Whenever a cyclist is hit by a car, the first question everyone asks is: “Was he wearing a helmet?” This is always asked in an accusatory tone, as if to imply guilt on the part of the cyclist for the driver’s actions.
In some ways, this type of question is not too different from certain questions asked when a driver causes an accident. Alcohol use falls into this category and is often suspected as the cause of a serious accident.
People want to imagine a driver as impaired to lessen their fear that a horrendous crash could occur merely as a result of human error. No one wants to admit how easily any of us might misjudge with catastrophic results. It’s more comforting to lay the blame on something within the driver’s control, which he or she failed to do. So, every time a car accident is reported, there is mention of whether alcohol is suspected of playing a role in causing the accident.
Today, most societies frown upon drinking and driving because impaired drivers are a menace on the road. They cause untold numbers of injuries, deaths, and destruction. But due to the prevalence and popularity of alcohol consumption, it’s difficult to prevent all inebriated drivers from getting behind the wheel. Instead, we establish legal penalties to discourage and punish such behavior.
Drunk driving laws are based upon the premise that getting behind the wheel drunk is irresponsible at best and negligent at worst. The emphasis is placed on specific actions the driver took, which he should have recognized as dangerous to himself and others, but which he chose to engage in anyway. In other words, the driver’s irresponsible behavior is judged to be the cause of the accident, regardless of what other factors may be involved.
In some cases, there could be mitigating circumstances. Another car might have cut off the drunk driver or violated some other traffic law prior to the accident. Still, the driver’s impairment will remain the focus of the accident and will render the driver partially to blame for the collision, no matter what else may have transpired. This is a classic example of placing irresponsible behavior above extenuating circumstances as the deciding factor. And, it exemplifies the importance of premeditated behavior (drinking before driving) in assigning fault.
The idea of using premeditated behavior to assign blame in bicycle versus car accidents has become increasingly fashionable now that more cyclists are on the roads. Wearing a helmet while cycling is generally perceived as the “safe” and “responsible” thing to do when riding in traffic.
Even non-cyclists seem to think that there is something wrong with a cyclist who does not wear a helmet. Such cyclists are perceived as reckless, crazy or stupid. What’s more, the lack of a helmet is often seen as asking for trouble, almost as if the cyclist brought injury upon himself by being struck by a car when not wearing a helmet.
So here we have two cases of premeditated vehicle operator behavior: drunk driving and cycling without a helmet. The main difference lies in the social acceptability of each behavior. Alcohol consumption is socially acceptable; riding a bicycle in traffic without a helmet is not. Ironically, the socially acceptable behavior results in driver impairment, while the socially unacceptable behavior does not. Yet, the latter is still used to blame cyclists for their own injuries — or in some cases — for causing the accident.
How can this be? If the lack of a helmet does not make a rider impaired, then why does a majority of the public see riding without a helmet as negligent behavior?
For some reason, probably based more in bias than in fact, non-cyclists want to draw an analogy between irresponsible behavior that endangers others and irresponsible behavior that endangers oneself. It’s almost as if they’re saying: “if you endanger yourself, you are responsible for the negligent actions of the driver because if you had been wearing a helmet, you would not have suffered injury.” This thought process is often extended to cyclist injuries in locations other than the head. Although irrational, the concept stems from the premeditated behavior of not wearing the helmet, not the probability of actual injury.
It is really not fair to draw an analogy between these two premeditated vehicle operator behaviors. Choosing to drink and drive causes accidents through driver impairment. Riding a bicycle without a helmet, which causes no impairment, cannot cause any accident. The rider is in full control of her faculties. She is simply not taking advantage of an opportunity to lessen the severity of injury to her head, should she crash due to an encounter with a car.
With respect to drunk driving, we see cause and effect; an impaired driver cannot control a vehicle properly. With respect to cycling without a helmet, we see blame without cause; an unimpaired rider is deemed “negligent” as a result of engaging in behavior which does not protect himself, irrespective of whether that behavior can result in injury to himself or others.
Like many things associated with cycling, cultural views dictate how the public judges cyclist behavior. Prejudice and the idea that cycling in traffic, by definition, is asking for trouble dominates public opinion. As with other negative stereotypes attributed to cyclists, this falsehood must be dispelled. Otherwise, injustice will prevail when negligent drivers strike unhelmeted cyclists, and the myth that cyclists bring their own injuries upon themselves, by engaging in risky behavior, will be perpetuated in infinitum.