statistics

Two-way cycle tracks are fine, just look to Montreal

Rue Berri cycle tracks

Are two-way (or bidirectional if you prefer) protected bike lanes "dangerous"? Some of the opposition to the Harbord proposal are fomenting fear and doubt by claiming as much. There's even a "No Danger Lanes" facebook page decrying the bidirectional for Harbord.

Let's put this question a different way. Has there been an uproar in Montreal about death and destruction because of their plentiful bidirectional bike lanes? Has there been a bloodbath that we've been ignoring?

I might have missed something but I think not. Montrealers seem to be plenty angry at their corrupt mayors but when it comes to their bidirectional cycle tracks (aka protected bike lanes), the overwhelming majority of people seem to be happy and there's been no outcry of cyclists getting injured on them in great numbers.

And Montreal isn't alone. Cycling nirvanas like Amsterdam also have bidirectional cycle tracks and the people seem to be happy with them, or at the very least accepted them.


A bi-directional path. Photo: Mikael Colville-Andersen.

So let's use some common sense. Two-way cycle tracks are not dangerous. They are safe and people are comfortable with them.

Is this a bloodbath you were looking for?

You might say, "Well that's all well and good but what about this Montreal blogger who seems to have discovered the dangers of Montreal bidirectional?"

Let's take a look.

This Montreal blogger is David Beitel who made a claim that the cycle tracks in Montreal have an "elevated risk" of cycling accidents. He pointed out that two of the cycle tracks had the second and third highest number of accidents between cyclists and drivers in Montreal out of all streets.

You might exclaim: holy crap, why are all these cyclists getting injured on cycling infrastructure? Let's rip it all out!

But let's not get carried away. Beitel falls for a common error: he provides absolutely no context to the data; no denominator to put his data into proper perspective. The denominator we need here is the number of people cycling on each street.

Without a denominator of the cycling traffic volume, we might as well just conclude that riding on a highway like the Gardiner Expressway is the safest. Highways typically have very few cycling crashes. But they also usually have next to zero cyclists using them. Because it's illegal.

Beitel's approach cannot avoid absurd conclusions.

When we take into account cycling traffic volumes we would find that the cycle tracks in Montreal, such as De Maisonneuve and Berri, are actually not dangerous at all. When cycling traffic increases we will typically see some uptick in the number of car-bike collisions. And we realize that even though a highway may have zero cyclist colliding with drivers, it might be because there were no cyclists there.

So Beitel's conclusions are junk and anyone here in Toronto who references Beitel as "proof" of the danger of bidirectional is plain wrong. If you're curious you can read a bit more about this in the Evidence Training Guide created for cycling educators by the Cycling in Cities group at the University of British Columbia (particularly pages 2, 3 and 43 in the sidebar).

Bidirectional cycle tracks are probably safer

Of the scientific evidence we do have, we could make a safe bet that 1) bidirectional cycle tracks are probably safer than riding on the road and 2) cycle tracks in general are safer than bike lanes.

In a study headed up by Harvard's Dr. Lusk, it found that Montreal's two-way cycle tracks were shown to be "either lower or similar injury rates compared with bicycling in the street without bicycle provisions".

Lusk found that Rue Berri (as pictured above) had a lower risk (0.48) than the reference street of Denis. Reference streets are always considered to be 1 for comparison purposes. Being below one means a street is safer than the reference.

Overall, the study found that the cycle tracks they studied (all of which were bidirectional) had a 28% lower injury rate. Lusk concluded that their "results suggest that two-way cycle tracks on one side of the road have either lower or similar injury rates compared with bicycling in the street without bicycle provisions. This lowered risk is also in spite of the less-than-ideal design of the Montreal cycle tracks, such as lacking parking setbacks at intersections, a recommended practice."

Cycle tracks (one and two-way) are safer than the road

Cycle tracks in general are safer than both riding on the road or even riding in a painted bike lane. The following diagram from UBC's study of injuries and bike infrastructure describes it well:

Cycle tracks beat all the other options for on-road infrastructure by a mile.

