I wrote a book recently called “Misery Bay” in which—spoiler alert—a character dies when he is struck by a car while riding a bike without a helmet.
This is ironic because I myself don’t usually wear a helmet while riding my bike.
I say this to communicate two things: I understand the arguments for wearing a helmet. And there are still many times when I don’t put mine on.
The following are three reasons why I don’t usually wear a bike helmet. And one reason why you should keep telling me to.
1) A little risk isn’t a bad thing
It’s been said that when humans stop being hungry they start being afraid. I expect that any objective look at Western culture would confirm this. For the most part, we’re pretty well fed. And for the most part, we’re obsessed with safety.
From the playground to the job site, “Safety First” is our driving doctrine, our singular prime directive. In fact, it’s my opinion that we’ve become so obsessed with preventing even the slightest risk and danger that fictional risk and danger have become our guilty pleasures.
Why? Because the truth is that we humans crave a little risk.
Why do kids climb trees? Why do adults parachute out of planes? Why do white suburban teens listen to gangsta rap? Why do stupid people film themselves performing the latest Internet “Challenge”?
Because some degree of danger and uncertainty is alluring. It’s hardwired into our psyche. It’s what makes us inventors, and explorers, and artists. There is no reward without risk.
Although, for the dumbest few, there is plenty of risk without reward.
This is why I reject the concept of “Safety First”, even when it takes the form of bicycle helmets.
I grew up riding a bike. We rode endless miles of country roads with no helmets and nobody blinked an eye. Was there some element of risk in that? Probably. In the same way that there was some risk in rope-swinging into a country pond or traversing a fallen tree over a storm-swollen creek (things that would also be verboten in today’s hissy-fit religion of worry).
Like climbing a tree, riding a bike simply wasn’t anyone’s idea of an extreme sport. It was just a slightly faster-than-walking-pace means of getting from here to there.
Which brings me to point #2:
2) I don’t do what helmet-wearers do
Like death and taxes, some things are absolutely axiomatic. Every single time the subject of bicycle helmets comes up, the nearest bicyclist tells me their horror story of the time their helmet saved their life. And every story starts something like this:
“I was with my riding group doing thirty-five through a construction site when…”
“I was mountain biking down a steep, muddy path when…”
“I was chasing a gang of bicycle ninjas through a monsoon along the hairpin turns of the Amalfi coast when…”
“Two hundred foot drop to jagged rocks? Good thing I’m wearing this plastic helmet!”
Look, people: I don’t ride like that.
When I’m riding, I’m not in Beast Mode. I’m in toodle-mode.
I’m not out to break any records, or test the frayed limits of human endurance, or swoop through heavy traffic like I’m being filmed for a Bond movie. I don’t go much faster than running pace. I don’t lock my shoes into my pedals as if me and my bike were some sort of steampunk man/machine hybrid. I don’t race down mountains, jump creeks, or dodge boulders at speeds measured in hundredths of a second.
I meander. Even when I am coasting down the quarter-mile hill to Presque Isle (my favorite ride), I keep to the bike lane and thread my brakes to stay below fifteen miles an hour. Why? Because I am aware that traveling any faster on a two-wheeled vehicle with no airbags, seat belts, or crumple-zones is an unwise and foolhardy exercise.
And I can hear some of you saying, “But what about the drivers!? What if some car swerves onto the path with its evil combustion engine!?”
I’d be in the exact same danger if I was walking, wouldn’t I? And yet no one ever suggests that I wear a helmet as a pedestrian.
“A Walking Helmet is a Good Helmet” — DAMMIT, irony!
I’m always tempted to respond to these cycling tales of the macabre with the story of Stephen King, who was struck and nearly killed by a van while merely walking alongside a Maine road near his home. Does his story make you want to wear a helmet every time you head out for an after dinner stroll? For some of you, it actually might.
For the rest of you, nor does the fear of rogue drivers keep me from riding the bike path without a helmet. I have a handlebar mirror to watch for traffic, I avoid riding my bike on busy roads wherever possible, and I keep on high alert whenever I do ride near cars and trucks.
Riders that wear helmets, however, seem to adopt a completely different mentality.
Recently, I was driving down onto Presque Isle for a picnic, following a steady stream of 25 MPH cars deep into the peninsula, when I encountered a guy on a recumbent bike. He came up behind my Subaru decked out in riding shorts, one of those tight shirts emblazoned with logos, and his omnipresent bike helmet. He swerved through the cars, cutting the centerline and swooping back and forth across the lanes like a ferret navigating a procession of cows. He got behind my car and started dodging back and forth, first seen in the passenger mirror, then the driver’s mirror. He was right on my bumper, looking for a break in the traffic so he could squirt through ahead of me.
Suddenly it was my job to watch out for him and his reckless riding. I felt like I couldn’t so much as tap my brakes lest he plow under my rear bumper.
Riders like that? They definitely need to wear a helmet.
Me, on the bike path, toodling along at a sedate twelve-and-a-half miles per hour? Nah. I’m good.
But that brings us, finally, to:
3) The Statistics Don’t Make Your Point
There’s a man named Mikael Colville-Andersen and he’s known as Copenhagen’s bicycle ambassador. He’s given Ted talks on the subject of bicycle helmets—why he doesn’t wear one, and why he thinks the messaging around bicycle helmets is counterproductive to healthy cities. I encourage you to watch the linked video, but if you’re in a big hurry, here’s the breakdown.
1) Statistically, pedestrians and vehicle occupants have a greater likelihood of experiencing head injuries than do bicyclists.
2) Studies done in cultures where bicycle helmets are the norm have shown that incidents of vehicle/cyclist accidents have actually increased rather than diminished. How can this possibly be? Some suggest that it’s because the helmet creates an inflated sense of safety for both the rider and nearby drivers, reducing vigilance and common sense.
3) In cities where bicycle helmet safety has been widely promoted, the result has not necessarily been more helmets; it’s been fewer cyclists. The reason for this is simple: the inadvertent message is that bicycle riding is inherently dangerous, thus scaring commuters away from their bikes and back into their cars and buses.
Colville-Anderson even suggests that this is an intentional effect sponsored by automobile manufacturers, who view urban cycling as a threat to their industry.
To put this in some perspective, however, I do own a bicycle helmet. I have worn it on occasion. I wear it when I know I will be riding near fast-moving vehicles on busier roads than my morning commute. I do it if I will be riding on unfamiliar terrain. I do it if I am in an area I don’t know very well.
I do it if I’m heading into a client-meeting with the marketing department.
But the fact is, I am a creature of routine. I don’t encounter those situations very often. In fact, I avoid them. And that’s why you won’t see me wearing my helmet most of the time.
But there’s one reason you should keep telling me to wear a helmet
And that’s simple: because you care. Thanks! Even if you’re the fat, sweaty, topless guy I passed on Grant’s Trail in St. Louis, who yelled at me from his bike “Put on a helmet!” and to whom I responded, “Put on a shirt!”—thanks for caring!
I feel about it the same way that atheist Penn Jillette feels about Christian proselytization: if you really believe that something might possibly save my life, what kind of jerk would you have to be not to share it with me? I like knowing that people care, even if I don’t agree with their concerns, so please continue to harangue me about wearing a bike helmet. I may try to explain myself, or I may not. Most cyclists are so utterly assured in their convictions that debating with them almost seems like an insult. So I’ll instead choose to just feel loved.
Even if, inwardly, I roll my eyes a little.