Get your helmet head out of your…

bicycle-crashCycling advocates in this city want you to believe they’ve got it pretty bad and in many ways they do. We have some decent bike paths, but too few of them by far; the bike lanes on surface streets are nothing more than painted lines, offering neither security nor exclusivity; and the relationship between cars and bikes is bitter and dangerous. But there’s a weird upside to being ignored by the powers that be…

While driving to work on Sunday with a friend, we passed a cyclist and a bike cop stopped at the corner of King and Bathurst and much to our surprise, the officer was issuing the cyclist a ticket. Although I’ve heard of this happening occasionally around the city, I’ve never seen it myself. The cyclist, in this case a young hippyish looking woman, was making that same annoyed, impatient face drivers have made a million times while waiting for a cop to finish their ticket and that’s when it hit me — the thing cyclists in this city take for granted is that because they aren’t getting the attention they deserve, it gives them the opportunity to break the law with relative impunity. Now I know most cyclists say they don’t, or that they only do things that they’ve deemed innocuous or “basically safe” but so many of us are horrible rule breakers. Rapid fire lane changes, quick darts through red lights and sidewalk shortcuts are just a few of the things I see cyclists do on a daily basis. And I’m no saint, either. There’s a T-intersection on Queens Quay at Harbourfront I rarely wait out. Why are we this way? Because we can get away with it. If drivers could speed without having to worry about being nabbed by a radar gun, you can bet average speeds would increase. But they can’t. Drivers have 50 or 60 years of speed traps and consequences reminding them to take it easier. As policing increases, infringement decreases…just look at the holiday weekend traffic “blitzes”. As cyclists we don’t have that culture of enforcement and as a result, we know we can bend and break rules and our risk of penalty is nearly nil. But that’s all changing.

There are huge bonuses to being relatively unregulated. You never have to worry about the man looking over your shoulder and that’s a level of freedom found in precious few corners of our society. But it means you have to stay out of the news and not ask for anything. Toronto cyclists may be starting to see that the downside of demanding a greater presence in the traffic planning of the city is that The Man starts to take a closer look at the habits of cyclists, both good and bad. Which brings me to the topic of the day, bicycle helmets…or rather the proposal to make bicycle helmets mandatory for everyone in the City of Toronto.

I think the response from cycling advocates, specifically the large Toronto Cyclists Union (TSU), against the adoption of a helmet law is truly fascinating; coming out as they have not only against the proposed law, but also against helmets in general. In a country where we’ve accepted the concept of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) into so many facets of our life, to reject it in the case of bicycles seems strangely inconsistent. Whether at work or at play, we are constantly putting on or taking off something that’s been invented to help us avoid or diminish the effects of an accident. A construction worker is compelled by law to wear a hard hat and safety shoes just as we all are compelled to wear a seat belt.

That being said, not all PPE is equal. It’s easier to click into a seat belt than it is to find and plop on a helmet and a seat belt doesn’t have quite the safe anti-stylish effect on one’s hair. A car comes with a seat belt, whereas a bike with a built-in helmet would be wonderful only as a piece of modern art. But if we agree that the intent of seat belts is harm reduction and that is something we can get behind, why don’t we feel the same way about bikes? Or maybe we do. Instead of going on about bike lanes yesterday, I would have loved to see some paper from the Toronto Cyclists Union about helmet use in the city. If it’s relatively high, there’s no need for a law and the issue could be dead. If, as I’ve observed, it’s quite low then I’d like to know why the TSU isn’t burning more calories to encourage cyclists to take greater responsibility for their own safety. Not that it isn’t more fun to blame “The Man…”

If that comes off as cynical, good. I’ve got the sneaking suspicion that Councillor Walker is more interested in scoring points with drivers, who see an inequality of enforcement between themselves and cyclists, than he is in saving the lives of riders. This suspicion is all but proven with his inclusion of a licensing scheme, a needless and destined to fail bit of bureaucracy that our cash-strapped city probably can’t even afford to properly staff or run. As such, the entire debate — regardless of its validity — is borne out of a cynical approach to public safety as a political weapon. And both sides are guilty, the TSU is using this as an opportunity to pin the responsibility of bike safety solely on the city while failing to address the perception (right or wrong) that some cyclists are willful rule breakers who flaunt traffic laws whenever it suits them. As long as drivers see this inequality and as long as there are cyclists out there to prove it you’ll have a tough time getting drivers and cyclists to play nice. And like it or not, cyclists need drivers and their votes to move the cycling agenda.

