Pages Menu

Column originally published Aug 14, 2001
Column last revised/updated on Sep 11, 2018

Bicycle Helmets Can Prevent Serious Head Injury

Question: I recently visited my sister in Prince Edward Island and took a bicycle tour with my family. We were horrified to see so many kids and adults biking without wearing their helmets. Don’t you think that there should be a law enforcing helmets for cyclists?


You touched on a subject that I have felt strongly about, but was unable to do anything on my own. You are absolutely right, we should have a law that governs bicycle helmets in a way similar to wearing seat belts.

When I was doing research on the subject of bicycle helmets, I talked to Dr. John LeBlanc, another paediatrician who has researched extensively on this subject. Dr. LeBlanc is going to publish a research article regarding bicycle helmets in the near future.

What I found surprised me. At the present time, there are only four provinces in Canada that have bicycle helmet laws. These are British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Of all the Maritime provinces, Prince Edward Island is the only one that doesn’t have a law governing bicycle helmets.

More disturbing is that in some of these provinces, there are citizens trying to have the law repealed. They argued that bicycle helmets have not been proven to save lives. By making people wear bicycle helmets, the law deters cycling and increases use of motor vehicles. This argument seems logical, but it is actually flawed. It is important for us to challenge these views, and make sure the law stays in effect.

Let me present a few important statistics here. Every year about 50 Canadians die from bicycle injuries. Approximately 75% of these died probably because of serious head injuries. Wearing bicycle helmet would not guarantee that it would prevent a person from dying in an accident. However, it has been estimated that around 80% or more of those serious head injuries can be reduced in severity by wearing helmets.

Statistics does not tell us everything about bicycle injuries or effectiveness of helmets. One of the greatest problems is that we do not have a comprehensive record of bicycle injuries in Canada. Most hospitals and health regions do not keep track of bicycle injuries as a separate entity. Therefore, when researchers tried to compile information before and after bicycle helmet legislature, the data were incomplete and often misleading, making it difficult to prove the effectiveness of bicycle helmets.

Another important aspect to consider is under-reporting. Those children and adults who sustained less serious injuries and were protected by their bicycle helmets would not visit the emergency rooms or report to police. It is quite likely there is a significant degree of under-reporting of bicycle injuries than any record can show.

I have seen children with serious head injuries that required emergency surgery to remove blood clots inside their skull as a result of bicycle injuries. The majority of them did not wear helmets. I have also seen children escaped from serious head injuries because they wore their helmets. Some have shown me their badly damaged helmets which have saved their lives. There is no question in my mind that helmets do protect; the difficulty is to convince those non-believers.

I would urge the remaining provinces to pass legislature to make bicycle helmets mandatory. This will not only save lives, but also reduce serious head injuries and subsequent brain damage. The cost of rehabilitation and educating children with brain damage is staggering. The emotional trauma to these families cannot even be measured. It is much better to prevent this from occurring in the first place.

Obviously, just making bicycle helmets mandatory is not enough. The issue is much broader. We need to better educate cyclists and motorist how to share the road to make it safer for everyone. City planners should attempt, whenever possible, to design bike routes for cyclists.

There is also great need to educate the public that such a law is not meant to be punitive. The law is to increase the safety of the cyclists. They should wear the helmet for their own sake, and also to respect the law. The government needs to embark on an educational campaign to improve the effectiveness of such legislature.

Parents need to set an example for their children. It would not make sense if parents do not put on their helmets while they insist their children wearing them. I have often heard the excuse that it is too expensive to buy the helmets. It is very true that helmets are not cheap, but many people are willing to spend a lot of money on their bicycles, but would not consider the helmet as an essential item when they budget for the bicycle. Getting hurt in an accident is much more expensive!

Of course there are truly those who cannot afford the cost of bicycle helmets. I would call on service groups and retailers to supply these children and families with bicycle helmets. Each community can form its own “bicycle helmet safety program” to supply these needy families with the helmets so that they can bike safely. This program will benefit the whole community.

Getting the legislature through any government takes time. We can start right away by making sure our families wear the helmets when we go biking. Having more people wearing helmets can make it a normal (and accepted) behaviour for the community. Teachers can include bicycle safety as part of their discussion whenever they talk about safety issues. We can also contact our local elected officials to express our concern about bicycle safety, and the need for helmet legislature.

We need the whole society to change the way we look at bicycle safety. Biking is very good exercise for the old and young, but we have to make it safer. Even one preventable injury is one too many. Cyclists have to watch and obey traffic laws. Motorists have to take extra caution wherever there are cyclists. Wearing helmets would not prevent injury to other parts of the body. Serious injuries to the head can still happen if the impact is too severe. Accident prevention is very important.

I hope you will be a spokesperson for bicycle safety and take this message to your family, your friends, your co-workers, and your local MLAs.

[Note to Readers: Since the publication of this column, Prince Edward Island has passed a bicycle helmet law. However, this law is seldom enforced. There are plenty of cyclists, especially young people, who don’t wear bicycle helmets.  I have looked after a young boy who fell off this bicycle, had a serious head injury, was in a coma for more than one year before he died. A real tragedy for him, his family, and all of us.]