Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Helmets

I've done - and continue to do - a bunch of dumb and risky things in my life, usually in the pursuit of an adrenalin (or other) high.   I have dived to 90m+ solo.   I've sat alone by a poolside in a Zimbabwean national park to get photos and had a hippo come at me.   I've told an ex that those pants did make her ass look fat.  

But a few things I am very fastidious about.  

One of those things is my seatbelt.  I don't even reverse my car out of the garage without putting on my seatbelt.   This fastidiousness about seat belts is the reason I am alive, instead of having my brain splattered all over the front windshield of my former car.

Another of those things is a bike helmet.   I always wear a helmet when I ride.   The reason is obvious, atleast to me:  I generally ride fast (what passes as fast for me, anyway), clipped in and on a quick-handling race bike with skinny tires.    If I am going to crash, I won't get a lot of time to react, and if I am going down, I want that piece of styrofoam between me and the tarmac.  I dont want to spend the rest of my life suffering from potential brain damage just because I didn't wear the lid.

So why do some dumb things and be risk averse elsewhere?  My rationale is - it is one thing to take a risk when there is a reward associated with it.   With all the risks I take, there is some benefit (a thrill, a better experience, etc).   With helmets, there is no real reward with going helmet-less (I am wearing lycra with a pad around my crotch, fer chrissakes - a helmet or lack thereof isn't going to make me look cool), so I dont see the point of taking this risk.  Same with seat-belts, etc.

Needless to say, I have also been very vocal in the past about all cyclists needing to wear helmets.

However, of late, the Guads have been muttering to themselves.    And when Thunder and Lightning speak up, I have to listen.  And as a result, I am changing my view that ALL cyclists need to wear helmets and amending it to allow for the fact that for certain types of cycling, you don't need to wear a helmet.

The fact is that all types of cycling do not present the same risk of falling or injury.   A lot depends on your riding position, speed and where you are riding.

Now obviously, if you are a clipped in roadie, wear a damn helmet.  It is stupid not to.   Same applies if you are a mountain biker (as in, you ride trails).

However, if you are riding a beach cruiser at 6-8kph on a boardwalk, do you really need a helmet?  No.

If you are riding a relaxed-geometry bike at slow speeds to the market or to run some errands, do you need a helmet?   Again, the answer is no.    There is always a risk of falling and hitting your head - but in this case, I feel it is no different from the risk of falling and cracking your head if you go for a run, for example.

Aha, you say, Guadz - what about cars?   Well, what about them?   Again, the risk of injury due to getting hit by a car is about the same when you are tooling around at slow speeds on a bike as when you are, say, jogging.    And if you get hit by a car at high speeds, a helmet isn't going to save you.

And lastly, polemic is one thing (as they've been saying all week at the Giro), but ultimately, the surest test is empirical data.   Look at cities where lots of people cycle - say, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.  Very few commuters wear helmets there.   And they aren't falling and getting hurt in droves.  

Hell, even in our part of the country, look at all the millions of people riding roadsters daily - all without wearing a helmet.    Very few of them seem to be falling and getting injuries that would have been prevented by a helmet.

This review of my beliefs was inspired by BSNYC's book, whereby he points out that mandating helmets for general cycling implies that general cycling by itself is an unsafe activity.    We can all agree that this is not the case - while some sorts of cycling can be risky, riding a bike at a relaxed speed from point A to point B is not a hazardous activity.

If you want to wear a helmet, more power to you.    But I now feel that this should not be a requirement for general cycling, and nor should we be "helmet nazis" about it.

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