Posted by Editor on 11/13/04
Ontario Helmet Legislation - Is This the Way to Go?
The announcement that a private member's bill to make helmet use mandatory for all cyclists in Ontario, regardless of age, has passed second reading in the Legislature has revived the ongoing debate about government involvement in this activity. We have seen numerous conflicting studies cited, and a veritable mountain of statistics presented, but all of this obscures the root question: If the government wants to modify behaviour (in this case, increased helmet use), is legislation the best way?
It is certainly the easiest way for a government to give the appearance of doing something, and considerably cheaper than alternatives, but does it accomplish the intended outcome of having more people wear helmets or, from a more cynical perspective, is it just a way of avoiding dealing with the real issues, which are education and encouragement?
If the government is serious about getting people to wear helmets, why is there so little being done to promote helmet use? Helmet use should be part of the curriculum at the elementary and secondary school levels. Why not remove sales tax on helmet purchases, and require educational hangtags on all new bikes? Include educational material with licence renewals, and make helmet purchases a tax deductible item on income tax. Television and print campaigns have been used for years to turn around social attitudes on practices such as drinking and driving, why not do the same for the use of helmets for cyclists, in-line skaters and scooter users? The above suggestions are just a few of the ways that government could effectively promote helmet use, so why isn't any of it being done?
The answer is cost. Passing new legislation allows the government to have the appearance of doing something, without actually having to make a financial commitment. If the legislation fails, then they can wash their hands of the situation, saying "See? We tried to do something, and the opposition/public opinion/courts (take your pick) wouldn't let us."
If the legislation passes, then the government can claim to have done something, while passing off the actual enforcement to police and municipalities. This also allows them the luxury of not allocating revenue to educational programs, since they can point to the legislation as their action in the matter.
If the legislation is passed, what is the likely outcome? First, it will likely be used only on a sporadic basis, since law enforcement agencies will, correctly, identify it as a minor offence. Blitzes will turn off those caught, ironically driving down participation in the sort of healthy activities that the government would like to promote. Second, it will become another revenue generation tool, obscuring the original reason for the legislation. Finally, it will turn helmet wearing into a negative (to avoid getting fined) as opposed to a positive (wearing a helmet protects you).
We are very much in favour of helmet use, but not as a punishment.
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