Thursday, October 24, 2013

Religion, Politics, and Helmets

“In religion, politics, and helmets, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue but have taken them at second-hand from other non-examiners, whose opinions about them were not worth a brass farthing.” -- Mark Twain

Mark Twain: America's First Retrogrouch?

OK, I added the "helmets" part, but I think if Mark Twain had been a cyclist, I'm sure he might have included them. After all, he did write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1885, the same year that the first safety bicycle was invented. Coincidence?. . . well . . . yeah, it is. But still, it fits.

I swore to myself that I wasn't going to write about helmets, despite having a bicycling blog. But something happened that got me thinking about the subject, and so at the risk of doing something as pointless as adding sand to a beach, I've decided that I might as well get to it now while my blog is young, and get it over with.

Here's the thing. I was out for a ride with an old college friend, one who has always been adamantly a "no helmet" rider as long as I've known him. I figure it's his choice to wear one or not, and as long as he has a choice, he refuses to wear a helmet. OK by me. As we were riding along in the local cycling mecca, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, we passed a group of riders going the opposite direction. As they passed us, a woman in the group obnoxiously yelled across at my friend, "GET A HELMET!" To which my friend bellowed back viciously "F#@K YOU, B*%CH!!"

Suddenly I couldn't decide who I was more put-off by: the self-righteous Buttinsky who couldn't keep her opinion to herself, or my hot-headed and vulgar riding companion. Give me a choice which one I'd rather ride with, and I'll ride by myself, thank you.

Seriously, the helmet issue is right up there with politics and religion as far as taboo subjects go. In some ways, it is almost a religion in itself. It has its atheists and its evangelicals. And then there are people like me: former-altar-boys-turned-lapsed-catholics-dabbling-in-buddhism-but-really-just-agnostic-if-we-have-to-give-an-honest-answer. There might be a few of us. The thing is, actual religion is divisive enough. I don't understand why some people feel compelled to raise helmets to the same level.

I've read lots of articles about the safety standards and the tests that are done on helmets, and I understand pretty well the physics of a collision. The truth is, there isn't a lot of similarity between the tests on helmets and the real world. Helmets are weighted and dropped onto a hard surface at a speed that maxes out at about 13 mph or so, and the g-forces are measured. I suppose that might be a decent benchmark for an accident where someone simply falls over off the bike from a near-standstill. But it's hard to imagine any collision between a cyclist and a moving car where the impact speed would be less than 25 mph -- probably much greater. Add the weight of the vehicle, which increases the force even more, and the flaws of the testing become clear. No bicycle helmet currently made could withstand the kind of force generated in a serious car-bike accident, and any helmet that could withstand it would be unwearable.

When one is really aware of the testing and the standards of protection for bicycle helmets, it becomes pretty difficult to justify the kind of overt "Get a Helmet" fundamentalism that many people feel obliged to exhibit. On the other hand, there are all kinds of very real accident scenarios where a helmet may indeed prove very beneficial. Nobody should be so over-confident in their own bike-handling skills that they should think they will never hit the pavement, so the fervent refusal to wear a helmet doesn't make a lot of sense either.

I wear a helmet for most of my riding. But I would never over-estimate how much protection a helmet can give me. There are times, like pedaling around my neighborhood for instance, when I do not feel compelled to wear one. People in cities like Amsterdam, or Copenhagen never wear helmets, yet in some ways they are safer on their bikes than we are here in the States -- the overwhelming number of cyclists in those cities lends them a certain "strength in numbers" status that means drivers in cars actually look out for them.

I cannot even remember the last time I crashed a bike on my own, but I remember like yesterday the time I got side-swiped by a car (even though it was 10 years ago) -- the car's side mirror broke off as it slammed into me, and the impact was enough to knock my handlebars out of alignment, yet somehow I managed not to go down. But I do commute to work year-round, and I know it's a distinct possibility that I could hit some "black ice" some cold morning and end up on the pavement. A helmet would probably be a big help in that case. On the other hand, if I get nailed by a 6,000 lb. SUV, I have no illusions whatsoever that an 8-oz foam bowl on my head is going to do anything to keep me alive. In a situation like that, with or without a helmet, I'm toast.

That leads me to another thing about the helmet debate: that it even infects people who don't ride bikes at all. If a helmetless rider does get flattened by a cell-phone-distracted-driver in a Cadillac Escalade, you can be sure the newspaper articles (if there are any) will make sure to state prominently "The cyclist was not wearing a helmet." Then everyone can breathe a big sigh of relief and blame the cyclist, concluding that some "idiot" on a bike got what he deserved, and some can maybe even push for mandatory helmet laws while we preserve the right of every driver to text or talk on the phone, or surf the internet, or watch YouTube videos while driving.

The way I look at it, a helmet is a piece of safety equipment that may help in some kinds of accidents but not others. It's one piece (maybe only a small piece) of a safety picture that should also include such things as understanding the laws and the cyclists' rights, proper drivers' education that actually teaches those laws and rights, and providing proper infrastructure that accounts for non-car traffic. More important is having a good understanding of how to ride defensively, and developing the skills to avoid accidents in the first place. But there is nothing about a helmet that is "certain" enough to justify the kinds of falsely dualistic, black and white, manichean attitudes about them.

Addendum: Mark Twain did actually write about a bicycle-riding experience -- in a humorous essay titled "Taming the Bicycle" in 1884 -- about a failed attempt to ride what was known then as an "ordinary" or "penny farthing." The story was never actually published in his lifetime, but it ended with these words: "Get a bicycle. You will not regret it. If you live."

1 comment:

  1. While wearing a helmet, I slid out on black ice in a cul-de-sac and went down instantly. There was no time to react and my head struck the pavement on the left side. My mirror was fastened to that side of the helmet and quite possibly contributed to the resulting concussion. It's hard to say if the helmet protected me in that situation. I still wear one whenever I ride. It's a good place to attach a blinking taillight.