Cycling advocates MUST get their own house in order if they ever want the broad support they so need. You have to get bike couriers under control, you have to get people to wear helmets and ride safely and foremost you have to accept that cyclists break the law and when they do they deserve to be ticketed. Then, when cyclist are SEEN to be doing acting with the utmost responsibility, it’ll be a lot easier to point out the failures of city council. The bike issue is front and centre now, so everyone better put on their best face. That’s the price you pay for asking people to pay attention.

Oh, as a postscript…there’s an argument I’ve been hearing from the anti-helmet people that really pisses me off…

Saying that helmets are a barrier to cycling adoption is the same gloom and doom bullshit that bar owners used when they claimed that the smoking ban would put them all out of business. We’ve heard it a million times on a million different topics and it’s NEVER true. All those bars are still there and all those cyclists will be too. Humans have been adapting to new laws for about 4000 years…so please, dispense with that particular piece of shit argument.

11 thoughts on “Get your helmet head out of your…

  1. Amen… you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. Maybe this will finally force cyclists to stop breaking traffic laws (e.g. riding on the sidewalk).

    As for the anti-helmet brigade, they should take a look at:

  2. I thought we had mandatory helmet laws in the GTA? No excuse for not having one. If darwinism worked I’d say no helmets, let it weed out the dumb ones, but life doesn’t work that. Way. My main beef as a pedestrian with small children is riding on the sidewalk. I’ve been sorely tempted not to bump a few onto the road or into a building. Especially the ones who don’t have a bell to warn of coming up from behind. I think you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head again here. Great article.

  3. The argument that cyclists need drivers and their votes, that they (we) need “broad support” violates a core principle of our society: the majority does not get a vote on the rights of the minority. Without that principle, as so many libertarians have pointed out, democracy degenerates into two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.

    That gets us back to the question of whether or not a right to cycle exists. I claim it does, and not just within the highway traffic act, but as a consequence of the right to personal mobility, a right protected in our legal heritage by habeas corpus, the great writ, all the way back to the thirteenth century. The right to personal mobility means nothing if someone else can vote to take away your means of mobility, or make it so dangerous or burdensome to exercise that you stay put.

    • It’s unreasonably extreme to take a debate about personal safety and try to re-frame it as a debate about a cyclist’s right to exist. In all the comments I’ve read on this topic I haven’t seen a single pro-helmet comment that argues for an end to cycling. Furthermore, cycling on city streets is already a dangerous activity. Should we be arguing for more bikes lines, preferably segregated ones? Yes. But what do we do between now and the day when Toronto has a better bike network? The anti-helmet group would seem to suggest that we do nothing to protect ourselves and hope for the best.

      I’d rather the use of bike helmets didn’t need to be legislated, as groups that police themselves and act safely can generally avoid being legislated and that’s a good place to be. But by discouraging the use of helmets, the Toronto Cyclists Union and the anti-helmet group in general are acting so irresponsibly that it all but assures we’ll be legislated by some level of government. This is not a libertarian society. It’s a pretty heavily regulated one and to take this “you can’t tell me what to do” kind of attitude it to ignore the number of times in a day that we all do exactly what we’re told.

      • Unfortunately, if you ignore your rights, they tend to go away. So, I don’t let comments to the effect that cyclists need public support go without a challenge, because they obscure important issues of rights.

        If you want to argue that cyclists should wear helmets, I’ll agree. If you can quote anyone, from the bike union or elsewhere, saying that cyclists ought not to wear helmets (as opposed to not wanting the government to compel us to wear helmets), then I agree, such comments would show a real lack of responsibility. But the moment you talk about the “broad support they [cyclists] so need”, then I’ll call you on it. Let’s hear what support I need to have to cycle that anyone legitimately has the discretion to deny me, and why you think they have that discretion.

  4. So – are Toronto cyclists (or more accurately cycle advocates) really just children?

    We want this, we want that….