Where possible, build unidirectional otherwise bidirectional works

This all being said, the cycling infrastructure guides are now usually recommending unidirectional over bidirectional. Vélo Québec's Planning and Design for Pedestrians and Cyclists, for instance, says (p. 80):

"On-road bike paths should preferably be unidirectional. Bi-directional paths offer effective safety between intersections but complicate traffic at intersections. In fact, they increase the number of conflict points between bicycles and turning vehicles."

"Preferable" but not always possible.

This is fine in an ideal world. But we live in a world with physical and political constraints. We don't have the political sway to force politicians to ignore merchants and take out all the parking on any of our major arterials. Bidirectional is seen as a compromise: cyclists get something safer, more comfortable and merchants get to keep some on-street parking. For instance, Councillor Vaughan has publicly stated that on Harbord it is bidirectional or nothing:

“The bi-directional protects the parking that is needed,” says Vaughan. When asked for specific numbers his assistant helps out: “Right now there are 48 parkings spots – and with the bi-directional plan, we are trying to salvage 95 to 98 per cent of parking.” The unidirectional plan would take out all of the on-street parking.

“If the choice is bi-directional or nothing then bi-directional is safer,” says Vaughan.

So we are fighting for bidirectional on Harbord and possibly on more streets in the future with similar constraints. And we will work with traffic planners and the community to make them as safe as possible. There are number of tools at the planners' disposal: separate light phases, improved sightlines, markings through the intersections, signage, bump-outs and so on.

References

Motorist impunity and the fear of cycling

Memorial banner

As the Toronto Star reports, Initial reports of the crash that killed Tom Samson indicated that he had run a red light. The police and prosecutors have now stated they do not believe Samson ran a red light; instead, they believe he had stopped, properly, to make a left turn when a van hit him from behind. The Star reports, quote, "It’s unclear what prompted the change."

Infographic: how cyclists will go out of their way to travel on comfortable bike lanes

Thanks to Iain Campbell for this great infographic "Two Wheeled Traffic, or why bike lanes work"! It shows the bike traffic volume relative to the size of the road. Thus a street like St. George has only two car lanes but carries many more cyclists than nearby Queen's Park/University with its 8 lanes. Iain's data came from the City's 2010 Bike Cordon Count, which counted bike traffic into and out of downtown over 24 hours.

Iain's infographic provides a strong visual of how bike lanes are a much stronger magnet for cyclists than the importance of a road for car traffic. It strongly suggests that people will go out of their way to travel on a more comfortable, less stressful street with bike lanes. This is why I believe that separated bike lanes on Richmond and/or Adelaide will be a big draw for people of all ages, shapes and sizes.

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.

Jarvis Bike Lane Usage Continues to Increase in 2012

Bike traffic on Jarvis Street has nearly quadrupled since Spring 2010

Cycling traffic continues to increase on Jarvis Street despite the decision to remove the bike lanes. John Taranu and the Ward 27 Cycle Toronto group, which includes Jarvis Street, conducted a bike count this month from morning to dusk and found a doubling of a previous doubling of cyclists:

As you probably know, the City of Toronto undertook cyclist counts on Jarvis St in 2010 and 2011, before and after the installation of the Jarvis bike lanes. However, no cyclist counts have been done since then. We decided to do our own counts by videotaping the street for an entire day in October 2012 from a location overlooking Jarvis (at Isabella) and then counting the number of cyclists per hour. The results were surprising.

Cycling use has continued to increase steadily since 2010, the last year counts were made. From spring to fall 2010, after the bike lanes were installed, the number of cyclists nearly doubled. Since then, from fall 2010 to fall 2012, the number of cyclists has nearly doubled again. Even two years after the installation of the lanes, more and more cyclists are using the lanes.

