The Toronto Cyclists Union did itself no favours yesterday when they tried to persuade the members of council’s public works and infrastructure committee to reject Michael Walker’s motion to make bike helmets mandatory (it came twinned with a proposal to require bike licensing).
Walker never misses an opportunity to stir the pot, and these motions — both were referred to staff — are no exception. I don’t see him as a champion for road safety, nor do many members of the TCU, and I think therein lies the problem.
The licensing idea won’t fly, nor should it.
But after monitoring the debate, I found myself wondering how a mandatory helmet motion would play itself out if the proponent came from council’s Left — figures like Gord Perks or Adam Giambrone. Quite differently, I expect. Or maybe not.
For cycling advocates, the political mischief in Walker’s proposal is that it calls them out on the subject of safety. If they want bike lanes to be safer for cyclists, surely they’d be in favour of a rule designed to enhance personal safetyâ€¦.
It’s impossible to deny that bike helmets do offer an extra and important level of protection for cyclists, and to claim otherwise is nonsensical. Nor do helmets only provide protection during collisions with cars, as was suggested. Earlier this year, a friend who rides to work downtown wiped out on a slick streetcar track and landed on his head. He said he would have been in deep trouble without that helmet.
Who doesn’t know a story like that one?
I’d say there’s a legitimate public policy case in favour of mandatory bike helmets, notwithstanding Walker’s presence in this debate. There are obvious precedents that no longer generate controversy: seat belts laws, as well as mandatory helmets for those operating motorcycles, scooters, and mopeds. These aren’t just about big brother imposing its will, and it would foolish to think otherwise. Society incurs a real cost associated with preventable injuries — health care outlays, lost productivity, and so on.
As for the claim made by some cycling advocates that helmets represent a financial barrier to entry, I don’t buy it. In fact, such pretext arguments do a disservice to the interests of Toronto cyclists. If you can afford to spend hundreds of dollars on a bike, a $40 or $50 helmet won’t break the bank.
The cycling community knows it’s got the ear of council — for now. But that status could change after next year’s municipal election, so it wouldn’t do the TCU any harm to offer up a conciliatory gesture to demonstrate a willingness to play ball.
Requiring helmets for kids under 18 isn’t enough. Here’s an alternative approach: a three-year phase-in period with no fines or enforcement, as well as a full-throated public education campaign financed by the city, but developed in consultation with cycling groups. The story line will play well with the broader riding public — cyclists urging other cyclists to play it safe, and it could bolster the political case for bike lanes under a new and potentially less bike-friendly council.
Despite its dodgy lineage, the mandatory helmet issue represents an unusual opportunity for the TCU to broaden its base and mature as an advocacy group that does more than merely preach to the choir. They’d be wise to not to less it pass.
photo by Patrick Crowley