Fewer children in Ontario died of bike-related injuries after the introduction of a law requiring young cyclists to wear helmets, Canadian researchers have found.

Under a provincial statute passed in October 1995, parents of children under 16 can be fined $80 if their child is not wearing a bike helmet, and 16- or 17-year-olds who fail to wear a helmet can be fined directly. The law does not apply to adults. 

Bike helmet legislation in Canada

 Province/Territory  Law
 B.C. Applies to all ages
 Alta.  

Applies only to 18 and younger

 Sask. No provincial legislation; Yorkton has municipal bylaw
 Man. No provincial legislation
 Ont. Applies to bicyclists less than 18 years old
 Que.  

No provincial legislation

 N.B.  

Law applies to all ages

 N.S.  

Law applies to all ages

 P.E.I.  

Law applies to all ages

 Nfld. and Labrador  

Mount Pearl and St. John's have bylaws for children under 12

 Yukon  

No provincial law; Whitehorse has all-ages bylaw

 N.W.T.  

No provincial law; Inuvik has all-ages law

 Nunavut No provincial legislation

Source: Safe Kids Canada

During the research period, from 1991 to 2002, there were 362 bicycle-related deaths in Ontario, 107 of which involved children aged 15 and younger.

The number of deaths per year decreased 52 per cent among the under-16 bicyclists after the law came into force, Dr. Patricia Parkin of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and her colleagues report in Tuesday's issue of the journal Pediatrics.

Before the law was introduced, there were an average of 13 deaths per year, compared with six deaths a year afterward.

The finding translates into a life saved roughly every two months, Parkin said.

There was no similar reduction in deaths among cyclists age 16 and over; in fact, death rates among those cyclists rose five per cent after the legislation came into effect.

"These findings provide support for extending the law to include adults," the researchers conclude. "The findings also argue for continued enforcement of the existing law as it applies to bicyclists less than 18 years of age."

Analyzing data from more than 2,000 children in the study, the researchers found kids were nine times more likely to be wearing a helmet when cycling with adults who donned their helmets.

The finding was expected, since adults are important role models for keeping kids healthy, active and safe, Parkin said.

Other changes such as bike-safety awareness programs might have also helped reduce deaths, the researchers note.

'Wake-up call to other provinces'

Commenting on the findings, Dr. Louis Hugo Francescutti of the department of public health sciences at the University of Alberta said it is worrying that researchers are not seeing similar improvements among older teens.

"You can interpret this study as saying that a well-crafted piece of legislation that's enforced will give us the results that we are expecting, which is a reduction in fatalities," Francescutti said.

"This is a wake-up call to other provinces and territories that don't have a law in place, and that law should be extended to all riders, not just kids."

Francescutti advised parents to:

  • Set an example by wearing helmets themselves when they bike.
  • Be tough — don't allow children to get bikes if they aren't wearing a helmet.
  • Call on police to enforce helmet laws.
  • Check that helmets are fitted properly.
  • Replace a helmet if it is involved in a collision. Damage to the helmet may not always be visible.

At Bill Strickland's bicycle shop in Newfoundland, he said he's seen helmet use increase since the mid 1990s, when St. John's passed a municipal bylaw making them mandatory.

Law or no law, the decision to wear a helmet should be a no-brainer, Strickland said.

"You don't know when you are going to fall, and it's too late then to say, 'I've got head injuries,' " Strickland said.

With files from the Canadian Press