For many of us, riding a bicycle has always gone hand in hand with wearing a helmet. When I was growing up, we lived on a country road in Sarnia, Ontario, and whenever I wanted to jump on my bike and ride down to a friend’s house, the primary instruction from my mom was to always wear my helmet. This emphasis on the helmet made me think two things: that there was something particularly dangerous about riding a bike, and that only the helmet could keep me safe. Of course like many things, when you begin to look into it for yourself, you find out that there’s much more to the story. Today’s guest is the perfect person to help with that.
Dr. Teschke is an Academic Occupational Hygienist at the School of Population and Public Health at UBC. Her research has covered common workplace injuries like back injuries, the occupational risk factors for Parkinson’s disease, and the relationship between water quality and gastrointestinal illness. She’s also the founder of the Cycling in Cities Research Program at UBC that has churned out a wealth of publications on bicycling safety and the best ways to motivate more people to ride.
In November 2015, Kay and her colleagues published a Bicycling Hospitalization Rates study, in which they found (among other things) that the presence of helmet legislation is not associated with hospitalization rates for head and neck injuries, indicating that there are other factors that have more influence on these injury rates.
The debate over the decision to wear a helmet while riding can be a heated one, and Kay certainly saw her fair share of that when the results of this study went public. From my perspective, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in this debate is the fact that a lot of times, we conflate the personal decision to wear a helmet with the value of mandating their usage by law.
I think we can almost say conclusively at this point that mandating helmet usage has a net negative effect for a number of reasons: it makes people feel like cycling is inherently dangerous, it lowers the overall number of people choosing to ride (again, for a few different reasons), and it takes the emphasis away from something that would truly improve bicycling safety, which is better infrastructure.
The personal decision to wear a helmet is a bit trickier, as there are many studies that point in opposing directions. I think the best we can say at this point is that there’s no consensus on the bicycle helmet as an effective strategy for reducing head and neck injuries. Kay gets into this a bit more, but if we’re concerned about the risks of riding a bike, there are a number of other things we should be talking about well-before we get down to personal protective equipment.
Beyond that, Kay breaks down the other findings from her aforementioned study, she talks about the recent rise in cycling-related research going on in North America, and the increasing role women are playing in conducting that research.