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Quebec Nixes Helmet Law: 1997

A message from Robert Boivin

Montreal, Quebec, January 17, 1997

No Helmet Law For Quebec

It's a great pleasure to inform you that Quebec cyclists can decide for themselves whether or not to don a helmet when riding their bicycles. This was the upshot of Quebec Transport Minister Jacques Brassard's statement to the Quebec National Assembly indicating that he would not be tabling mandatory helmet legislation. The declaration puts an end debates before a Quebec parliamentary commission in charge of making changes to provincial highway code.

The transport minister based his decision on three factors: a lack of public consensus on the need for a restrictive law; the problems police would face effectively enforcing the law; and the opinion expressed by numerous interest groups that there is still room to increase voluntary helmet use through promotion, education and public awareness campaigns.

Some forty groups appeared before the parliamentary commission to present testimony concerning the proposed helmet law. About 25 reports were opposed to mandatory helmet legislation while fewer than ten were in favour. Disagreement was principally between public health officials on the one hand and bicycle manufacturers, cycling events promoters, clubs, bicycle activists as well as many individuals who came to express their concerns about the threat of helmet regulation.

While medical opinion was far from unanimous, two doctors' groups as well as the Order of Dentists submitted briefs showing that education and promotion would have a more lasting effect than legislation. Dr. Thomas DeMarco of Rock Island testified that such a law would create many more problems than solutions in terms of public health due to the resulting decrease in bicycle use. The Montreal Urban Community Police as well as the City of Montreal were equally opposed to the idea of such a law.

Public opinion was also shown to favour the educational approach. Several newspaper editorials took a stand against the proposed law, and a public opinion poll conducted by the respected firm of Le Group Leger & Leger in November 1996 just after the parliamentary commission was adjourned, showed that the public favoured education over coercion.

To summarize the poll's findings:

85.1% of the people questioned said that bicycle safety is better promoted by bicycle paths and road safety education campaigns than by mandatory helmet law.

77.4% of the people polled said that an educational approach to make people aware of the benefits of wearing a helmet was preferable to a restrictive approach making helmet use obligatory.

The poll was conducted using a sampling of 1,008 respondents representative of the adult population of Quebec. The margin of error for 1,008 people polled is about 3.1%.

The decision of Transport Minister Jacques Brassard is especially welcome. During this debate, the Quebec department of public health had worked hard to force passage of the proposed helmet law, intensely lobbying municipalities and groups to force a helmet law on 4.5 million Quebec cyclists. But it's our hope that certain public health officials will be more open-minded following this outcome. Cycling organizations were, after all, the first to press governments for cyclist safety and they continue to be the most active on this question. Their expert knowledge about cycling is extensive and hence deserves to be taken into account. It was discouraging to witness, as we did during the parliamentary commission hearings, that public health lobbyists tend to consider cycling organizations as adversaries, in the company of tobacco companies. The irony here is that this narrow vision only works to discredit the public health department itself, obscuring other useful and essential work conducted in the realm of public health.

On a happier note, it should be noted that a lack of consensus concerning helmet legislation did not detract from widespread agreement at the parliamentary commission hearings concerning the importance of bicycle paths, the reduction of speed limits in urban areas, and traffic safety education including helmet promotion. These measures which have been central to the approach of cycling organizations for many years are now being adopted by other sectors of society including the public health department.

Before closing, it's important to explain who helped us devote such great energy to blocking helmet legislation in Quebec. We are indebted to the encouragement of our members, the participants in the Tour de l'Ile and the Grand Tour, to our cycling colleagues throughout the world, to the public who come to and make use of La Maison des Cyclistes, and to the many people we met and worked closely with during these last months.

You also participated in this "battle". I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to you, on my own behalf and also on behalf of the current and future cyclists of Quebec.

Again many thanks,

Robert Boivin
Deputy president
Groupe velo

(Thanks to Dorre Robinson for posting this article)

Note: Despite this action at Province level, the Montreal suburbs of Cote Saint-Luc and Westmount have passed by-laws requiring the use of bicycle helmets within their boundaries. In October, 1997, the Cote Saint-Luc law was extended to cover bicyclists and skaters of all ages.