A Brain Surgeon on Bicycle Helmets

While at the Bikes Belong in Ontario event, we met Dr. Charles Tator, a brain surgeon and founder of Thinkfirst, an organization with the mission to "prevent brain and spinal cord injury through education aimed at healthy behaviours in children and youth." He was there to promote helmet use by bicyclists; knowing this is a controversial subject among TreeHugger readers, we asked him a few questions.

First, to set the scene, please describe the gory details of what you see in patients who have not worn helmets.

When I go into public schools to speak to children on behalf of ThinkFirst, I bring a Jell-O mold in the shape of the brain to impress them about the fragility of the brain. The brain is like Jell-O. You only get one. We have not learned how to regenerate the injured brain. Protect the one you’ve got!

What led you to found thinkfirst?

As a brain surgeon at the Toronto Western Hospital and University of Toronto, I have helped many bicyclists during my 40 plus year career in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The worst have had irreparable brain damage, and they are either dead or severely disabled. The best have had only skull fractures and concussions, and they have recovered fully or almost fully. The worst have been unhelmeted.

I founded ThinkFirst, Canada, a national injury prevention foundation in 1992. We have advocated for a number of injury prevention strategies in various activities including motor vehicle traffic, sports and recreation and falls. Our advocacy is based on our own research and those of others.

Bicycling is a major cause of sports and recreation injuries in Ontario. For example, I have written a book about catastrophic injuries in sports and recreation based on our research in Ontario from 1986-1995. In this study, bicycling caused more head injuries that any other sports and recreational activity (to be published by University of Toronto Press, in 2008).

We know that helmets are 85% effective in preventing head injury and in locations with helmet laws, helmet usage goes up and the incidence of injury goes down (see Cochrane Review, Macpherson and Spinks, 2007).

Has it made a difference yet? what are the trends in helmet use on bikes? Should bike helmets be mandatory for all riders?

Our research shows that currently only 42% of adult bikers in Toronto wear helmets. In my view, 58% of adult bicyclists in my city are taking an unnecessary risk of ending up on my operating room table.n Canada, each of us pays for the others’ risk taking behaviour because we have a national, comprehensive, government paid health plan. This is another reason I advocate for compulsory helmet use. Permanently comatose bikers each cost Canadians 8M$, and this leaves less money for treating brain tumors and other neurological disorders which sadly, we have not yet learned to prevent.

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