Sunday, April 27, 2008

Why I wear a helmet (and don't support helmet laws)

I generally stay clear of bicycle helmet discussions. I explained a bit about my views on helmets and helmet discussions in the first few paragraphs of this talk on cycling safety, and I mostly left things at that. However an unusually civil discussion of the helmet wars over on the iBOB list led one the fellows there to email me asking for a bit more info as to why I choose to wear a helmet. This blog post is in response to his query. And I did find it odd, wonderful and somehow typical of the iBOB list that the helmet war thread there morphed into a battle of dueling haiku.

I wear a bicycle helmet when I'm riding my bicycle not because I've been swayed by statistics or compelled by law. I recently was looking at a nearly 20 year old photograph of my son and I. Peter's helmet is too far back on his head and my helmet wouldn't pass today's impact tests but we both wore helmets then and wear them now when we ride.

Most of the people I know who choose to ride without a helmet have some complaint about the comfort or fashion of the helmet and then say they are not swayed by the statistics regarding their efficacy. I guess I don't have the comfort or fashion issues and in fact I find helmets useful. I'm not swayed by reasons not to wear a helmet.

One argument against wearing a helmet that I've heard is "you don't wear a helmet while walking or driving a car, why wear one when you ride?" Here's what I see as the difference. I walk at 3 miles per hour and I'm a pretty stable biped. I usually walk in environments where I'm not surrounded by large objects moving at high speed. There are not a large number of potential interchanges of energy when I'm walking. If I do trip and fall, I'm wired by years of evolution (or if you prefer, some sort of intelligent design) to react accordingly (at least I hope so). And the ground I walk on is usually softer than the street.

When I'm on a bike, I've already opted for one mechanised enhancement, the bicycle itself. This changes my average speed from 3 miles per hour to 12. I've upped the potential energy I myself bring to any potential collisions. My the contact patch of bike tires are smaller than my footprints. And I'm often in an environment I share automobiles that are bigger, faster and bringing more of that potential energy to any sudden interactions we might have.

So why not wear a helmet in a car? Because a car pretty much is a helmet. It has crumple zones and airbags, things designed to absorb impact. Like a bike helmet is designed to do in a crash.

But we never wore helmets as kids and we survived our youth, some folks say. Yep, lots of people live doing all kinds of things. As a youth I had a classmate who lost control of his bike, crashed and died. I have no idea if he would have lived if he'd been wearing a helmet, but I do know he's not now a person who can say that he survived his youth.

I do know that I've found my helmets to be handy on a couple of occasions. I documented one of those crashes here. The other incident was a bicycle crash involving no cars or drivers. I was young and in too much of a hurry, racing home on a bike path with poor sight lines. Another fellow was doing the same thing coming the other way and we both tried to course correct to the same side of the path and went down. My helmet cracked on the pavement, my skull did not. I found that worthwhile.

Will a helmet save you in every crash? Of course not. Can it be handy in some situations? I've found it so. Should you wear a helmet? I think that's your choice. Just because I wear a helmet doesn't give me the right to tell you what to do. If you're endangering others by doing something like driving 200 miles per hour down the public streets, then I'll probably vote for a law saying that you shouldn't do that. But if you are taking a bit more risk than I would, by paragliding off Tiger Mountain or eating week-old sushi for example, I think you are the best person to decide that. I like being able to choose my risks and make my choices. I'd hate for someone else to decide it's too dangerous for me to bicycle to work.

As parents Christine and I learned that kids don't always pay much attention to what you say, but they sure as heck notice what you do. If you're a parent and you want your kids to wear a helmet, wear one yourself. But don't ask me to vote for a law telling you how to raise your kid.

I still think there are many more things you can do to make cycling safer than just wearing a helmet. But I don't favor laws stating that you have to read "How Not To Get Hit By Cars" or take a LAB course or use a rear-view mirror. And I don't favor mandatory helmet laws.

Keep 'em rolling,

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