Saturday, May 07, 2005

On Losing My Helmet

It's kind of embarrassing to admit, but, I used to be a helmet pusher. I absolutely would not ride without one. I absolutely did not want my wife riding without one. I positively did not want YOU riding without one.

Last fall, my wife Rachel told me that sometimes it just takes the fun out of riding. I didn't admit to anything, but conceded that it would be OK occasionally, for her. Then one day we were riding out by Blue Mountain, on a perfect, warm day, on a perfect, winding road by the river, and I did the unthinkable. I took off my helmet. I rode. I didn't suffer even minor brain damage. A car passed, but I survived. Worse yet, I had the helmet lashed under the saddle, in plain sight! Everyone knows a helmet doesn't do any good unless it's on your head, right? Right?

I was on a slippery slope now. Soon, more often than not, my helmet could be seen dangling from the bars on long climbs. Two days ago, I lost my helmet. I was running a bunch of errands downtown, and I already had a load on the bike. Carrying the helmet from place to place, I must have set it down somewhere, but where? The truth was, I didn't care any more. I haven't even been to look for it.

I LOVE not wearing my helmet. I'm more alert. Everything is quieter. It's cooler (I know what "they" say, but my head knows it's cooler). My neck hurts less. I don't have much hair, but if I did, it would look better. I feel friendlier. Cyclers are friendlier to me. I ride a little slower. I see a little more. If there were any doubt left, serious cyclists know I'm not one of them.

When I teach introductory economics, I tell my students to beware anyone who has a plan that involves only benefits. Everything has a cost. I pushed helmets purely on their benefits, and I still firmly believe those benefits. If your head hits something hard, it will be bad. A helmet makes it less bad.

Helmets have costs, too. For lots of cyclers, they take some of the fun out of it. Easy and nice as they are these days, putting on a helmet and hopping on a bike is not the same as hopping on a bike.

Yesterday, I recreated my "perfect ride" on the roads and trails of the Rattlesnake. I almost fell a time or two. My chances of serious, paralyzing, don't-even-want-to-think-about-it injury were slightly increased. But, it was a warm spring day. The wind was rushing over my head. Pine boughs brushed through my hair instead of clattering over plastic.

I realized that my helmet was the last carryover from days as a "serious" cyclist. It's just one more reason that more adults don't ride for fun. For commuting, most people can get past helmets. They just don't wear one. I don't think, though, that I've ever seen someone riding out of town for fun without a helmet (usually an expensive one) on.

I'll find or replace my helmet soon. I still think they are useful things. But they aren't essential to being a cycler. I realize that now. Sometimes the costs outweigh the benefits. And, sometimes, just maybe, NOT wearing a helmet is essential to the experience. At least for me, at least sometimes, I think it's true.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is all nice "until you need one" on the commute to work, the road or trail...
You know what they say about talking about not having a flat in "n" days, weeks or years. You may be invoking disaster.

5:26 PM  
Anonymous Jim said...

When my head hits the pavement, I hope it will have a helmet on it.

That said, there is plenty of evidence to show that helmets don't make any statistical difference in preventing bicycling-related head injuries. Actually, that's not altogether true. They do prevent such injuries insofar as they prevent people from riding bikes. Usually when some foreign place mandates bike helmet use, the head injury rate drops by, say, 80%. At the same time, other studies typically show that bicycle ridership goes down by 80%. A helmet is a hurdle for some people, and it keeps them off the bike. Moreover, there is other evidence that shows risk avoidance mechanisms get dull when one gets complacent under his helmet, etc.

I've heard of and witnessed non-helmet-wearers being read the riot act out on the trail by total strangers. It happens often enough that I wonder where it comes from. My guess would be the mainstream bicycle media (Buycycling magazine for one). If it's in Buycycling, it isn't about your safety, it's about selling helmets.

But I wear my helmet pretty much any time I get on a bike. About the only exception is when I ride my grocery bike 1 mile on quiet streets to the store. For me, the helmet isn't uncomfortable and it doesn't really cheapen the experience. I've been hit by one car and fallen a couple other times (slipped on snow, wet leaves, sand) and my helmet never came into play.

6:01 PM  
Anonymous Perry said...

I have learned that some things are not open to rational discussion in the USA: the free-market system, religion, abortion, and helmets, are some of these subjects. You might ask person, "My four-year old is accident prone. We have a 45 step staircase in our house. Should he wear a helmet inside the house?? What about when he is taking a bath. Tubs are slippery!!!" You might point out that, "Clearly, the most likely place for a helmet to do some good is on an automobile passenger's head." But that don't matter none to them. You'll get no reaction. But, put your kid on a bike he can straddle, and send him off on the lawn, and you'll have the cops on you for child abuse.

In closing, I insert this comment below (sent to me because I dared question the investigation of an SUV driver running over and killing a cyclist):

>>>she wasn't wearing a helmet either!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

6:25 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

My first 11 years (ages 4-14) of riding were helmetless. Funny that it just wasn't on my parents' radar.

I started wearing a helmet when I started mountain biking, but I don't really do that anymore.

Then it was helmetless again through college, riding around town. Then I got a bicycle-related job that required helmet use. It also required promoting helmet use. I'm not sure whether it was the job or becoming a "serious" road cyclist that started my religion of helmet use.

It's fun to hear other folks' thoughts again, for or against. I'll probably go back to using a helmet most of the time once I have one again. I'm glad to have been shocked out of my fanatacism, though, that's for sure.