In morning rush hour, from 8AM to 9AM, there are around 1000 southbound cars using this section of Jarvis, and over 100 southbound bicycles (according to the City count). The bicycle mode share is 10%. By installing bike lanes, the overall capacity of Jarvis has been increased by 10% in just two years!

These counts were taken at Jarvis south of Isabella, a section that sees somewhat less bicycle and automobile traffic than further south at College and Gerrard. It is likely the same trend holds further south.

A few notes are needed to explain the methodology. The videos were taken on October 2nd and October 3rd 2012, from 8AM to 7PM when there is sufficient daylight. The early morning and evenings are too dark to be able to see the traffic. The video was sped up 4x to make counting easier. Only southbound cyclists were counted; the videotaping location meant that some northbound cyclists obscured by cars. The video for Tuesday October 2nd is available online here: youtu.be/NJl_tZMxsGM.

Where will the people go once the lanes are removed?

Bike lanes and quiet streets make cycling safer, but the safest of all are cycle tracks: study finds

The Cycling in Cities program at the University of British Columbia has published the results of their ambitious study and revealed that bike lanes and quiet streets make cycling safer, but that separated bike lanes (cycle tracks) provide the most safety. In their study of 690 injured cyclists in Toronto and Vancouver who ended up in emergency rooms, they've found that bicycle infrastructure had a positive effect on cycling safety. Not surprisingly people prefer bike lanes, bike paths and quiet streets to just regular roads (as discovered their earlier study).

The researchers also found that major streets with on-street parking were the riskiest streets for cyclists, and particularly for Toronto cyclists, major streets with on-street parking and streetcar tracks.

We found that route infrastructure does affect the risk of cycling injuries. The most commonly observed route type was major streets with parked cars and no bike infrastructure. It had the highest risk. In comparison, the following route types had lower risks (starting with the safest route type):

  • cycle tracks (bike lanes physically separated from motor vehicle traffic) alongside major streets (about 1/10 the risk)
  • residential street bike routes (about 1/2 the risk)
  • major streets with bike lanes and no parked cars (about 1/2 the risk)
  • off-street bike paths (about 6/10 the risk)

The following infrastructure features had increased risk:

  • streetcar or train tracks (about 3 times higher than no tracks)
  • downhill grades (about 2 times higher than flat routes)
  • construction (about 2 times higher than no construction)

The Toronto Star's story focused exclusively on the danger of streetcar tracks, but they missed the bigger story that it's not just the streetcar tracks but parked cars that make things particularly dangerous for cycling. Not only does Toronto have few alternatives to streetcar streets downtown, almost all of them allow car parking for most of the day, thus providing only a very narrow comfortable space between parked cars and streetcar tracks. Even though streetcar tracks are involved in a third of cycling injuries, half of those injuries were the result of parked cars:

Motor vehicles were involved in many injury events beyond direct crashes. For example, nearly half of crashes involving streetcar tracks involved maneuvers to avoid double-parked cars or cars moving in or out of parking spots.

It's highly possible that the danger of streetcar tracks can be mitigated in Toronto by removing on-street parking and providing bike lanes (or at the least sharrows). The researchers may have found much different results if that were the case.

The same researchers are applying their research to improving cycling education. For instance, no cycling courses currently cover route selection even though studies have shown that bicycle infrastructure make people safer. They also recommend that cycling education begin to cover the circumstances when motor vehicles are likely to pass closely. Their recommendations were to:

Include information about the relative safety of route types and route characteristics to help cyclists plan their routes, in particular:

  • decreased risk associated with bike-specific route types, including cycle tracks, bike lanes, and bike paths,
  • decreased risk associated with routes with low traffic volumes, including residential street bike routes,
  • increased risk associated with roundabouts or traffic circles at intersections, and
  • increased risk after dark on routes without streetlights.

