Mandatory bike helmet bylaw marks 10 years

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St. Albert should be a model for other cities, says an emergency room physician who advocates for bike helmets.

Dr. Brian Rowe, who has been researching bike safety for cyclists for more than 20 years, says bike helmets reduce injuries and save lives.

In 2006, St. Albert became the first city in Alberta to make bike helmets mandatory for everyone. Alberta provincial law only requires child cyclists to be helmeted. St. Albert is still believed to be the only city in Alberta that makes helmets mandatory for adults.

Since St. Albert took the lead, several provinces have enacted similar legislation and a mandatory helmet law is currently being considered by the city of Winnipeg.

Statistics were not available, but according to the St. Albert’s municipal enforcement branch, there are few bicycle collisions per year in this city.

No matter how few there are, the difference in outcomes between wearing a helmet and not wearing a helmet is dramatic, notes Rowe.

“If helmets are used for biking, it saves lives and reduces head injuries. The downside is so inconsequential, it’s ridiculous.”

“It’s a model of courage and advocacy for cyclists that St. Albert has done this,” he says. “It’s made a difference. The community should be proud of the decisions that were made and the persistence of this intervention.”

Initial research following the implementation of the mandatory helmet bylaw, found that compared to the year before, helmet use increased from 45 per cent to 92 per cent.

Data collected since indicates that provincial legislation is doing its job – far more children and adolescents are wearing helmets than ever before, says Rowe.

“In St. Albert we have very clear evidence that it’s improved helmet compliance across the board in all age groups, more than Edmonton. We just don’t have the evidence that says St. Albert cyclists have lower head injury rates and admissions to hospital … yet.”

Citing limited funding for such research, Rowe explains a study on helmet compliance is undergoing final review and is set to be published in the coming months.

Data available from the Injury Prevention Centre at the University of Alberta however, indicates St. Albert has lower bicycle injury rates compared to the rest of the province.

From 2006 to 2015, the average rate of emergency department visits per 100,000 people in St. Albert was approximately 10.5, compared to 14.2 province-wide.

The highest number of hospital visits in St. Albert – a total of 10 – occurred in 2010 and 2015.

No matter how few bicycle collisions there are, the difference in outcomes between wearing a helmet and not wearing a helmet is drastic, notes Rowe.

“If helmets are used for biking, it saves lives and reduces head injuries. The downside is so inconsequential, it’s ridiculous.”

Over the past decade, the city of St. Albert has issued a total of 146 tickets – each with a $100 fine – to cyclists who neglect to wear a helmet.

The number of tickets handed out varies significantly by year – from nine after the bylaw came into effect, to none at all in 2008, and an all-time high of 63 tickets in 2011.

“It’s up to officer’s discretion whether or not they want to give people a warning,” says Garnet Melnyk, senior peace officer with the city’s municipal enforcement branch.

There is a correlation between manpower and the number of tickets issued per year, he says. Both St. Albert RCMP and peace officers enforce the helmet bylaw.

Bylaw or not, helmets are mandatory for all group rides with the St. Albert Bike Association.

“I personally appreciate that St. Albert’s bylaw covers both youth and adults,” says association president Jason Wywal. “Your skull is just as likely to get injured in a collision as an adult than it is for a youth – why should adults get to ride helmet-less? What kind of example are they setting for their kids?”

Even though every community should be communicating the need for good bicycle safety – including proper cyclist behaviour – a bylaw can be a good tool to get at least some people wearing a helmet, he says.

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