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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.

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