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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Why the BC Government must repeal the bike helmet law.

Vancouver businessman / entrepreneur Thomas Beyer, arrived in Canada in 1986 with less than $1,000 in his jeans to pursue his MBA at the University of Alberta. Today he oversees real estate assets worth over $100M for Prestigious Properties, and is also an elected director and Treasurer of UNA (University Neighborhoods Association) at UBC. This article is reprinted with kind permission from the author.
Vancouver has decided, like 500+ other cities, to introduce bike sharing. A noble idea, a useful one even that will reduce car use and might even contribute positively to alleged man-made global “warming”. The far bigger impact, frequently overlooked, is public health. Based on history in other jurisdictions the proposed bike-sharing program will be a financial disaster, and poor public policy, if it’s introduced with the (provincial) helmet law intact.
If the provincial helmet law was repealed, it would benefit public health and promote more bike-use including bike-sharing. Amend British Columbia's bike helmet law to allow adults to make their own choices based on their skills, bike path availability, speed, traffic density, etc. Personally I wear a helmet when off-road biking with a mountain bike, due to speed and dangerous terrain, but would prefer not to do so around Stanley Park's paved path, along False Creek or around UBC. It’s fair to assume others would too, so why discourage them? 
In Australia, bike share programs have failed in both Melbourne and Brisbane due to bike helmet laws in those cities. Yet, the bike-hire scheme in the city of Sydney—where riders are not forced, legally to wear helmets—has succeeded. In both Israel and Mexico laws have been changed prior to introducing bike share schemes to accommodate them and ensure program success. Former city councillor / cycling advocate Peter Ladner has predicted the bike share program in Vancouver (and at UBC) will fail due to the provincial bike helmet law. Most other major cities like New York, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto, and almost all European cities with a far deeper history of bike use allow bike share with no helmets.
Increasingly, experts around the world are encouraging people to bike, and/or participate in bike-sharing plans, and, in turn, more and more riders question helmet laws in place (such as in B.C, Melbourne and Brisbane). In spite of the fact The New York Times reported that in New York, where there were 21 cyclist fatalities last year, where the transportation commissioner (Janette Sadik-Khan) is always photographed on a bike and wearing a helmet, the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has rejected calls by the City Comptroller (John C. Liu) for a mandatory helmet law when New York’s 10,000-cycle bike-share program rolls out next year, for fear it will keep people from riding.  
A similar situation prevails in British Columbia where bike-sharing programs are about to be launched in Vancouver and at UBC. UBC professor Kay Teschke  (  does extensive research in public health and cycling. Her main arguments are essentially that biking’s societal benefits outweigh its risks somewhere between 9:1 and 96:1, depending on assumptions used. Wearing a helmet vs. not wearing a helmet has a very small overall effect on cyclers’ risk. Cycling, per trip taken, is not any more risky than driving or walking actually as per these statistics:
• Transit bus travellers (US): 0.4 per 100 million person-trips
• Drivers and passengers (BC): 10 per 100 million person-trips
• Pedestrians (BC): 15 per 100 million person-trips
• Cyclists (BC with helmet law): 14 per 100 million person-trips
• Cyclists (BC without helmet law): 19 per 100 million person-trips
• Motorcyclists (US): 537 per 100 million person-trips 
We could argue that since wearing a helmet will also have a health benefit for pedestrians or drivers, why single out cyclists? Perhaps we should make biking illegal altogether as it is just too dangerous with several people killed every year and many severely injured (despite helmet use).  
Our societies have far too many unnecessary rules and regulations which are intended to treat symptoms vs fix causes. The British Columbia bike helmet law is one of them. In fact, helmet laws don't aim to prevent injuries in the first place, they just aim to mitigate injuries once an accident occurs. A much better strategy would be to invest in safe cycling infrastructure that prevents accidents in the first place, such as dedicated biking lanes, dedicated traffic signals or dedicated over and underpasses. This is the route Europe went, and Vancouver is now attempting in building out its dedicated cycling infrastructure.
Teschke also found that helmet laws reduce cycling rates (e.g. Australia) and thus have a net negative public health effect. A more technical discussion is on Teschke’s site or here 
In Vancouver the helmet law is expected to add substantial costs due to the helmet vending infrastructure, borne entirely by the taxpayer. It will also force the city to have few large bike stations instead of many small bike stations as helmet vending machines are expensive and have a large footprint. Having many small stations spread out evenly would be much better for the bike share program and more amenable to businesses. Most businesses would love to have a small bike share station nearby, but they don't like stations taking up half a block in front of their store, blocking access.
Many aspects have to be considered in this bike-bike helmet debate: public health, public expenditures, road safety, civil liberties, freedom of the individual, role of government, public deficits, taxation levels, and so forth. 
Responsible adults should be able to make their own choice. A bike share program is hard to adapt in the first place, and with a helmet law in place, as in BC, it will fail and be a waste of tax payers' money - unless the bike helmet law is repealed.

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