A cycling physician says he “absolutely” supports a Vancouver resident’s charter challenge of the provincial law requiring cyclists to wear helmets.
“I think that the helmet law is bad, not only in terms of cycling but also from a public-health perspective. From a safety perspective, it’s very misguided legislation,” Tom Demarco told the Georgia Straight by phone from his Whistler office. “It’s doing far more harm than good.”
In August 2009, Vancouver police issued Ron van der Eerden a $29 ticket, under Section 184 of the provincial Motor Vehicle Act, for not wearing a helmet. Van der Eerden decided he would fight the ticket. “And it turns out that the only avenue to fight it—if you admit that you weren’t wearing one [a helmet]—is to fight it as a charter challenge,” van der Eerden told the Straight by phone. “Because, basically, that is my reasoning: that the law is unjust and ineffective and actually has quite the opposite effect of what it is intending to do. You know, the intention is to make things safer for cyclists, and I think it actually does the opposite.”
Van der Eerden said he has a binder full of material just dealing with head injuries. He cited a 2006 analysis put out by the Canadian Institute for Health Information, called Head Injuries in Canada: A Decade of Change (1994–1995 to 2003–2004).
According to this report, in the 2003-04 fiscal year, cycling incidents led to 4,605 hospitalizations in the country. Of these hospitalizations, 815, or 18 percent, involved head injuries. The average age of cyclists sustaining head injuries requiring hospitalization was 25 years. By comparison, head injuries sustained in motor-vehicle incidents accounted for 5,970 hospital admissions that same year.
In his notice of application filed with B.C.’s provincial traffic court on March 15, van der Eerden is seeking such relief from the enforcement powers of the provincial law “as the court considers appropriate and just in the circumstances” and that is guaranteed under Section 24 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Elsewhere in his legal application, van der Eerden claims that sections 1, 7, and 15 of the charter are being violated. On August 12, the court will hear his arguments. Van der Eerden is representing himself in the case.
“Bicycle helmet legislation is discriminatory as it applies, with demonstrable justification, only to individuals who ride bicycles without being equally applied to individuals who drive automobiles or walk,” van der Eerden wrote in the court documents.
Arno Schortinghuis, a director and past president of the Vancouver Area Cycling Coalition, told the Straight by phone that he, like Demarco, wears a helmet but disagrees with the law. He argues it suppresses the numbers of riders and could hinder the success of the city bike-sharing program slated to arrive in Vancouver next year.
According to David Hay, a downtown Vancouver lawyer who is consulted by cycling groups, there is an “extremely limited” chance of the charter challenge succeeding. “I just don’t think there’s any judicial appetite for the abolition of the helmet law,” Hay told the Straight by phone.