    “We want bike lanes everywhere” – good
    “We want separated lanes” – optimistic, but okay
    “We want respect from drivers and government” – fair enough

    “We don’t want to take any responsibility for our own safety by buying and wearing a frikkin $25 helmet at Canadian Tire” – yeah, so this is where you lose the ear of any non-riding citizen of this city who has yet to decide on this issue.

    I commute and ride recreationally year-round.
    I am out there with you guys. And I am constantly amazed at the continual disdain shown for simple rules of the road and courtesy shown.

    Not everyone of course – the vast majority of riders out there are decent. It’s the wrong way riding, no lights at night, iPod wearing, red light blowing, streetcar crowd smashing, sidewalk surfing dicks out there who are ruining it for the rest of us.

    Every time that “you” willfully and blatantly break the law while riding, every motorist who sees it thinks that much less of cyclists and give us that much less respect and space and support.

    “Your” Jackassery can not be allowed to endanger myself or other riders who are trying to share the road and ride safely.

    We need greater respect from the other users of the road and as much as we should be entitled to it, we are not.
    So we must earn it.
    Ride safely, respectfully and within the law.
    It’s not that hard and it really doesn’t slow you down.

    We gripe about trucks stopped in bike lanes, cars flinging their doors open into traffic, buses changing lanes without looking. It’s all true.
    And the cops need to crack down.
    And they need to crack down on us too.

    We want our place on the road?
    We have to earn it.
    If that takes a helmet law and licencing and increased enforcement by police, well then so be it

    • Glad you can speak for all the non-riding citizens, Stuart. But I think you’ve got the position of a lot of bicycle advocates wrong. I want to keep my head intact; I bought my first helmet 25 years ago, and I’ve worn a bicycle helmet ever since. I keep the laws at least as well on a bike as I do on foot or at the wheel of a car. I give drivers their propers if they give me mine, I try to take special care for vulnerable road users, and I also make an effort to cut other road users (particularly taxi drivers and buses) a fair bit of slack. And I advocate, fiercely at times, for cyclists and for our legitimate interests.

      I remain open to persuasion regarding the value of bicycle helmets. At this point I believe that my bicycle helmet keeps me safe, but I have serious doubts that the benefits of bicycle helmets justify forcing anyone to wear one. I only believe one thing absolutely about this question: to make provision for the safety of cyclists conditional on a helmet law, you must provide a solid argument that the right of personal mobility does not imply the right to ride a bicycle. Because individuals have to earn respect, and have to negotiate for their interests, but rights fall into another category: nobody, and especially not the government, can set conditions on rights.

  5. First premise: When we talk about improving safety, we are looking to reduce the _rate_ of harm that occurs.

    Cycling “Advocates” who have bothered to take the time to research the issue have discovered that the easiest/cheapest way to improve safety is to encourage more people to become cyclists more often. This is because of the “Safety in numbers effect” that happens when cyclists ride on our roads. The happy side effect is not only are the cyclists safer, but the overall number, and the severity, of crashes and collisions that occur on busy cycling routes is reduced. So encouraging more cycling doesn’t just make the cyclists safer, it makes everyone safer.

    Second premise: the “Safety in numbers” effect exists.

    Cycling “Advocates” are against public policy that would make all cyclists always wear a helmet, and you’re not sure why? Advocates have discovered that in almost all places where helmets have been mandated, participation levels decrease. That is, there are fewer people riding in places where helmets became mandatory than there were before, at the same time the overall number (and the severity) of injuries did not decrease. This meant the rate of injuries increased, therefore there was a decline in ‘safety’.

    Third premise: Mandatory helmets keeps people off of bikes.

    Which means that cycling “advocates” do have their house in order, we want to see safety improve, and helmets haven’t yet been shown to work — not as public policy anyways.

  6. Nice post, I think you’ve hit on the crux of the issue. Many cyclists like the “renegade edge” living outside of regulation gives them. These are the ones that breeze through red lights while I sit there freezing my ass of like a rube, or the ones who cut across the cross-walk to save a few seconds.

    That said, it is awfully hard to roll up to the bar without looking like a doof, but I think this is something helmet manufactures could deal with if some creativity went into helmet design.

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