We're in the midst of a self-imposed hiatus from writing new blog material, as we're busy hustling behind-the-scenes on our first full-length book. But rather than suffer through total radio silence, we thought it would be fun to periodically revisit old articles we've published over the years, many of which are no longer available online. The following, written by Chris, originally appeared in Hush Magazine on August 7th, 2012.
I have a confession to make: I consciously and blatantly break the law on a daily basis. Every morning, I kiss my wife and children goodbye, and ride my bicycle slowly along a 5-kilometre stretch of protected bikeway to my office, where I work as a Residential Designer. It is a simple act. One that should be encouraged and celebrated, as it is in 99% of the world’s great cities. But rather, because I choose to do this without a piece of Styrofoam on my head, I am labeled a criminal, and face being charged by the Vancouver Police Department under Section 184 of the Motor Vehicle Act (as I have twice). This despite the fact I am not riding a motor vehicle, that I feel perfectly safe riding the city’s plentiful bike lanes, that I am statistically safer than a pedestrian crossing the street or even a driver sitting into a car, and that my choice of transport is far more economically and environmentally beneficial to the city.
When British Columbia first passed its adult bicycle helmet law in 1995, it was widely accepted as a sensible initiative to promote and increase road safety. The City of Vancouver followed suit shortly thereafter, passing a by-law that made it illegal to ride on city paths and seawalls without a helmet, under punishment of a $100 fine. Now, seventeen years later, it is undeniable these laws have not resulted in any of the benefits that were promised. They have not saved lives. They have not reduced healthcare costs. They have not increased road safety. It is therefore not surprising that only a handful of jurisdictions (BC followed Australia and New Zealand; the Maritime provinces followed us; then nothing) have since instituted such laws, while the rest of the world has recognized them for what they are: a complete disaster.
The most significant impact of criminalizing cycling without a helmet is the simple fact that the majority of people won’t bother. In particular, short, slow, utilitarian pedestrian-like bicycle trips to the grocery store or restaurant become a rarity. In a province facing the growing healthcare costs of 1.5 million obese or overweight people, this is of grave concern: especially when it is abundantly clear that the health benefits of cycling far outweigh the risks. Almost every study on the impact of mandatory helmet laws show a 30%-50% decrease in cycling rates, and up to 80% in some demographic groups, such as young females. The cost of this inactivity to society, in both lives and dollars, is monumental. It has been estimated that New Zealand’s helmet law contributes to 53 premature deaths per year, while Australia’s costs the taxpayer around $301-million in healthcare expenses annually.
Bike-share systems are another area where mandatory helmet laws become extremely problematic. Since the Vélib' launched in Paris five years ago, the City of Vancouver has been studying the idea of a bike-share of our own. The lengthy delay has been down to one factor: how do you force people to wear helmets for a spontaneous, short trip on a shared bicycle? Meanwhile, over 300 cities around the world have passed us by, including such cycling hotbeds as Omaha, Houston, and Kansas City. Only three have attempted to do so under a helmet law: Melbourne, Brisbane, and Auckland, all of which were colossal failures. Vancouver tentatively plans to launch a system in spring of 2013, which will be significantly smaller than its Montreal and Toronto counterparts, and (laughably) includes helmet-dispensing and sanitizing machines. All of this notwithstanding the fact bike-share programs have proven to be incredibly safe; London, with far fewer traffic-calmed streets than Vancouver, hasn’t experienced a single serious injury after 4.5 million trips.
Unfortunately, neither the BC Liberals nor the NDP want to revisit this law, which also remains popular amongst the motoring majority: drivers who are freely allowed to smoke, drink, and eat as much fast food as they want, with no thought of the healthcare costs they impose. Even more disappointing has been the lack of leadership from Vancouver City Council, with Mayor Robertson and Councilor Deal both calling the law “appropriate”, and insisting the long-delayed bike-share program will proceed without any exemption.
However, there is a small but growing number of local activists who are speaking out against the law, calling themselves “The Church of Sit-Up Cycling” (in reference to one exemption from the BC helmet law: “conflict with an essential religious practice”) and launching a call to action. I stand proudly with the “Church”: the adult helmet law is a direct contradiction to our city’s goal of becoming the “World’s Greenest” in eight short years. It’s time to abandon the idea of helmet regulation, and try something new: increasing cycling safety through numbers and infrastructure, as they do in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Montreal, and New York City. Then, and only then, will the bicycle stand a chance of becoming a viable and widely accepted mode of transportation in Vancouver. I, for one, can’t wait.
Post script: Vancouver launched its long-delayed bike share in June 2016, nearly nine years after (then Councilor) Peter Ladner got the ball rolling. While the ridership numbers are better than expected; they aren't great, and fall significantly short of helmet-optional systems in New York City, Montreal, and Washington DC.