Canadian study shows laws requiring bike helmets work

April 18, 2000

Bicyclists dramatically increased how often they donned safety helmets following a bicycle helmet law enacted in 1996 in British Columbia, according to a report released Tuesday, April 18 by Canada's Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) and the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

An overall wearing rate of 46 % prior to the helmet law climbed to 70 % three years later in 1999. Helmet use among cyclists on commuter routes increased from 60 % to 75 %; at recreational locations, use grew from 48 % to 74 % while use by bicyclists observed in neighborhoods rose from 39 % to 72 %. "The significant increase in bicycle helmet use provides encouragement to other jurisdictions in North America that may be considering similar laws to reduce the number of head injuries for cyclists," said Dr. Doug Beirness, vice president of research at TIRF and co-principal investigator of the study.

Results from the British Columbia study shows the benefit of a comprehensive law covering all age groups, said Dr. Robert Foss, research scientist at the UNC-CH center and co-principal investigator. Laws that apply only to children have not produced nearly so great an increase in the age groups to which they apply.

The new study also showed that rates of incorrect helmet use declined slightly but remained high among bicyclists under age 6, when a third of helmets were worn incorrectly. Overall, about 13 % of helmets were worn incorrectly. Improper use typically involved an unhooked chinstrap or one loose enough that the helmet could move in a crash.

Helmet use remained substantially lower in non-metropolitan areas (58 %) than in the Vancouver and Victoria metropolitan areas (74 %) but increased to a similar degree in all regions, analysis showed. Despite continuing differences in helmet use rates, wearing rates rose similarly across all age groups and types of bicyclists.

In 1996, British Columbia became the first North American province or state to require bicycle helmets by riders of all ages. Prior to the law, researchers obtained observational data on helmet use by a representative sample of 4,474 bicyclists at 120 locations in 17 randomly selected communities. Bicyclists were divided into four groups - commuters, recreational cyclists, those riding in local neighborhoods and casual cyclists.

During summer 1999, researchers revisited the same communities and observation sites at the same time of day and week to determine the impact of the legislation.

The next phase of the project will involve starting community programs to promote helmet use. "Our final results will be of benefit to all stakeholders in safe cycling and provide guidance for developing effective programs, policies and promotional campaigns designed to encourage helmet use among all cyclists," Foss said.
The B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Highways funded the first survey, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paid for the follow-up work.

In 1997, 872 cyclists were injured on B.C. roads, and five were killed.

The foundation, a national independent road safety institute, was created in 1964 and is based in Ottawa. Note: To reach Beirness, call 613-238-5235. Call Foss at 919-962-8702. Copies of the report are available upon request. TIRF contact: Barbara Koppe, 613-238-5235. HSRC contact: Emily Smith, 919-962-7803. News Services contact: David Williamson, 919-962-8596.

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