Do bicycle helmets prevent head injuries? The answer may not be as obvious as you think.

by John McKiggan

Protect your noggin

If you were given the option of being hit on the head with or without a helmet, which would you choose? Wearing a bicycle helmet reduces the risk of head injury by approximately 85-percent. The choice seems obvious doesn’t it?

If the choice is so clear then why do one-third of Nova Scotian’s still not wear helmets when cycling? According to Statistics Canada approximately 35% of Nova Scotia’s still refuse to wear bicycle helmets on a regular basis.

Helmet laws

For the other two-thirds of the Nova Scotia population, wearing a helmet when riding a bike has become as natural as putting on a seatbelt in the car (another obvious choice for most of us). Approved bike helmets are mandatory for all persons in Nova Scotia. If you are caught riding without a helmet you can be fined $141.16.

Drop in head injuries due to helmet use?

Since the laws implementation in 1997 there has been a drop in biking head injuries reported in the province. Between 1994 and 2004 there were approximately 19,140 hospital admissions for cycling related head injuries. The rate of cycling related head injuries decreased from 18 to 4.9 percent between 1994 and 2008. Surely these numbers are evidence of the laws effectiveness?

Well, not so fast. A recent report from BMJ (British Journal of Medicine) suggests that the number of cycling related head injuries were in decline prior to the enactment of the laws, and that they had very little to do with the decline in head injuries.

Natural trend?

The report in the BMJ concluded that while the rates of admissions to hospitals for cycling related head injuries had decreased following the passing of helmet laws, the rate was already dropping at roughly the same rate prior to the passing of the legislation.

The report also noted that the provinces with helmet laws experienced a drop in head injuries that was almost the same as the drop experienced by provinces without helmet laws. The report concluded that the helmet laws did not do much to reduce hospital admissions for cycling head injuries.

Helmets still prevent injury

What the report is NOT saying is that helmets do not prevent head injuries. Rather, it is saying Canadians were beginning to wear bicycle helmets more and more prior to the enactment of the helmet laws.

Canadians were becoming more aware of the importance of proper headgear when cycling and were voluntarily protecting themselves from head injuries before the law told them to do so.


While it may be that the decrease in cycling-related head injuries is not a direct result of the helmet laws, this does not mean the law itself is flawed. What we can take from the BMJ study is that maybe there should be a greater focus on educating cyclists about the dangers of riding without helmets.

If more people began wearing helmets once they became aware of the risks, can we convince the last 35% of non-helmet riders to protect themselves?

Comments are closed.