Include information about motor vehicle passing distances, so cyclists understand circumstances when motor vehicles are likely to pass closer to them, in particular:

  • where motor vehicle speeds and traffic are high,
  • where there is motor vehicle traffic in the opposing direction, and
  • when the passing vehicle is a heavy vehicle such as a truck or bus

Taking the lane: when simplistic advice can make things worse

Taking the lane in theory

Take the Lane!

You may have been advised that the best way to be safe is to take the lane. Everyone from public space advocates to CAN-BIKE instructors to the League of American Bicyclists and CyclingSavvy promote taking the lane when a cyclist can't safely share the lane with a car. While taking the lane can be an effective strategy as a cyclist, it should not be taken as helpful in all situations. In fact, in many cases it may cause more problems than it supposedly solves.

Lane Position on a Wide Road

All the main North American cycling courses discuss lane position and largely agree that when lanes are wide enough the cyclist can easily share the lane with a motorist, so long as the cyclist rides far enough from the curb (about 1 metre out). The League of American Bicyclists states that a cyclist should:

  • Ride in the right third of the right-most lane that goes in the direction you are going
  • Take the entire lane if traveling the same speed as traffic or in a narrow lane

According to my CAN-BIKE handbook, the general rule is to "maintain one metre from the curb or from parked cars". But that rule only applies when there is enough room for the car and bike side by side. "If the lane is too narrow or there is an obstruction that narrows the lane then take the whole lane."

CyclingSavvy is more dogmatic in insisting that the lane be at least 14 feet wide in order to safely share. Very few lanes in Toronto meet this criteria. By any of the courses criteria, a cyclist would find themselves on a road that the courses would advise them to take the lane. But there's a problem with that simplistic prescription.

When taking the lane won't work

In the top diagram (I used the icons from the Toronto Cycling Map) we see how taking the lane is supposed to work. The lane is too narrow to share so the cyclist takes the lane. This, according to the courses, sends a message to the traffic behind that they should safely pass in the next lane instead of squeezing the cyclist into the curb. When practised in a large city like Toronto, results will be mixed. There will be drivers who willingly wait behind until it is safe to pass. In my experience, however, it is just as likely that the driver is impatient or annoyed. And, once in a while, we will even encounter an enraged driver.

The cyclist, particularly if they are young or elderly, will feel intimidated or be threatened by drivers behind them. Most of the drivers will keep calm and even if they are annoyed are willing to wait. But it's a crap shoot if we'll meet a driver who openly threatens by driving closely, swearing at the cyclist, revving their engine or honking, or even passing as closely as possible to "teach the cyclist a lesson". It's those situations that can leave even seasoned cyclists shaking, stressed or even injured if the driver manages to sideswipe. In those cases, any safety benefit of taking the lane is lost.

These drivers are not evil people out to get cyclists. Rather, annoyance builds up to such an extent from frustrating downtown traffic that they are more likely to get road rage and take it out on someone on a bike. Particularly if they've been conditioned to see cyclists as not having a "right" to the road and see them as blocking their path. Road rage can cause people to take risks that they wouldn't normally take when they are calm. It's not a medical condition per se, but Wikipedia mentions there is a link to "Intermittent explosive disorder", which is listed as a medical condition under impulse control disorder.

You can create your own experiment on the stretch of Shaw Street from Dundas to Queen. The lane is too narrow between the parked cars and the central meridian to share. According to the theory the best thing the cyclist can do is take the lane. Having ridden this stretch many times I have come to dread the sound of an approaching car behind me. Mostly the driver will wait, but a high number of them will start honking or even find any gap in the parking to try to make a quick pass.

Very few people would never get stressed or have some fear building up. Can we read the mind of the motorist? The only evidence of their intentions is by their actions. If they start honking or revving their engines they might be trying to just intimidate but who knows. It's a crap shoot.

In this situation we would best deal with it by pulling over and quickly getting out of the way of the driver, hoping that they'll just move on instead of also stopping to harass us.

