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U of A helmet legislation research prompts debate

Alvin Yu
Gateway Writer
Sep 18, 2013

The debate over the effectiveness of education versus legislation on cycling safety has been revived with the release of new research from the University of Alberta on the outcome of helmet legislation in the province.

U of A School of Public Health professors Don Voaklander and Duncan Saunders, along with PhD candidate Mohammed Karkhaneh, compiled data from Alberta Health Services on emergency department visits before and after mandatory helmet legislation was introduced to the province in May, 2002. The severity of head injuries was separated into two categories: emergency department visits and hospitalizations.

Researchers found a 30 per cent decrease in the rate of head injuries for child cyclists needing emergency department visits and a nine per cent decrease in hospitalizations. While helmet legislation was made mandatory solely for people aged 17 and under, the researchers also found a corresponding 24 per cent decrease in adult head injuries requiring hospitalizations.

“There’s going to be some carry-over effect into the different age groups, so parents buy helmets for their kids because it’s the law and then they decide maybe it’s a good idea to set an example for their kids,” Voaklander said.

He added that influence from governmental legislation impacts the choices that individuals make.

“People look at what the government does and they usually think that the government’s acting in a benevolent fashion, so if the
government says it is an important issue, people think they should participate as well.”

St. Albert remains the only city in Alberta to have mandated helmet legislation for cyclists of all ages. A study involving U of A researchers found St. Albert’s 74 per cent compliance rate for adult cyclists to be higher than the province’s 55 per cent compliance rate when
legislation was introduced in 2006. Voaklander has touted St. Albert as a model in future studies for forming a universal helmet law.

“St. Albert’s a relatively small community in the context of Alberta, so we need to amass a few more years of data before we can truly statistically say we’re better off because of the law,” he said.

But some still believe cycling safety should go beyond legislation. While Cliff Vallentgoed, owner of local bike shop RedBike, said he understands the importance of wearing a helmet, he doesn’t see legislation to be an end-all solution.

“People should have the option — people should do a lot of things I can’t make them do, so where do we draw the line when it comes
to legislating behaviour?” he said.

“Education is the number one thing that would benefit the bicycle-motorist interaction — you can make people wear helmets, but a co-operative relationship can only come from the education process.”

Karly Coleman, Director of Recreation and Transportation from the Alberta Bicycle Association, agreed that legislation does not necessarily result in compliance and said she wants cycling education to be prioritized instead.

“It’s a pretty easy mandate to put a helmet on somebody and tell them to go ride a bike, but if they don’t know how to ride in traffic, it’s not really useful,” she said.

“Education is quite important — know how to ride your bike so you’re cognizant of how the roads’ right of ways work and you’re hyper-vigilant as to where you are compared to where other people in the roadway are.”

Regardless, both sides agree on the role that a helmet plays in cycling safety. For those about to head out on a bike ride, Voaklander has some simple advice.

“If you’re going for a ride, put your helmet on; don’t be lax about that sort of thing.”


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