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Green Life: How about body armour?

The Montreal Gazette: Green Life: How about body armour?

BY MICHELLE LALONDE, THE GAZETTE MARCH 8, 2010

MONTREAL - In my last Green Life column, I criticized the Quebec government's latest attempt to be seen to be improving safety for cyclists. The government wants to amend the Highway Safety Code to make riding without a helmet illegal for children age 12 and under. I said such a law was unlikely to be enforced by police and is designed to distract from the real problem.

But I've had a change of heart.

Not only should young cyclists be forced to wear helmets, cyclists of all ages should be subject to the same law. In fact, pedestrians should wear helmets, too, since they routinely get hit by cars or fall on icy sidewalks. Actually, maybe we should outlaw cycling and walking all together. With hundreds of pedestrians and cyclists injured and dozens killed each year in Montreal, these activities are obviously just too dangerous.

And hang on a second. If drivers and their passengers wore helmets, they would undoubtedly lower their risk of head and brain injuries during collisions. Let's just make everybody wear helmets all the time.

In fact, to minimize risk, we should all just buy SUVs. Or better yet, Hummers. No ... wait ... army tanks! That's it! We should all drive our kids to school in armoured personnel carriers. This will require wider roads, but that's fine because we won't need sidewalks. We'll just drive right up to the school steps. Wait, what if the kids fall on the steps? Maybe we should home-school our kids. If they need exercise, we can always buy them stationary bikes. This will protect them from all that exhaust from the tanks.

I am, of course, being facetious (although injury-prevention specialists will tell you it would save more lives to make car drivers and passengers wear helmets rather than have cyclists wear them).

But let's get serious.

Of course, kids should wear helmets when they ride bikes. But we could put helmets on every cyclist and pedestrian in the city and they would still be hit by cars and there would still be hundreds of injuries and several deaths every year. The problem is not that cyclists keep falling off their bikes and banging their heads. The problem is they get hit by cars.

This is like passing a law to make it illegal for kids to cross the street without looking both ways first. Yes, fewer kids would die each year if they all looked both ways. But legislating behaviour is an an ass-backward and timid way to tackle a serious problem.

Almost 900 cyclists age 5 to 11 are injured on average per year in Montreal alone, and about the same number of young pedestrians are injured each year by motor vehicles. We have a big problem, and we need much more than a helmet law to solve it.

Yet this same Quebec government that wants to legislate helmet use is busy promoting urban highway projects like Notre Dame St. and the Turcot interchange, which will pump tens of thousands more cars onto Montreal streets. So while applying the Band-Aid solution of a helmet law, the transport ministry blithely sends more cars and trucks into our city to run over our kids.

Increasing traffic volumes will result in increased injuries to pedestrians and cyclists, not to mention more air pollution and a lower quality of life for Montreal residents. And while a helmet might prevent a concussion if you fall off your bike, any serious helmet advocate will tell you a helmet won't magically protect you if you are hit by a speeding car or truck. We need to reduce the opportunities for people to get hit by cars, and we know how to do this.

Other cities, like Copenhagen and Berlin and Portland, Ore., have made great strides on road safety, and not through distractions and half-measures, like helmet laws. If our politicians were serious about reducing injuries and deaths, improving public health and quality of life in cities, they would do all they can to make public transit, cycling and walking attractive, safe and fun.

Traffic experts have been telling politicians for years that you slow traffic not by slapping up speed limit signs and ticketing drivers, but by building physical and visual barriers (narrower streets, speed bumps, narrowed intersections, etc.) that force drivers to slow down. It's not like our government does not understand this.

It's just so much easier and cheaper to get political points by championing a helmet law. I make my kids wear helmets when they ride their bikes. Far more important, I teach my kids how to ride defensively to avoid being hit by a car. This is the responsibility of parents, and we, not politicians or cops, are best placed to do it.

Governments, on the other hand, have the responsibility to do all they can to protect the health and safety of all citizens. Our government can do so much more than propose a helmet law.

For starters, every municipal and provincial politician should read Vélo Québec's new guide for redesigning streets to favour active transportation. Order it at www.velo.qc.ca/fr/publicationstechniques.

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