More evidence that Helmet Laws don't make us safer

Today we learned that U of T researcher Jessica Dennis found helmet laws do nothing to reduce rates of hospitalization for head injury. We can add this to the other studies that have successfully questioned the usefulness of helmet legislation.

There has been a lot of confusion between statistics that show that helmets reduce head injuries and helmet laws which are designed to force everyone on a bike to wear a helmet. While helmets arguably reduce head injuries (although even here there is some contra-evidence), the fallout of helmet laws have been unclear at best and negative at worst. Dennis' study focused on rates of hospitalization across Canadian provinces and compared provinces that implemented helmet laws to those that didn't with their relative hospitalization rates for head injuries. They found little evidence that helmet laws did much to reduce injuries across a population.

Rates of hospitalizations for any cycling-related injury decreased by 28% (95% CI 22.8-33.2) among individuals younger than 18 in provinces with helmet laws and by 22.3% (95% CI 15-29.6) in areas without the laws, "suggesting fewer young cyclists, improvements to cycling safety, or a change in hospital admission policies," according to the researchers.

Hospitalizations for any cycling injury among adults hovered around 10 per 100,000 person-years in provinces with and without the helmet laws, with no significant differences seen.

Despite these decreases, the segmented regression analysis found no "meaningful changes" on hospitalization for head injury.

This study had a narrow focus on just hospitalization and didn't take into account whether people were discouraged from cycling because of helmet legislation. The Ontario Coroner's report on cycling deaths, however, also noted that before implementing a helmet law that the negative effects on cycling need to be also taken into consideration. One problem they found in their review of deaths due to head injuries was that the rate of helmet wearing for young cyclists was much lower than for adults even though helmets are mandatory for under 18 cyclists!

Some research exists which suggest that the health benefits of helmets may be outweighed by the detrimental effects on overall health in the population through the decrease in cycling activity in jurisdictions where helmets have been made mandatory.

The Coroner stressed that because of the possible negative health effects of a helmet law that the Province undertake an evaluation that begins "with a critical appraisal of the existing literature from jurisdictions in which mandatory helmet legislation has been implemented, and the collection of high-quality baseline data on cycling activity in Ontario."

I'm a pragmatic person that thinks that helmet promoters and helmet pro-choicers can co-exist here. I'll happily not bug you for choosing to wear a helmet (or for not wearing one while driving) while taking for myself the freedom to choose when and where I'll wear a helmet. A helmet is like a talisman. It may provide some protection in a limited fashion to a small part of your body, but it has little to no usefulness when forced on a whole population.


The whole point is that a helmet is most emphatically NOT a talisman. It is a protective device that protects the head against some impacts. It is part of the fifth and final layer of safety.

When helmets are put into that context, rather than being treated like some impressive safety campaign, maybe we can have a rational discussion of helmets rather than more "helmet wars".

In my opinion, mandatory helmet use is waay down the list of things that prevent cycling from being more widely adopted in Toronto. Lack of bike lanes and the general ambivalent attitude of the police toward cyclist safety are what keeps new cyclists off the roads. what the U of T study shows is that our roads are not safe regardless of whether or not you are wearing a helmet.

Statistics are of course important, especially when considering a legal enforcement of any kind. If we are to be legally required to do something, and the statistics suggest that it will be of little use, this is a concern.

I have no idea of mandatory helmet laws discourage riding, and I also don't know if people who wear helmets are more likely to believe themselves to be invincible, and thus take more risks.

However, statistics are anonymous, accidents are personal. I have been in two accidents in my cycling life, in both cases my helmet cracked but my head didn't. So maybe it doesn't mater for the "average" cyclist, but it mattered for me.

I respect those who choose to go without, but I would never do so myself, law notwithstanding.



Last year I was travelling home on Lakeshore when I hit a pothole. I went over the handlebars. I had a black eye and badly skinned knee and shoulder.

My helmet was cracked from where I hit the road. My head was not. I believe I would have been quite badly hurt without a helmet. At minimum an ambulance ride and emergency room checkup.

My helmet has seen action twice, but on my terms, and both times I was at fault. Statistics, for what they're worth, suggest that we ought to wear helmets in most any case a serious head injury occurs - that includes riding in a motor vehicle and taking a shower.


I share your views on personal accidents. I've been in two and both times I got some nasty bruises and pretty profound road rash. Both times my head impacted the road hard enough to damage the helmet I was wearing. I'd like to think I avoided a trip to hospital as a result.

My choice is to wear a helmet, but it really is a personal decision.