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Helmets — they may be the right tool, but it’s the wrong message

Whistler’s Dr. Tom DeMarco has often spoke out against helmet laws for cyclists – he’s not against helmets per se, but the pro-helmet rhetoric.

"The bottom line is that cycling is something that is good for individuals and society in terms of fitness, and the environment. Helmet laws are associated with decreased ridership, without a decrease in the rate of head injuries. They’ve stigmatized cycling, and I’m talking about road cycling, as being more dangerous than it really is. There is also some evidence that helmets also prompt people to take more risks," he says.

Because a large number of head injuries to cyclists happen as a result of run-ins with automobiles, DeMarco argues that getting more cars off the road will do more to prevent head injuries than will helmets – that fears about the dangers of cycling brought on by helmet laws and safety rhetoric will only increase the number of people in cars, where half of all head injuries take place.

DeMarco, an avid cyclist who has toured in Canada and Europe, says he has been in a situation where a helmet probably prevented a head injury, but at the same time he is convinced that he never would have gotten into that situation in the first place if he hadn’t been wearing his helmet.

"People voluntarily have to take responsibility for what they’re doing," he says. "You should never let gadgets take the place of your wits."

Whether you have wits or a helmet to protect you, there are studies that show that the average cyclist lives longer than the average person thanks to an improved physical fitness and a decreased risk of cardiovascular events.

"There’s one exception to my general philosophy, and that’s trail riding. I have no problem regulating or promoting bike helmets for off-road use," says DeMarco.

Education is the first step

While you can’t make somebody wear a helmet on the mountains, you can at least make them think twice, says mountain safety co-ordinator Cathy Jewett.

"What Whistler-Blackcomb did last year was to take members of the Freeride Team, team them up with ski patrollers, and take them around to schools to give safety talks on everything from backcountry safety to helmet use," she says. They spoke to more than 3,000 students last year and more trips are planned for the coming season.

She is also runs a program to introduce kids to the Alpine Responsibility Code. It’s already been simplified from 10 points down to five, and for kids it has been simplified even further to a single idea: respect.

"Respect for yourself, respect for others, and respect for the mountains," explains Jewett. "It’s about making good decisions. You can put on all the equipment you want, you can wear full body armour, but if you’re not using your head none of it is going to work."

Respecting yourself means respecting your own limitations, not giving in to peer pressure, and having the presence of mind to avoid situations that you’re not comfortable with.

Respecting others means skiing or boarding in such a way that you’re not a danger to those around you, that you respect everyone else’s limits, and that you respect the lives of the people who could end up having to come to your aid if you get into trouble.

Respecting the mountain means being aware of the conditions and the natural and man-made hazards out there and to take safety seriously.

"It’s the same thing for mountain biking or anything," says Jewett. "When I mountain bike I always say to myself that I’m a mother first and a rider second. I have a responsibility to my kids not to wind up in the hospital or in a cast."

In addition to school tours and safety programs for Whistler Kids’ participants, Whistler-Blackcomb and Intrawest have put together a safety video for release this year, once it has been approved by Intrawest and the Canada West Ski Areas Association. The video will be shown at all Intrawest ski resorts, and will be available to every resort that wants to use it as a tool to educate skiers and boarders.

The mountain has also formed a working relationship with Smart Risk, an Ontario-based organization that started teaching backcountry safety after four kids died in an avalanche at Nakiska.

Both videos feature segments on helmets, but are careful to make the point that helmets only go so far in protecting the skier or rider – you can still sustain a head injury no matter how thick the helmet is. "Helmets also don’t protect spines or the rest of your body, so if you go big because you think you’re protected by a helmet, think again."

More facts are needed

This winter, Dr. Adam Kendall – in collaboration with Simon Fraser University – will start compiling data on head injuries treated at the Whistler Health Care Centre.

"There’s not a lot of data available, and we have a grant to study skiers and snowboarders," says Kendall. "There isn’t a definitive study on the issue out there, and Whistler is the perfect spot to gather data."

Meanwhile, he says the Health Care Centre emergency room is full-up with mountain bike injuries – many of them from the bike park, many of them head injuries. He estimates that 80 to 90 per cent of all cases being treated are mountain bike-related.

"The other day I treated a patient with a crushed helmet, and a serious brain bleed," he says. "Whether he lives or not has yet to be seen, but it’s safe to say that without the helmet he probably wouldn’t have made it to emergency."