Helmets: Attitudes and Actions

This archived article is from July 2002. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

Survey Finds Most Kids Wear Helmets, Most Adults Don't

Transport Canada statistics reveal that 60 cyclists were killed in 2001. Of these, 88 per cent were not wearing a helmet, including all of those under age 15.

The number of deaths is down from 106 in 1990. One reason fewer people are dying in bicycle crashes is that more cyclists are wearing helmets. Studies in the late 1980s showed bicycle helmet use among children was as low as 2%. A 2002 Canada Safety Council survey found that four out of five parents say their kids wear helmets when cycling. Several provinces now have legislation mandating the use of bicycle helmets.

According to the US Department of Transportation, 90% of cyclists killed in 2000 were not wearing a helmet. In the US, head injuries account for over 60% of cyclist deaths, two-thirds of bicycle-related hospital admissions and one-third of hospital emergency visits for bicycle injuries.

Ontario Trauma Registry statistics for 2000-2002 indicate that in five years, the number of head injuries due to bicycle crashes decreased by 26% for children in that province. Safety experts credit this significant decrease to Ontario's bicycle helmet legislation, which applies to cyclists under age 18.

Most injuries suffered by bicyclists are fractures, dislocations and other non-life-threatening injuries, but head injuries are typically the most dangerous. Even a "minor" head injury can have serious long-term consequences.

The Canada Safety Council and Liberty Mutual Insurance Company commissioned Helmets: Attitudes and Actions, a national Ipsos-Reid telephone survey to assess public opinion on the use of helmets when participating in various "wheel" sports. Although cycling boasts the highest participation level, in-line skating is also very popular, and scooters are more than a passing fad. Canadians were questioned on their attitudes and behaviour regarding sports helmets, and how they felt about measures to increase usage.

Like Parent, Like Child

Those who never wear a helmet are more likely to be male, under 34, rural, less educated, and lower income earners. Their kids don't wear helmets either. Three-quarters report their children never wear bicycle helmets, and over two-thirds say their children don't wear helmets when in-line skating, skateboarding or using a scooter.

The survey shows that parents can and do make sure their children wear a helmet. The parent's influence cannot be overestimated. They can also make sure the helmet fits right and is worn correctly. It should be snug but not too tight. The child should wear it straight on the head, not angled back, and with straps adjusted to keep it secure.

Excuses, Excuses....

The number one reason given by Canadian women for people not wearing a helmet is 'appearance' (at 17%, versus 11% for men). Men most frequently mention that helmets are 'uncomfortable' (at 14%, versus 9% for women). For those in rural areas, the leading reason given for people not wearing a helmet is 'don't bother' (18%), but for their urban counterparts, the top reasons are 'appearance' (14%) and 'not cool' (14%).

The poll found that 97% of Canadians realize helmets prevent serious injury. Yet a lot of people simply won't go to the trouble of wearing one. Only 3% think cost or not having a helmet is the reason. Safety efforts now need to convince Canadians to translate their knowledge into action.

What can you do if you find a helmet unattractive or uncomfortable? CSA-certified helmets come in a wide range of colours, styles and sizes. You should look for the CSA mark to assure safety and performance, but you have a choice when it comes to style and fit. Shop for a helmet with the same care you would shop for shoes. You need the right fit and you have to like how it looks. Then make sure you wear it properly.

Helmets and the Law

British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia all have legislation mandating the use of bicycle helmets. The survey found that awareness of the law is 90% or higher in those provinces with legislation in effect.

Helmet use in all sports surveyed is higher in those provinces with legislation. In British Columbia and the Atlantic provinces, where helmet use is mandatory for all bicyclists, three out of five adults say they always wear a helmet. Children in those regions also have high usage rates: 87% in B.C. and 84% in the Maritimes.

B.C. was the first province to mandate bicycle helmets, in 1996. A study comparing usage in 1995 and 1999 found that three years after the legislation, B.C. cyclists were two to three times more likely to be wearing a helmet.

Ontario and Alberta mandate helmets for children under 18. In Ontario, 94% of parents and in Alberta 85% say their children wear a helmet when cycling. However, Alberta's law only comes into effect April 1, 2002, so the rate of helmet use by children in that province cannot be credited to legislation. In both provinces, only 1/3 of adult cyclists say they always wear a helmet.

Having a law in place is only part of the solution. Sometimes helmets are worn too far back, straps too loose, straps clipped together on top of the helmet or not clipped at all. An improperly adjusted helmet may provide very little head protection in a crash - it's not purely aesthetic.

In provinces with no provincial helmet legislation, seven or eight respondents out of every 10 mistakenly thought there was. This may indicate that Canadians are receptive to helmet laws; perhaps there is a comparison with seat-belt laws. Three-quarters of all respondents agreed that legislation is an effective way to increase helmet use.

Results Provide Direction

The survey findings imply progress may stall unless more adults start wearing helmets. Role models, including parents, can change perceptions and behavior. In addition, advertisers and celebrities must create a 'cool' image for helmets.

Canadians seem to agree that a combination of tactics is needed. When asked which of three approaches they felt would be most effective to increase helmet use, survey respondents gave the strongest approval to public information and awareness campaigns (88%). Safety courses and events rated a close second (81%), then government regulation (77%).

Helmets: Attitudes and Actions gives a useful snapshot of how Canadians feel about wearing helmets in various sports on wheels and helps identify areas for further safety efforts.