Accidental Helmetless Riding: Perceived Versus Real Risks

Man Riding Bike Using Cell Phone

I always knew it would happen one day. For the past decade, I have been wearing a bicycle helmet religiously — or at least I did until the other day.

I’m not a fanatic and see no real value in making bicycle helmets mandatory for adults. However, I do think that it’s better to wear a helmet when riding in traffic or when riding at high speeds away from traffic.

Helmets do prevent some injuries, even if they don’t prevent all injuries or save every cyclist who is in a serious accident. A helmet can’t save someone with massive internal injuries; it can only save them from a serious head injury. Even so, many riders don’t want to wear helmets. And in a few countries, virtually no one wears a helmet.

Knowing all of this, I still wear a helmet every time I ride. I wear a helmet because I have direct experience with head injury. When I was a small child, I suffered a serious blow to the head in an accident. Fortunately, this injury did not cause major problems for me. But I have suffered from residual effects well into adulthood.

I know firsthand how an injury to the head, even if not catastrophic, can cause lingering symptoms for years, spoiling what would otherwise be good health. Another blow to my head could worsen the the problem, much in the same way that football players develop neurological disorders from repeated blows to the head.

Although wearing it is no guarantee of anything, I feel safer in my helmet. So, you can imagine how strange it was for me, the other day, when I walked out of my house without my helmet on.

It was one of those moments where you’re in such a hurry that you do several things at once in order to shave every possible second off of your preparation time. In one hand I was carrying my shoes. In the other I had my jacket, gloves and hat.

I pulled one arm though my jacket sleeve while I shoved the toes of my left foot into my shoe. Wiggling the foot from side to side with a forward thrust I managed to get one foot into a shoe without using my hands. The right shoe required the use of a hand, so I used my teeth to pull on my left glove while my right hand gripped the heel of my right shoe, pulling it into place.

As I grabbed my keys, I stuck my wool under-helmet hat on my head and grabbed my bike. Since it was nearly dark outside, I turned on my front and rear lights as I walked my bike down the driveway towards the street.

Hopping on the bike with a bit of a push-off with my left foot, I was on my way. About a quarter mile from home, I suddenly realized that there was no helmet on my head.

There was no time to go home to get my helmet. If I did turn around, I would be very late for a meeting. And I would inconvenience everyone in attendance. Riding without a helmet was the only viable option.

Without the helmet, I noticed, my head felt lighter than usual. Air circulated around my skull. My ears were colder than usual. For the first time I realized how effective the helmet wind cover I used during the winter really was. It retained enough heat to keep both my head and ears warm.

Every passing car seemed closer to me than ever before. What if one of them hit me. I would crash without protection for my head. I visualized how I would use my forearms and hands to shield my head in the event of a fall. I used this method to protect my head when I was ski racing without a helmet.

Early in the ride, my mind was occupied by thoughts of crashing and protecting my head. This wasn’t the norm. When riding with a helmet, I never think about crashing; I assume I won’t crash.

After a while, I began to feel more at ease. Years had passed since my last crash. That I would crash on this particular day was unlikely, so, in reality, there was nothing concrete to worry about.

Something about riding without a helmet made me feel freer, almost like I was a kid again. My hat prevented my hair from blowing in the wind, but I could feel the wind piercing the holes between the stitches in my hat.

Everything was going smoothly until I reached the top of a steep hill. Ordinarily, I fly down that hill going anywhere between 25 and 35 mph, depending on whether I’m facing a headwind. On this particular day, given my lack of head protection, I felt compelled to slow down. Uncharacteristically, I stopped pedaling and just cruised down the hill at around 20 mph.

A 20 mph crash wouldn’t be too bad. I could just roll with it, in the absence of high speed. The only downside was that I was losing valuable time in getting to my meeting.

As I passed through a familiar intersection, I swerved away from an oncoming car which was easing into a left turn. I didn’t trust the driver to see me so I increased the distance between us, just to be on the safe side.

Despite all of this cautious riding, I made it to the meeting on time. I wondered whether anyone would notice my missing helmet. I usually fasten it onto whatever I’m carrying with me. No one noticed a thing.

By the time I headed home, I was already used to the idea of riding without a helmet. I saw the experience as a novelty, something to think about, and maybe even write about on my blog.

The ride home wasn’t anywhere near as traumatic as the ride to the meeting had been. I wasn’t riding as fast as usual, but I wasn’t as cautious as I had been earlier.

While pulling into my driveway I felt a sense of relief. I had survived a helmetless ride and was no worse for the wear.

Riding without a helmet, after all these years, definitely felt strange. I sensed a greater risk to my well-being than when wearing a helmet. Whether the risk was real or not, I can’t say for sure. Danger is sensed but never seen until it manifests itself.

But one thing I do know is that I will be more careful in the future to make sure I’m wearing my helmet when I head out the door. I value my brain too much to take unnecessary risks with it. Still, it was rather fun to ride just once with a bare head. Maybe if I find myself far from civilization, I’ll try it again one day.

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2 Responses to Accidental Helmetless Riding: Perceived Versus Real Risks

  1. Douglas Yardley says:

    I like to attach my clip-on sunglasses to my helmet visor, and my world’s loudest whistle is attached to my chin strap. I started wearing a helmet in 1981 but have never had a bad accident.

  2. Rebecca says:

    After twenty years of wearing a bike helmet, I went to the Netherlands and didn’t take my helmet because I wanted to travel lightly. I didn’t wear one there, nor did anyone else, except my adult daughter for one day. I never wore my helmet again, nor has my daughter, upon returning to the US. I felt very vulnerable riding my bike at first, back here in Boston. I imagined that this would be the day I would crash on my head. After four years without one it feels perfectly normal and I am free to wear whatever warm hat I want in the Winter. However I feel very vulnerable if I have to ride without my AirZounds air horn!

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