Make helmets mandatory

In Canada’s free health-care system, nothing is free; we all know that. We pay for it in taxes: federal, provincial and local.

In Canada’s free health-care system, nothing is free; we all know that. We pay for it in taxes: federal, provincial and local.

All provinces are trying to control budget costs, and health care is the largest and fastest-growing segment of provincial spending.

In Alberta, regional control of heath care was stripped away in the past year, put in the hands of a central authority, while many of our top health management executives lost their jobs.

So if someone came up with an idea to shave billions off health-care expenses, with a simple suggestion that is cheap to implement, easy to monitor and yields almost a 30-to-one cost savings factor, you’d think governments would look at it pretty closely.

All it would cost is a reduction of personal freedom.

Like our provincial seatbelt and auto insurance laws, which few people question as useful and beneficial, health advocates are suggesting Canada could save almost $15 billion a year, by making helmets mandatory for sports that have a high risk of head injuries.

In the wake of the recent death of actress Natasha Richards from a fall on a beginners slope in Quebec, all kinds of controversy has sprung up over whether helmet laws are an appropriate response to skiing injuries.

It’s not like ski injuries are the cause of runaway health costs. Statistics Canada reports the sport accounts for only 2.7 per cent of injuries and deaths to children in Canada. Recreational cycling — which has a much higher ratio of helmet use than skiing — accounts for 5.2 per cent of deaths and injuries to children.

But advocates in the Brain Injury Association of Canada point to studies that show every dollar spent on a sporting helmet saves about $29 in health costs. They reckon injuries that are fully preventable by the widespread use of sporting helmets cost $14.7 billion a year to our health-care system. In Alberta, it is accepted that one severe brain injury eventually costs taxpayers half a million dollars, not to mention the cost to the person.

A recent OECD study ranked Canada 27th out of 29 developed countries for preventable childhood injuries and death.

We won’t even try to calculate the cost of supporting thousands of disabled people, who might have been the charismatic leaders of the future, or employers or inventors or skilled trades people, simply because we did not force them to wear a helmet when they went out to ski, cycle or play a game of pickup hockey.

The question of personal freedom becomes moot in the face of that.

We are bound into the tax system for the cost of preventable injuries. We are also be bound by the loss of freedom of choice, if we tried creating legislation to reduce those costs.

Libertarians would cite this as a perfect example of using our freedom to choose the wiser path, and voluntarily wear helmets all the time. But that in itself is an abuse of freedom, because everyone, not just the individual, pays for the thousands of wrong choices.

In any case, the vast majority of Canadians do not ski, snowboard, cycle or play pickup hockey — yet they are forced to pay for the injuries of the people who are injured when they do. The majority should at least be able to request that people play these sports in a reasonably safe way.

Either way, we pay. The system is not free, not even really free to choose.

The best question is to ask which payment plan is the easiest to bear.

A mandatory helmet law seems the cheapest choice.

Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.