Halifax Regional Police gave 262 fines for cycling without a helmet last year. Many of those, a police representative says, went to out-of-province residents such as students, who did not know about the rule.
“Nova Scotians know the law is there,” says HRP officer Shawn Currie. “It’s when we get people from Ontario and other places that they’re a little stuck.”
The law was instituted in 1997, and requires a cyclist to wear a helmet unless he holds a certificate of exemption from the Registrar of Motor Vehicles. Circumstances that merit the certificate include religious reasons against wearing a helmet, or a head larger then 66 centimetres in circumference. The fine starts at $141.
Like other laws in the HRM, it only received a publicizing blitz in the months following its enactment. It has not been advertised since then.
“It’s not well advertised. It’s up to the user [of a bicycle] to get informed about the laws.” Currie says.
John Chisholm, president of Halifax Cycles bike store, doesn’t think the law is fair.
“You can chain people all you want, but the law scares and shames people from cycling,” he says. There is data that supports his claim.
A 2002 study of the helmet laws in Australia and Nova Scotia by University of Toronto professor Mary Chipman found that such legislation causes a significant drop in the number of cyclists on the street and particularly discourages children from biking.
Chisholm says the idea of cycling as being dangerous is holding back cycling. When it comes to accidents, “the danger is the fallacy of overstated vividness, “ he says.
“Statistically, bicyclists are far down the list of people who should be wearing helmets.”
Nevertheless, many other studies praise helmet legislation because it decreases the number of head injuries among cyclists. Numbers based on data from IWK Health Center, Halifax, showed that this statistic dropped by 80 per cent from 1995/96 to 1997, after the helmet mandate was passed.
Currie says that that most infractions probably occur around the Dalhousie and University of King’s College campuses, with the Commons skate park possibly holding that title too. Despite this, he says students during the first weeks of university caught without a helmet will probably receive a warning rather than a fine.
Chisholm insists the law “targets the young people disproportionately.”
Chipman’s 2002 study concludes by saying that helmet legislation does have two sides: it increases helmet use, which prevents head injury, but also reduces cycling as an activity.
“We need to develop and evaluate a combined approach to achieve the true benefits of safe cycling,” she writes.
New innovations may soon make the problem obsolete. For example, the “invisible helmet”, designed by Swedish company Hövding, is basically an airbag worn around the neck, and looks like a scarf. The new technology comes at a hefty price; the company’s website currently sells it for about $600.