Non-Helmet Wearers Coming Out Of The Closet

Coming Out Of The Closet


Maybe someday no one will have to hide in the closet. Prejudice will be a thing of the past. And each and every one of us will be accepted for who we are.

For now, those whose natural disposition lies outside the norm will have to hide a part of themselves from the world. They will have to lurk in the shadows, where no one knows their name, until the day when they can no longer endure their false front and they emerge to face the judgment of others.

Such a trend has begun in the cycling world. For at least a decade, fierce debate has ensued over whether one should wear a helmet when riding a bicycle. From a safety standpoint, it seems clear; protecting a skull in any way can’t be a bad thing. Or so it seemed.

Adversaries of head protection have gone to extreme lengths to “prove” that wearing a helmet is “harmful.” They cite all sorts of statistics which supposedly show injuries caused by helmet use. And they use these negatives as justification for foregoing helmet use.

Another popular argument against helmet use is that no one wears a helmet in the Netherlands. This is true. They don’t see helmets as necessary for cycling. And most of them survive. But, their culture is very different from many other countries where riding a bicycle near cars (or near civilization, for that matter) can be construed as nothing less than maniacal. So these are not really analogous situations.

Most medical professionals see helmet use as mandatory. Having first hand experience with the injuries which can result from head trauma, they can’t understand why anyone would refuse to wear a helmet. Yet, people do. And, they claim to know medical professionals who don’t advise others to wear helmets, although I suspect that such medical professionals are few and far between.

We can debate the pros and cons of helmet use indefinitely. Neither side will persuade the other because this debate is not based on logic. It is based on personal beliefs and preferences.

Perhaps the only thing the majority can agree on is the issue of mandatory helmet use. Some proponents of helmet use agree with their adversaries on this point and see no value in forcing others to wear a helmet.

Riding a bicycle provides many benefits to an individual and to society. Discouraging bicycle use by requiring everyone to wear a helmet defeats all of the positive aspects of cycling. In that sense, it is counter-productive.

This is where coming out of the closet comes in. About a week ago, I stumbled upon an opinion piece written by a young man who explains why he goes bare-headed when riding a bike.

His arguments for why he doesn’t need a helmet are weak, although his intentions are sincere. He introduces himself as a newly-minted Hubway user. With bike-share stations near his home and his place of employment, he has found this to be the best way to commute to work.

He joyfully expresses this situation thus: “So now I can hop on a bike and be at work in 20 minutes, and this is the option I take most days. Biking is convenient, fun, and gets me outside and moving. And I do it without a helmet.” Yes, he confesses.

Confession is the first step towards coming out of the closet. One must confess to doing what others perceive as wrong, in order to be accepted.

By way of justification, he tells us about how his parents made him wear a helmet even before he could ride a bike by himself: “When I was younger, I wore one all the time. Even before I could mount a bicycle seat, my parents would put helmets on my sister’s and my heads while they ran our double stroller down the bike path in Northampton. I remember the two of us banging our indestructible heads together, laughing at how it didn’t hurt.”

The key to this part of the story lies in the sentence where he describes his experiences sitting in a stroller with his sister while his parents ran the stroller down a bike path. “ I remember the two of us banging our indestructible heads together, laughing at how it didn’t hurt.” They were banging their heads together — and it didn’t hurt. From this he concludes that banging your head doesn’t hurt. Instead, it is rather amusing.

As an aside, I can remember playing football in our back yard when I was no more than eight years old. I was playing the middle linebacker/tackle position (with four kids on each team). The kid who was hiking the ball stood up suddenly and thrust his weight forward, knocking his forehead against mine. The blow stung mightily even though I rubbed if fiercely with my palm. Later that day, I glanced in the mirror and saw a red lump protruding from my forehead, where I had been hit. It throbbed a little, hours later. It hadn’t stopped me from finishing the game, yet it was a reminder of how fragile the human head is, even at times when one wouldn’t expect to be at risk.

Back to our young friend coming out of the closet. As he finishes his confession, he makes a point of telling us that he was raised to wear a helmet, but he has seen the light.

“Since I first learned to pedal, the house rule was that I always wear a helmet. I stopped only when I moved to Boston for college. Twenty-one now, I don’t even own a helmet anymore. (I also don’t have my own bike.) I acknowledge that a helmet can protect your head, but I’ve weighed the risks and the inconvenience of lugging one around and decided I can do without.”

At least he’s honest. He doesn’t bombard us with pseudo-scientific evidence or even deny that a helmet can protect his head. He just doesn’t want to wear a helmet, so he has eliminated it from his life.

He goes on to tell us how he likes to travel light and a helmet is in his way. He wants helmet manufacturers to make smaller, more attractive helmets. He says he has never had a close call and that he rides cautiously. He draws an analogy between not wearing a helmet and using sunscreen as an example of health decisions we all make by asking: “How many of us apply sunscreen every day?”

This cyclist’s refreshing honesty didn’t stop the helmet proponents from attacking him in the comment section. In addition to all the usual arguments we have this somewhat paternal tack:

10/21/2012 10:02 AM

Nick, Sorry to hear of your decision, and hope you reconsider it. This is how the fashion-conscious, and perhaps unintentionally dumb rider, becomes a free rider problem. I’m older than you, and I’ve had two bicycle falls that, without a helmet, could have been traumatic and led to tragedy. If you died, that would be your problem, and not a happy one. If you had a traumatic brain injury, you would quickly exhaust the long term care benefits of institutionalized long term care, as well as a lifetime of health care. That is not good for your health, and not good for the financial health of our state and nation, which would cost the rest of us several million dollars if you lived out anything close to your life expectancy. So please, reconsider, and wear and carry a bike helmet as you push for better design. I did not realize the mandatory bike helmet age in MA ended when someone turns 17. Legislators, start your engines on this one, please.”

Not to be outdone by the paternal advice, we have the maternal angle.

10/24/2012 06:04 AM

I admit to feeling a little maternal. First, let me stand in for your mother. What, are you crazy? Head injuries change your life forever. My daughter went over the handlebars and broke her jaw in 2 places because of a pothole. She spent 8 weeks drinking through a straw and  week in the hospital and an operation to put 2 steel plates in her head. She can still talk and think and function because she had on a helmet. Really, you can’t carry a helmet because ‘it’s too heavy??’”

As more cities around the world implement bike-sharing programs, the debate over mandatory helmet use will heat up. But so will the number of helmet-less cyclists coming out of the closet to celebrate their decision to go helmet-free. Should we accept them as they are? Or should we view them as a potential burden on society?

Questions of this type are not easy to answer. I tend to favor personal freedom whenever possible. However, we may be spared the need to make this decision; the dilemma over helmet use may eventually resolve itself as technology evolves and more convenient, superior head protection becomes available.

This entry was posted in Cycling and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Non-Helmet Wearers Coming Out Of The Closet

  1. Rebecca Albrecht says:

    Improving the safety of cyclists should focus on the causes, not the victims, of danger.

  2. Charlie says:

    To those who say there are no excuses for not wearing a helmet, especially those who compare it to wearing a seat belt:
    If you had to bring your own seat belt every time you rode in a car, would you always wear a seat belt?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *