When it comes to minority groups, the majority group always develops preconceived notions about who they are. Such ideas are based on observation, partial knowledge, emotion and imagination. Cyclists, as a minority group, have been, and continue to be, subjected to this treatment. Examples of this are prevalent
A few days ago, Gene Hackman, an 81-year-old celebrity, was struck by a car while riding his bicycle. Hackman is famous for being an actor, so most people didn’t know he was a cyclist. The same can be said about most cyclists who don’t ride a bicycle for a living. People don’t regard anyone they know in some other capacity, as a cyclist.
After Hackman’s accident was reported by the media, the inevitable discussion of the incident began in the blogsphere. Fans of the actor were relieved to learn that his injuries were minor, and the general public regarded the incident as celebrity news.
As one would expect, cycling blogs mentioned the incident, not because of the cyclist’s celebrity status, but because he was a cyclist. And, as cyclists are wont to do, the discussion centered around the particulars of the accident — he was struck from behind by a pickup truck — and the media’s coverage of the accident.
To no one’s surprise, when the story was reported, there were no plans to charge the driver for hitting and injuring a cyclist. Not even Hackman’s two Academy Awards, and three additional nominations, could persuade the authorities to penalize a driver for causing this accident. And, as usual, only sketchy details about how the accident occurred were reported.
“Hackman was riding without a helmet on an Islamorada street around 3 p.m. when the pickup hit him, throwing him onto the grassy shoulder, according to a Florida Highway Patrol report. No charges were immediately reported.”
For the most part, the cycling portion of the blogosphere focused on the numerous articles and news stories which stated that Hackman was riding without a helmet. Initially, there were reports of serious head injuries from the accident, but they were later retracted because his publicist corrected the record by describing his injuries as minor, mostly bumps and bruises.
The usual helmet debate commenced, since this is a hot-button issue for both cyclists and the public. People who claimed to be scientists and medical professionals came forward and declared that there is a complete and utter lack of credible scientific evidence to support the idea of a helmet protecting a cyclist’s head. Then the helmet devotees, many of whom swear that a helmet “saved their lives,” chimed in with dire warnings about the future awaiting all who forgo the ritual of helmet use.
Speaking as one who has been an athlete for many years, I don’t need scientific studies to tell me whether placing a shock-absorbing material between my head and a slab of concrete will lessen the blow to my skull. Common sense tells me it will. But, this shouldn’t determine the amount of risk I’m willing to take when riding my bike. All safety options should be weighed, and in the end, the use of a helmet should be a personal choice. Yet, this is rarely the outcome of helmet debates. One side clings to the “there’s no proof it protects anyone’s head, so no one should bother with a helmet” argument, and the other side remains attached to the “helmets save lives” argument.
Virtually all accidents involving the lack of helmet use revolve around that particular choice. Viewing an accident this way promotes the idea that when cyclists are struck by cars, the key issue is whether the cyclist falls into the category of a “safety conscious cyclist” or a “reckless cyclist,” as if these were the only possible choices for defining a cyclist.
Not only is this view polarizing, but it perpetuates common stereotypes and misconceptions about who cyclists really are. What struck me most about the discussions surrounding Hackman’s accident was the silence about the ways in which he defied the stereotypes eternalized by the media.
Cyclists are usually characterized as entitlement-minded, brazen, reckless, young male scofflaws. Hackman was none of these things. To knowledgeable cyclists, this isn’t surprising. But, what is surprising is how so many cyclists overlooked the fact that an 81-year-old man was riding a bicycle in traffic.
Am I the only one who noticed that Hackman was a senior citizen?
People half his age are afraid to ride in traffic because they perceive it as something only done by fearless youngsters. I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve heard a middle-aged person call cyclists “crazy” for riding in traffic. And, here we have Hackman, an 81-year-old celebrity, who can afford to have a chauffeur drive him to any destination, riding his bike instead. He chooses to ride. He did not let age stand in his way. He did not let fear stand in his way. He got onto his bike and rode it in the street. And what’s even more amazing: he was struck by a car and walked away with only minor injuries.
Hackman is living proof that people of any age can ride a bike, and can crash a bike after being struck by a car, without getting seriously injured or killed — even without a helmet. Cycling, it seems, may not be as dangerous as many people make it out to be. And, in any case, it’s certainly not an activity reserved for the young.
It would be nice if cyclists diverted some of their energy away from arguing over helmets, a subject on which there will never be agreement, to acknowledgment and celebration of other choices cyclists make, such as riding in traffic when they’re in their 80’s.
Hackman, and other courageous seniors, who are willing to defy stereotypes, should be an inspiration to us all. Cyclists should never plan to stop riding due to age alone. No one’s personal choices should ever be corralled by the beliefs, preconceived notions, or prejudices of others.