Like most "safety" devices, usually it's ones own behavior that matters most. And, like Jim says, it may be that feeling safer makes us act less safely. But, there are times when it's out of one's hands, I suppose.

I fell on some ice a year ago, hurt my hip, and put a big dent in the side of my helmet. At the time, I thought, "That could have been my head!" Now, I wonder. Would my head even have hit the ground without a helmet on? I bang into all sorts of things wearing my helmet around our little apartment, too.

All that said, I sure wouldn't ever discourage anyone from wearing a helmet. Well, unless the helmet kept them from riding. Oh well, no easy answers here.

A question: if you had/have a teenager who would bike for transportation but not with a helmet on, what would you do?


6:33 PM  
Anonymous Me said...

I liked your blog until this post. I am offended and thoroughly disgusted with you.

How dare you presume to openly and publicly talk (brag is more like it!) about the joys or pleasures of NOT wearing a helmet!


It's precisely this type of BS that will have people thinking for themselves, making decisions on their own and worse... you SOB!

I don't know about you "Mr. SO and SO" but I need to be told how and what to think. I want a 100% safe world to live in where I leave all safety, common sense and morality decisions left up to people in our great capitol.

I WANT my hand to be held... and is there anything really wrong with that??!! NO!

I want coddled, cuddled, protected and taken care of... I'm special and I know it!

I get up, eat my breakfast cereal that promises lower cholesterol, 5 pounds of weight loss in 5 days and a cleaner colon. I shower with soap and shampoo that promises more women finding me attractive, cleaner skin, clearer pores and with less mildew on my shower grout too. I read my morning paper and grow increasingly frightened of the outside world, my neighbors, people of differing colors, differing religions and differing languages. I drive my American car because, well, it's American. I use ALL the safety belts ALL the time... well, after all I can't help but not-they all automatically entrap me when I turn the ignition over.

I am choiceless and I am safer for it.

Please don't make me make a decision...

I am incapable.

I am a Citizen of the United States of Illmerica, please tell me how to think and I will argue in your favor until I die.

8:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, seatbelts in cars are kind of uncomfortable and inconvenient too. Most of the time you don't need one anyway ;^)

10:28 AM  
Anonymous Kent Peterson said...

Here's my take on the whole helmet thing. I wear one, they don't bug me but I don't support laws telling folks they have to wear one. If we really want to save more lives, we wouldn't be subsidising tobacco, putting DVD players in cars, etc.

For me it's more a laws of physics thing. If I'm going to get clonked on the head and I have the option of having a layer of foam between me and the clonker or nothing, I'll opt for the foam. And it gives me a handy place to hang my mirror and lights.

It's not a safe world and I'm pretty sure I won't get out of it alive. But I wear a helmet and bright clothes anyway. Maybe it's not tipping the odds in my favor much, but maybe it's doing a bit. And it's a bit that is worthwhile to me. Your mileage may vary.

Keep 'em rolling.

Kent Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

8:52 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments! My short response: I was at REI yesterday and bought a new helmet (none of the LBS's seem to carry anything that doesn't look like a war helmet). It was interesting to see that once there was a helmet on the hook again (uncomfortable saddles make great helmet hooks, by the way), I naturally put it on without even thinking.

Long answer: I'm back to wearing a helmet most all of the time. I'm not back to being a helmet pusher, though. I still think it's far more dangerous overall to not ride a bike, than it is to not wear a helmet. Assuming the person is mature/wise enough to understand the risk, I'll just think "Nice to see you on a bike today."

Happy and safe riding, and may no one land on their head!

11:03 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

When I was doing mainenance on my motorcycle many years ago I jumped on for a test-ride around the block without my helmet helmet. I could understand why people chose not to wear one. I, however, never did it again.

Helmets while bicycling seem much less important. But, I still wear one.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Sorry, I didn't read the other comments before posting the first one...

Perry, that's some messed up shit there with the dead cyclist, I tell you what.

Cycler, you should post that question about the hypothetical teenager to BikeForums or something to see the reaction.

2:41 PM  
Anonymous Not Responding said...

For everyday utility riding a helmet is utterly unnecessary and offers no significant safety benefit. Road racing and MTBing may be a different story but this has about as much relevance to commuting by bike as Formula 1 fireproof suits do to commuting by car.

In interesting site at gives a great deal of research on this topic.

I've never understood why cyclists have been identified as a target group for the pro-helmet mob. (In the UK) most head injuries happen to car users and mile-for-mile you are more likely to get a head injury when walking than cycling.

Besides, no one has yet invented a cycle helmet that'll do more than protect against cuts and bruises. Not even the manufacturers claim they'll help if you get hit by a tonne of metal at 30mph.

3:25 AM  
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10:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never used a helmet. Not when I was a child, and not now as an adult. I remember having one as a kid, but it was probably only on my head twice, tops. My parents must have been monsters, haha. But none of the other kids wore them either, which is amazing because it was all the rage then (I'm only 22 years old).

Anyways, I don't feel I need one. I agree with a website I read once where the writer spoke about how many people (parents especially) seem to think "bike safety" is all about helmets. It seems to me that intelligent riding, understanding traffic laws, and being aware of your surroundings are FAR more important. Better to go helmetless and ride carefully than to have a helmet and think that's all you need to be safe.

Also, I hear that Europeans rarely use helmets; I guess it's considered childish or the sign of a novice. Just the opposite here in America!

3:48 PM  

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