team.

    The biggest harm with helmet legislation is that it makes bikes inaccessible. Rather than encouraging people to hop on, and perform a safe way of getting places, encouraging fitness, and reducing the cars on the road, we make it so you have to pack a helmet around all day, and your ridership tanks. The net effect is that you are encouraging driving or taking transit, rather than something healthy, and the greater cost is in healthcare for the many thousands who don’t ride versus the one head injury (of which the base risk is not significantly different in terms of statistics than walking.)

    So, we ignored the actual data, and made a law to score some political points. How very BC of us. This isn’t the seatbelt battle redux – because that actually had data to support it. This is the “my big heavy car will protect me better than those crumple zones.” We’ve chosen the answer before asking the question.

    I say all this as someone who has been hit twice in the last two years, and smashed up 2 helmets. The main problem is our road system, secondly, cyclists doing stupid things.

    Roundabouts scare the life out of me. I’d rather have a stop sign. Cycling routes, like off-broadway should be 30km/h, so that people aren’t using them to blast through like Schumacher. Beach/Pacific, Point Grey Road are 30km/h playground zones, yet it doesn’t stop people from getting all ragey when I slow down to 30 on the bike. Make driving on shared street a pain, so that people only want to go a block or two. Put in crossing signals on the main streets. Alma and 8th – nightmare. Same with Macdonald. Burrard and Granville are OK. Arbutus sucks. Put them on a timer, so I don’t have to ride up, press the button, wait and then get going again.

    Cyclists – you need to grow up. Stop passing cars on the right. If their signal is on, you’re asking to be hit. It’ll be a nudge, but there are no gentle impacts with a car, trust me. Stop blowing lights. Slow to a near stop when you roll through stop signs, don’t rely on someone else’s ABS. While you may have the right of way, defensive driving still wins.

    Here’s a good summary. – “Mikael Colville-Andersen – Why We Shouldn’t Bike with a Helmet”

  4. Phil says:

    ^Great topic, thanks for the post! I think Barrett above pretty much nailed it.
    Only I totally disagree with an increase in stop signs and lit intersections – I love round a bouts. They can be dangerous but, according to studies and the book “Traffic”, they’re A LOT less dangerous than the average intersection.

    But on the subject of helmets – I wear one. But I’m seriously considering why I bother after being exposed to similar findings that prove drivers take bigger risks around riders they perceive to be less prone to injury (wearing helmets) – when these funky chunks of plastic strapped to our heads to little if anything to protect us. The 2 impact argument is true – an impact with a car will be a double-bounce and helmets aren’t designed to protect you from that.

    In regards to the law – it’s total bullshit to ticket people for this. Much the same way it is to ticket them for not wearing a seat belt. Even if you could objectively prove wearing a helmet will save your life 9/10 times, I don’t believe someone should be forced to wear it via threat of financial loss. That’s the thinking of a bullying parent, penalizing children for making their own decisions on matters that affect them individually.

    In any case — I still wear mine out of habit, not out of any firm belief that it protects me, PLUS I don’t want a ticket. And yes, any riding club or cycling event in the city will require you to wear one to participate so – best be prepared for this bully :/

  5. Bill Barilko says:

    I only wear a helmet because I don’t like being stopped by the police.

  6. Chris says:

    I wear a helmet, and probably always will, but I’m against mandatory helmet laws. I’ve read enough studies to realize that they cause more harm than good (by discouraging cycling).

    Sure they might prevent brain injury in a some percentage of accidents, but so would always wearing a helmet when walking or driving a car.

  7. Euge says:

    I always used to wear a helmet, and have a healthy commute each day.
    One night I was not in the best shape and had an accident (pole and concrete, not car) and based on the cracking to the back of my helmet, I could tell that the force that caused that could have caused more like a concussion if not a crack to my skull without the lid on. Now I will definitely always wear one, I like having my head too much. Helmet laws should be enforced, helmets do reduce head injury, why not? It’s like helmets in sports, these days they’re a no-brainer, why take the risk?

  8. Ruth says:

    The question was “Do you wear a helmet?”, so I answered that. Most of the other commenters appear to be answering a totally different question: “Should there be a mandatory helmet law?” That’s a whole different debate. The VACC (soon to change their name I understand) takes the stand that helmet use is recommended but should not be mandatory and should be up to the individual. (Mind you, they require helmets to be worn on their courses, presumably for liability and insurance reasons.)

  9. Diana says:

    I wear a helmet 90% of the time, but there are occasions when I leave it at home, like when I’m just going on the sea wall for a leisurely ride or maybe going for dinner/drinks somewhere and don’t want to be bothered (not all the time, but sometimes).

    Of course there’s a risk on those off times I don’t wear a helmet that I’ll actually need one, but there’s lots of other risks in life that we ignore all the time. And I know it’s dumb of me, but I think I ride a little more defensively (responsibly) when I’m not wearing a helmet. Yes, that is dumb and I probably shouldn’t do that.

    So, I agree with wearing a helmet but don’t agree with helmet laws.

  10. I have exchanged emails with the Mayor, several City Councillors, Premier, and Attorney General on this subject. My wife and I have both been ticketed TWICE, riding our sit-up bicycles slowly along the 10th Avenue Bikeway. Their response is always the same: helmet laws save lives (with NO evidence, statistics, or facts to support this claim). In fact, the studies show the opposite. Mandatory, all-age bike helmet laws cut the number of cyclists in HALF, and actually cause more deaths (due to inactivity) than they “save”: In a province with 1.5 million overweight/obese people, this should be paramount. NOT punishing people for making the right transportation decisions. This law needs to be repealed now!