Toronto's not exceptional in having frustrated drivers. As Easy as Riding a Bike notes that "[n]o-one seems to have told U.K. drivers about it. Putting yourself out in the middle [of the] road can, in my experience, appear to some drivers as an act of deliberate provocation. They don’t have a clue what you are doing." And Volespeed goes even further, stating that Taking the Lane, or "primary position", embodies a dishonesty.

The phrase, I believe, originally came from motorcycle training. But as applied to cycling, it doesn't make the same sense as it does in motorcycling. The "primary position" cannot be the primary position for cyclists on roads where the speeds are almost always far in excess of most people's top cycling speed. Some fit, young cyclists can cycle at 20 mph on the flat, but few of our roads have a 20mph limit, and in the more normal 30-limit urban areas, typical speeds are up to 45, in reality, where the roads can take it. So even fast cyclists stand little chance of maintaining the primary position most of the time. A more normal cycling speed, even with the current cadre of cyclists, would be 10–15mph. For them, in being sold this "primary position" theory, they are clearly being sold a lie. And this is to say nothing of the currently largely-excluded groups that we want to get on bikes: children, the unfit and the elderly, who are not going to do more than about 8 mph.

Fast suburban but narrow lanes
In Toronto's suburbs most arterial streets have high average speeds of greater than 60 km/h. Many of these suburban arterial lanes are narrow. It rarely make sense to take the lane on these streets. The high speeds and the fact that no driver is expecting to see a slow cyclist means that taking the lane can be inviting danger. In fact, CAN-BIKE teaches that on fast arterial streets that cyclists should actually ride close to the curb - 1/3 metre instead of the typical 1 metre.

Crowded downtown streets
In downtown Toronto the situation is different. We have arterial roads with on-street parking, narrow lanes, lots of traffic and often streetcar tracks. Streets like King, Queen, Dundas, Ossington, Dovercourt, College and Bloor. It would be quite hard for the typical Toronto cyclist to avoid these streets completely. What cycling courses don't teach is how the average cyclist can best deal with these streets. In theory, it would seem that taking the lane is the best and only option. The sanest approach to riding such streets is often to ride somewhere between the parked cars and the middle travel lane.

The above diagram is a typical streetcar street outside of rush hour: parking on both sides of the street and the middle travel lane is busy. Using the Take the Lane principle the best and only correct position would be A. This would be the best way to both avoid opening car doors and overtaking cars. In theory. In reality very few cyclists can ride fast enough to keep up with the peak speeds of cars. Cyclists may be able to easily keep up with motorists because cars often get stuck behind other cars, but when there is open road in front, all too often a cyclist who is taking the lane is seen by motorists as trying to deliberately anger them by blocking their path. These drivers will soon be itching to pass and will often pass quickly and unsafely. Riding out in the middle in front of a line of frustrated drivers is emotionally stressful. The average person can only handle so much intimidation from drivers.

Even if you're one of the very rare persons with an exceptionally thick skin that can take all matter of verbal abuse and threatening behaviour, you'll soon feel like a schmuck as you get stuck behind backed up car traffic while the rest of the cyclists filter up in the right lane.

99% (give or take) of all downtown cyclists ride in position B most of the time. It is a position that makes the best of a bad situation. I find that the best position is on the left edge of the right lane, as far as possible from opening car doors with enough room on the left for cars to pass in the left lane. It's not ideal but such is life living in a car-centric town.

Which position is safer?

Some educators claim that taking the lane is safer than staying to the side. The claim is that a cyclist is more likely to be side swiped than struck from behind. There are two issues with this conclusion: one, the statistics don't back this up, and two, even if there was evidence of this, the studies don't report what position the cyclist had taken on the roadway prior to their crash. From the available evidence we can't conclude that cyclists out in the middle of the lane are less likely to be struck than those on the side.

