Q&A: Jonathan McLeod on Why Bike Helmet Laws Don't Work

McLeod weighs the pros and cons, and comes out in favor of biking without protection

Flickr user Jan Jespersen 

Bike helmets protect bikers from serious injury and death. There’s really no debating that fact as countless studies have confirmed it. But just because making people wear bike helmets might save those people doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing to. Sometimes you have to zoom out to see the whole picture.

A few weeks ago, Jonathan McLeod, a fellow with the Canadian Council for Democracy, wrote an opinion piece for the Calgary Herald that raised quite a few Canuck eyebrows because, well, it initially sounds irrational. McLeod argues that no one should have to wear a helmet because mandatory helmet laws lead to a decrease in the number of bikers on the road. No helmets means fewer cars on the road spewing carbon dioxide, less noise, and a decrease in the number of car crashes, which are obviously more harmful than bike accidents.

This sort of broader thinking is about the community rather than the individuals in it and it can be polarizing. Inverse talked to McLeod about the backlash and his ideas for the future of infrastructure.

Is your argument more-or-less restricted to just Canada?

I know there is similar information coming from the U.S. and, no, my argument isn’t restricted to Canada. It would seem that in many countries, especially in Europe, bike helmets are not as prevalent as they are in North America (for a variety of reasons), and the supposed link between helmets and safety is even more tenuous.

Fortunately and unfortunately, I have relied on Canadian, American, and international studies when looking into helmet use and bike safety. Fortunately, because it is good to try to learn from other jurisdictions to see what works. Unfortunately, because there can be different factors at play in different areas. I would love to see more research done in Canada.

So if a town or city chooses not to enforce bike helmet laws, what else could they or should they do to improve bike safety?

There’s a lot that can be done in North America. We can build more bike lanes. When we build bike lanes on busy roads, we can make them segregated and raised, sometimes with a buffer between the bike lane and the road.

We can employ a number of traffic calming measures that will make streets safer for bicyclists (and pedestrians and car passengers). We can narrow roads. We can plant trees to create a proper canopy. We can institute raised crosswalks and intersections. We can put in more speed bumps or middle-of-the-street signage to reduce speed. We can lower speed limits.

There are laws that can be changed, as well. We can give bicyclists (and pedestrians) advanced green lights. We can institute the Idaho stop. We can implement Vision Zero and take street fatalities seriously.

We can add in contraflow lanes and proper bike parking corrals. We can close off streets from time to time for bicycling and walking. These sorts of things help to get more people onto bikes, and what has been demonstrated is that there is safety in numbers.

On a larger scale, we can limit sprawl, increase density and embrace mixed-use development. Distance can be an impediment to bicycling, so we need to make communities and neighborhoods more diverse and self-sustaining.

Is there a certain number or rate of bike-related injuries which, if the stats were to pass that threshold, you may change your stance on bike helmet laws?

Philosophically, no. I’m a pretty hands-off sort of guy when it comes to such laws… at least when it comes to adults. I don’t necessarily object to bike helmet laws for kids.

Personally, yes, there would be a threshold after which I might choose to always wear a helmet and advocate for helmet use, but I can’t give you an exact number. Further, all other safety initiatives would need to be adopted for me to become a full-blown helmet advocate.

One thing I will note is that bicycling is very, very safe. There have been different studies done on the relative safety of bicycling versus walking versus driving. Generally, I have seen it said that walking is safest, then biking, then driving. However, this seems to vary by jurisdiction or by how you define safety/risk. I’m not confident in ranking the relative safety. I am confident in saying that the rates of injury of all three are quite low, and I am nowhere close to considering helmets for walking or driving. I treat bicycling the same way.

A quick addendum to that, though. I am talking about normal, every day bicycling. If you’re out on trails or racing, it probably makes sense to wear a helmet. In my hometown, Ottawa, we can get pretty nasty winters. I choose to wear a helmet in winter because I think (though I have seen no studies done on this) that with poorer road conditions, fewer cyclists and more night bicycling, there are solid benefits to helmet use.

Similarly, I wonder about rainy conditions and even night riding in good conditions. I’m willing to believe in these situations helmet use becomes more prudent.

Are there any towns or municipalities you believe enforce a sensible bike helmet policy that you would like to see adopted more broadly?

My province has a fairly reasonable helmet law. Adults don’t have to wear a helmet, but minors do. Personally, I would tweak this law. I don’t think kids 16 and 17 should be forced to wear helmets. We let them drive cars. If we can trust them to do that, we can trust them on a bike without a helmet.

That being said, my local governments (municipal and a federal commission that deals with the National Capital region) take a very pro-helmet stance. Their policies and “safety” campaigns try to shame people into wearing helmets. (They also harass bicyclists who wear headphones, another perfectly legal activity.)

This sort of busybody-ness of the local governments is unseemly, and I would like to see it stop. This sort of helmet policy (by governments, NGOs, media and pushy citizens) is what my piece was specifically directed at.

Are you going to become an anti-helmet evangelist or is this more of an exercise in moderating bureaucratic thinking?

If people choose to wear helmets, fine. If they don’t, fine. As long as we’re setting up a biking culture where everyone is accommodated and allowed to ride in a preferred manner that doesn’t harm anyone else, I couldn’t care less what people wear on their heads.

Related Tags