Cyclist Fatality Trends in Canada

    Helmet Effect Undetectable in Fatality Trends


    An examination of data covering the period 1975 - 2010 from Transport Canada [1,2], a federal government agency, shows that Canada is replicating the experiences of Australia and the US, where no effect of increased helmet use among cyclists can be detected from prevailing fatality trends. As with other studies, our analysis uses pedestrians as a control group since pedestrians are vulnerable road users and are likely to benefit equally with cyclists from general safety campaigns, such as those involving roadside breath-testing of motorists and speed surveillance using radar equipment.


    Figure 1 shows fatalities for Canadian cyclists and pedestrians.

    Figure 1

    During the period 1975 - 1987, pedestrian fatalities averaged 757 per annum and cyclists 128 per annum. During the following period 1988 - 2002, fatalities dropped to an average of 450 per annum for pedestrians and 78 per annum for cyclists. Comparing the period averages, pedestrian deaths decreased by 42% but cyclist deaths decreased at a slower rate of 39%. During the second period helmet use among the cycling population in Canada grew from virtually zero to well over 30% by 1995, and with a continuing upward trend owing to government promotion and legislation, helmet use was likely in the range of 40% to 50% by 1997 [3]. A 1994/5 survey by Statistics Canada, the government data gathering agency, indicated bicycle helmet use at 62% among child cyclists 12 years old and younger, and 19% among the remainder of cyclists [4]. * A 1999 survey in British Columbia showed helmet use at 70%. [4a] Also during the second period, six provincial governments imposed mandatory helmet legislation on their respective populations - Ontario (1995, children 18 years and under), British Columbia (1996, all cyclists), Nova Scotia (1997, all cyclists), New Brunswick (1996, all cyclists), Prince Edward Island (2003, all cyclists) and Alberta (2002, children 18 years and under). By 2002, close to 50% of Canada's population were subject to mandatory bicycle helmet laws. This analysis used data then available up to 2002. Since 2002 (2003 to 2010) there have been an average of 344 pedestrian fatalities per annum and 55 cyclists. Each period has recorded a decrease of approx 30%. Over the 10 years to 2010, the cyclist fatality trend has flattened out settling around 55 annually.

      * In 1996, Canada's population was 30 million. According to the survey, approx 60% of the 5 million children who were 12 years and younger were cyclists, and approximately 30% of the rest of the population had ridden a bicycle in the 3 months preceding the survey. By 2011 Canada's population was 33 million. In 1975, it was 23 million

    Figure 2 Trends (pedestrians/cyclists scaled to 5.65:1 ratio)

    Figure 2

    Figure 2 above shows the prevailing fatality trends are virtually identical.


    It is apparent that mass helmet use is not contributing to the reduction in cyclist fatalities, at least not in any measurable way. The results suggest that traffic authorities should refocus to put their efforts into other proven measures. Programs aimed at motorist behaviour over the past 30 or so years have been effective in reducing fatalities among all road user groups, including pedestrians and cyclists. Pressure on aggressive drivers to change their habits should continue. However, targetting the behaviour of only one of the parties would be short sighted. Cyclist-specific measures are also needed. There are two important factors in cycling fatalities which currently get insufficient attention - cyclist behaviour and night lighting equipment. The vast majority of cycling accidents involve cyclist error or inappropriate practices. That includes collisions with motor vehicles [5]. Educational efforts to improve cyclists' skills should be accorded a high priority. School age children are the obvious target group. Responsible behaviour patterns need to be adopted at an early age.

    The corollary is stricter enforcement of bicycle night lighting laws. Over 90% of bicycles involved in night time fatalities have inadequate lighting [6]. Violaters increase their risks of being fatality statistics by a factor of four [7]. Data from Ontario show 20% to 30% of fatalities occur at dusk or during the hours of darkness [7-9]. Transport Canada in 2011 indicated over one third cyclist fatalities occur in the hours of darkness.


    1. Road Safety Statistics, Transport Canada
    2. Canadian Motor Vehicle Traffic Collisions Statistics, 1975 to 1996, Transport Canada
    3. Ontario Coalition for Better Cycling, Ottawa, Ontario, Cyclist and Helmet Use Survey, October 1994
    4. Statistics Canada, Factors Associated with Bicycle Helmet Use, 1997, Health Reports, vol. 9 no. 2, Autumn Edition
    4a. Bicycle Helmet Use in British Columbia: effects of the helmet use law, April 2000, Foss Robert D., and Beirness Douglas J., University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center
    5. Forester, John, Bicycle Transportation, 1994, MIT Press
    6. Thom R., Clayton A., and Omar H., Winnipeg's Bicycle Accident Experience, paper presented to the Institute of Transportation Engineers Annual Conference June 1990
    7. Rowe, Rowe and Bota, Bicyclist and Environmental Factors Associated with Fatal Bicycle-Related Trauma in Ontario, Canadian Medical Association Journal, January 1, 1995
    8. Ontario Road Safety Annual Reports, 1990 to 1996
    9. Regional Coroner for Toronto's Report on Cycling Fatalities in Toronto 1986 - 1996, Recommendations for Reducing Cycling Injuries and Deaths, July 1, 1998.

    [First compiled January 1999. Revised June 2004]

    See US FATALITY TRENDS for a similar analysis of US trends.

December 2013
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