Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Look beyond the surface...

Look at this photo. What do you see? I see a young girl smiling. I think to myself, she seems really happy. Maybe because it's summertime, or maybe it's because she has an awesome red bike. Perhaps she's excited because this is the first time she's ridden her bike without her parents holding on, or that she knows she's really close to getting rid of her training wheels. All I know is that she looks happy, and that's what matters.

Now look closer. Read deeper into this photo. See the young girl, around age six, who is well on her way to enjoying riding a bike for years to come. If she continues riding her bike often enough, she will be healthy and active, helping to keep illnesses related to inactivity away. I also see confidence, which will help her as she starts to navigate around the city she lives in, knowing she is capable of mapping out her path, finding the best route, and if she gets lost, she will calmly be able to figure out where to go next. I also see the parents behind the camera that are helping to nurture her and support her. Otherwise, this photo wouldn't even exist. 

One thing I don't notice, or at least I shouldn't care to notice, is that she isn't wearing anything protective. No helmet, no pads or armour. Just a girl riding her bike. Why isn't she wearing those things? Her parents must not feel that what she is doing is unsafe, and therefore doesn't require a ton of safety gear. They simply think that they learned to ride a bike when they were kids, and want to share this knowledge and experience with their own child. And they should be congratulated like any other parent for starting their kid on the right path to a happy and healthy childhood.

The sad truth is, though, that many people will look at this photo and get angry. They won't see the joy, the possibilities and the positivity about this young girl on a bike. They will simply see a child without a helmet and think that her parents are awful, irresponsible people, putting their child in danger by allowing her to do a perceived dangerous activity without protection. These people would rather see this girl travelling safely in a car, or not leaving the house at all, safe on her couch, than accept that the dangers of riding a bike are not as extreme as they have been made out here in North America.

Just last week, the Canadian Paediatrics Society called for legislation to mandate helmet use for all ages across Canada. The concern is for a reduction of concussions and other head injuries, most specifically amongst the young. Studies were discussed, saying that bicycle related injuries account for four per cent of emergency department cases. Sure, that's relevant, but how many of those were related to actual helmet usage. What I'm hearing is four out of one hundred child and youth emergency department cases are bike related. Let's face facts here. Overall, that is a really low percentage, which translates to me that riding a bike is really not that dangerous, even for the young.

Part of the reasoning for the recommendation, Paediatricians in the society say, is that in areas where there is mandatory helmet legislation, helmet usage is up. Well, of course it is. If you want to ride a bike but don't want to run the risk of being fined, do you really have a choice? The study I want to see is whether or not cycling rates in those areas also decreased as a result of the legislation. In Australia, where a mandatory helmet law has been in place longer than here in BC, this is what studies have found:

"As reported in March 2007 and based on data from Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria, the number of Australian children walking or riding a bicycle to school has plunged from about 80% in 1977 to the current level around 5%. The data confirms that in Western Australia, the decline of cycling began around 1991 when the helmet law was enacted." (Source)

What has been increasing in Australia are cases of childhood obesity, the rates of which tripled between 1985 and 1995. A survey from 2008 reported that one in four children aged 5-17 were overweight or obese. So while children may be safer while riding their bikes due to helmet usage, the helmet law has essentially detracted children and youth from riding, therefore increasingly their inactivity and risking their health. Surely the focus every where should be more on keeping kids active and healthy in their every day lives, instead of putting restrictions on the fun and easy ways they can do that. And if safety is such an important concern, which I don't disagree with, then padding our kids up with body armour isn't the answer. Instead, cities should be focused on creating better, safer infrastructure for all cyclists. Traffic calming, separated lanes and driver education will go much further to keep us and our children safe and get more people active and on a path to overall health and wellness.

This photo was taken nearly three decades ago, and if you haven't guessed by now, the girl in that photo is yours truly. I have been avidly riding my bicycle now for over 30 years. From riding around my neighbourhood as a kid with my friends, to the other side of my suburban home town to meet up with my teenage boyfriend, to today, riding with that same boy, now my husband, and my own children, I have never once thought what I was doing was too dangerous. I don't take risks while I'm on my bike, I refuse to "ride with the bulls", preferring to stay on quieter roads or streets where I am separated from the cars. But most importantly, I am still that young girl in the photo, simply on a bike, smiling and having fun, and that's what should matter most.


  1. Child obesity is mainly down to poor parenting - cycle helmets save lives - fact.

    1. Thank you for commenting. I don't think saying poor parenting is a fair argument. Parents choosing healthy food options will only go so far. Having an active lifestyle saves more lives than helmets ever will, and giving people reasons to think activities like riding abide to school are too dangerous will not get kids outside, active and healthy.

  2. Except when they don't. Alberta passed a mandatory helmet law for children under 18 in 2002. The result: a reduction of more than half the number of people cycling in that age group, while their risk of injury actually increased:

  3. The Australian example is widely discussed, widely researched, and sadly soundly confirmed: helmet laws have reduced cycle use, which reduces what is called "security in numbers", and increases other life risks, like obesity mentioned in the article, as well as the risk of alternative transportation - those people still get from A to B somehow. A recent study shows that "parent taxis", parents driving their kids to school, increases the children's risk of car accidents where it is well-meant to reduce it.

    An often misunderstood debate is that not favoring helmet laws is not at all about not wearing helmets - I do wear one, and my children certainly do. A helmet is potentially useful even though its actual specs are usually overrated, and obviously harmless if nothing else, which makes for a positive sum of odds, so better wear it (see "Pascal's wager"). But the decision should be everyone's own to make.

    And my first thought about the girl in the picture was totally different: look, training wheels. We don't do that anymore...