One of the best-known and comprehensive cycling safety studies was done in 1994 by Alan Wachtel and Diana Lewiston. They noted that being struck from behind accounted for only 5 of the 314 (1.6%) bicycle-motor vehicle collisions they studied. But side swipes were also only at 8 out of 314 (2.5%). It's not clear if either number is statistically significant., though given that most cyclists I've observed tend to stick to the curb, it doesn't seem to be a high number at all.

There is a further problem with trying to using Wachtel-Lewiston study to support taking the lane. The study doesn't report the position in the lane of the cyclist before they struck, only if they were on the roadway or sidewalk. Thus it's unclear if taking the lane will make any difference in either being struck from behind or in being side swiped.

I have had close calls being close to the curb as well as while trying to take the lane, for different reasons. The cyclist does not have complete control over the reaction of the driver. By being close to the curb a driver may see it as an opening and squeeze the cyclist to the edge. But by taking the lane a frustrated/enraged driver may find the first opportunity to pass and then pass as closely as possible so as to teach the cyclist a lesson. I've experienced both.

Two other studies are not much help either. The Toronto car-bike collision study 2003 and the major 1977 Kenneth Cross study (clearly getting a bit dated) only reported on collisions where the motorists were overtaking, and did not differentiating between "side swipes" and struck from behind. We can't draw a conclusion from either study that we're better off taking the lane. In the Toronto study the top three collisions downtown in terms of severity of injury were 'Motorists Overtaking', ‘Dooring,’ and 'Motorist Left-Turn Facing Cyclist'. Being more visible can likely decrease the risk of any of these, though it's unclear how far out a cyclist should ride. In the case of dooring, riding far enough out to be able to quickly avoid opening car doors is a good idea.

Holding to the dogma

Cycling education in North America still doggedly sticks to the take the lane philosophy with varying degrees of exceptions. These courses are mostly based on a cookie-cutter "vehicular cycling" philosophy that was developed in the 1970s by mostly fit, young people (the "father" of this movement was John Forester). Courses like CAN-BIKE or Cycling Savvy owe their roots to this movement, and continue to mostly stick to a worldview that is not always based on the best evidence. Instead there is a lot of the anecdotal evidence of a sub-group of people who were at the top of their faculties and fitness (obviously they're all elderly now). That these courses continue to hold whole-heartedly to this worldview does a large disservice to all the people who don't fit into that sub-group, particularly to those who are not in the prime of their life or fitness, or are too young.

There aren't hard and fast rules to cycling safely; there are many Toronto streets downtown and in the suburbs that defy the simple lessons taught in the cycling courses. Cycling educators have also tended to ignore or dismiss cycling infrastructure that makes it easier for different traffic modes to coexist. I have found a course like CAN-BIKE useful, and in fact, I had taught CAN-BIKE for a number of years. But I think it's time for CAN-BIKE to be rebuilt taking into account the wealth of knowledge coming out of Europe and increasingly in North America as young and old, able and disabled start cycling in our cities.

Cycling education shouldn't be about going fast, and safety should be available to the slow and fast, young and old. Education is also an alternative to improved cycling infrastructure. Really, we want both.

I hope to be looking at other cycling education themes in future posts and look at how we can think beyond a pure "vehicular cycling", one that acknowledges the inadequate infrastructure and that cyclists need to find a way to make good of a bad situation until things improve in our cities.

Helmets may protect your head but mandatory helmet laws will likely make cyclists less safe

Some BC citizens are ramping up a campaign to get rid of the mandatory helmet law in British Columbia. Next year Vancouver will be launching a bikesharing system and this would be a good time to either get rid of the law or exempt bike-sharers. One of the only poorly performing bikesharing systems happens to be in mandatory-helmet haven Melbourne, Australia.

The anti-mandatory activists in BC may be making a very good point as economist Charles Komanoff explained on Streetsblog recently. Mandatory helmet laws are unlikely to make cycling any safer and could actually make things worse by turning people off from cycling (by as much as 20 to 40% in Australian states and cities!). The head protection that helmets give are then outweighed by the poorer health of those who decide not to cycle and a worse 'safety-in-numbers' effect for those still cycling.