  11. Alex P says:

    Careful, this question always starts a holy war 😀 I always wear one riding in Canada and the US, and would even if it wasn’t the law. However, I don’t like it being the law for the deterrent it has on potential riders who might otherwise been riding, as evidence has shown, thereby keeping people from getting exercise they might otherwise be getting, or clogging the roads with their cars or space on the busses. I wore one when I was in the UK in London as it’s common there and their roads make ours look tame in my opinion, but in my several trips to the Netherlands and Denmark, I did never wear one, as I would have been the only one and they have a very very good separated lane system.

  12. Leo says:

    Hi, thanks for posting this article, it is a great topic to discuss. Yesterday Friday April 13 a woman got hit by car I think on Alma and 3rd Ave, thanks God she was wearing a helmet because the windshield’s car was broken ,but she got injured on her legs ans was bleeding too.

  13. Anthony says:

    Thanks for all the comments. This is a discussion that will continue on, and on, and on for the foreseeable future.

    @barrett You make lots of good points. I hope to have a series of “what’s wrong with the bike routes” posts.

    @phil I’ve got the statistics sitting here (somewhere) on the ICBC reported bike/vehicle accidents and intend to see how they map to roundabouts. A cursory glance seems to indicate that there are more accidents at the roundabouts but correlation doesn’t imply causation. In this case, the roundabouts are usually at higher-volume routes (both bikes and cars) so without knowing the traffic volume numbers, it’s hard to draw any conclusions. Anecdotally, I find I have many more “adverse interactions” with both vehicles and cyclists who either don’t understand how to navigate them or wilfully ignore the rules. This makes them quite dangerous.

    There are lots of anecdotes about people getting in accidents who feel that wearing a helmet prevented a head injury, but there’s the correlation/causation issue again. Did the helmet truly prevent an injury? Many of the statistics suggest that helmet use doesn’t decrease cycling deaths or serious injuries, but minor injuries are under-reported and the statistics on those aren’t so good.

  14. JD says:

    As a paramedic I’ve had to learn about impacts to the human body in relation to speed, objects hit and other forces involved. There are multiple impacts when you stop a human body, including internal organs and other flying objects, whether you’re riding or driving.

    If you all want to argue about ridership, “perceived” driver perception (drivers are so distracted I doubt they care about whether a biker is wearing a helmet or not…) or whatever, fine. Have at it.
    To me the debate on helmet use isn’t a debate when you’re riding in traffic. Wear it, period. When you’re zipping along at a clip and you bail by yourself, your skull will not enjoy the feeling of cement. Even WITH a helmet, your brain bobbles around inside your skull (and then we can talk about the potential for injuries depending on which side your skull hit first, based on the anatomy of the inside of the skull. Hint: Its not all smooth).
    When you don’t have a “Crumple zone” to absorb some of that impact (like the helmet provides) all that force is transferred straight into your brain.
    And when your skull fractures and gets knocked inside the cavity, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the injury potential is much higher.

    Children under 18 without helmets is criminal to me, because they are that much more susceptible to injury (and this goes beyond cycling). It gets my blood boiling to see children not wearing helmets, because they don’t know better and the adults should. If you still think your children shouldn’t be wearing a helmet, go volunteer in Children’s Hospital with trauma-related head injured children and then tell me its worth the risk based on your statistics.

    Those of you not wearing a helmet out in traffic, you’re just jerks. Its not fun for me when I’ve got to deal with you when you’re combative, vomiting, not breathing or otherwise severely messed up because there is swelling in your head, or spinal fluid is coming out of your ears..because you didn’t want to wear a helmet.
    The same goes for people not wearing a seatbelt. You’re not pretty when you go through a windshield, but then again most of the time I’m not having to ‘work’ on you very much…

    I will however consent that for leaisurely rides in parks like along the seawall, helmets shouldn’t be mandatory. Sure, you could still receive a head injury, but you can do that from standing. Tecnically, according to my protocols, if you were to fall straight back from standing I’m to treat you as if you were a high-risk for skull and cervical (neck) fractures. So if that exists for standing I’ll consent it consists for casual rides. However, we don’t all wear helmets walking, and there has to be a point where safety relents to being able to just go out and do it.
    No this doesn’t include kids. Helmets at all times, please. Seriously.

    I think it would be a good compromise to amend the law to when you are on streets. Like seatbelts, a helmet could be the law-required safety gear you must tote to be out on public streets. But when in parks you would be excempt from this. Otherwise I feel like the public is being treated to the same ridiculous extent that WorkSafeBC takes its safety coverage, where safety is almost a hazard of itself and its making work almost impossible in some fields.

    Sorry if the post was too long, but I had to get this out somewhere.
    This post is probably dead anyway.

  15. kitsgirl says:

    If you refuse to wear a helmet because you think your above it all, then maybe you can sit and rot (or die) in the emergency room and all medical staff will treat you last! Why should we come running when you CHOSE not to protect yourself? Or maybe if you want medical treatment you can pay for it if you CHOSE not to protect your head? Sounds good to me, and it will keep the wait times down in the ER.