Komanoff points out three key areas which helmet legislation proponents ignore:

  1. They ignore the possibility that some non-helmet wearers will cycle less or will refrain from taking up cycling in the first place rather than use a helmet or risk being cited for riding bareheaded.
  2. They ignore safety-in-numbers, or, in this case, its inverse, by which having fewer cyclists on the road tends to raise per-cyclist crash rates with motor vehicles, as cyclists’ diminished presence on the road leads drivers to treat them as aberrations rather than as part of traffic.
  3. They overstate helmets’ protective value in reducing injury severity in the event of crashes.

In the following two photos it's actually the father and daughter without helmets on Dutch separated lanes, and not the woman with the helmet and safety vest in the middle of Brussels traffic who are likely to be safer. Infrastructure and behavioural changes (such as in the Netherlands) have had a bigger impact on safety for cyclists then mandatory helmet legislation (such as in Australia).

Wary Brussels cyclist

Bike path alongside road

Helmet legislation certainly has the intended effect of increasing helmet usage. But as Komanoff shows in his chart, it can be easily offset by the decrease in the safety-in-numbers effect. Part of the confusion in all this lies in the fact that proponents have assumed what is true in case-control studies is also true across a society. Case-control studies have suggested that cyclists who choose to wear helmets usually have fewer head injuries than non-wearers. The same is not true for a society where helmets have been made mandatory. Before and after data show enforced helmet laws discourage cycling but produce no obvious response in reducing the percentage of head injuries. Dr. Dorothy Robinson looked at all jurisdictions that had introduced legislation and increased use of helmets by at least 40 percentage points within a few months: New Zealand, Nova Scotia (Canada), and the Australian states of Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, and Western Australia. When looking at head injuries he found that there was no clear evidence that the reduction in head injuries can be attributed to helmet laws. In all cases head injuries were dropping anyway. Robinson also found that in Australia cycling rates were increasing before helmet laws put the brakes to it.

The reasons helmet laws aren't working may be partly due to risk compensation where people feel that they can take greater risks when wearing a helmet; they might be wearing the helmet incorrectly. Some of the researchers also made incorrect adjustment for confounding variables in case-control studies where they misjudged how much of the effect was due to helmets.

Helmets also aren’t very effective in reducing injury damage to cyclists who are struck by cars, one of the main reasons to wear one in the first place.

The most authoritative epidemiological analysis of helmet efficacy to date, a study of 3,390 cyclist injuries reported from seven Seattle-area hospital emergency departments and two county medical examiners’ offices, summarized in Injury Prevention in 1997, found that helmet-wearing conferred only a 10 percent reduction in severe injury rates; and even this small differential fell below the threshold of statistical significance. What makes this analysis especially noteworthy is that it effectively invalidated the authors’ premature and incomplete conclusion in their decade-earlier study that helmets were spectacularly effective in reducing the chances of head and brain injuries; it was that “finding,” which has reverberated around the medical echo chamber ever since, that catapulted helmet promotion to the fore of bicycle “safety.”

And this isn't even taking into account the health benefits of cycling. A person who decides to avoid cycling is likely a person with an increased health risk due to inactivity and obesity. As Professor John Pucher points out:

“All scientific studies find that, even using conservative, understated estimates of the health benefits of cycling, they far exceed any traffic risk,” explains Pucher.

The exact ratio varies from city to city and from country to country, but the health benefits of cycling are at least five times higher than the traffic risks, and in some countries, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, the ratio is almost twenty-to-one.

So here's to having the choice of wearing a helmet or not. You can reduce the risk of a head injury for yourself by choosing to wear a helmet (though helmets are less effective when you're involved in a collision with a car). However let's not turn away people from a healthier lifestyle just because they don't want to wear a helmet. The risk of bad health is much higher for those who are sedentary than for those who cycle, helmet or no helmet.

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