It seems to take me almost as long to prepare for my bike commute, as it takes me to actually commute. When I prepare for a bike ride in the city, I remind myself of a medieval knight preparing for battle.
- Batteries charged? Check!
- All six lights working? Check!
- High visibility vest? Check!
- Reflective stripes on jacket and pants? Check!
- Protective goggles? Check! (see my review on Bolle tactical goggles for cycling here)
- And of course … helmet securely buckled? Check!
Related: Complete Guide to Bike Lights
In fact, it takes me almost as long to prepare for my commute, as it takes me to actually commute.
I have taken this for granted for a long time. It’s just the way things are for urban bicycle commuters. Just like knights had to defend themselves from men on horses with pointy sticks, we have to protect ourselves from hurtling 5 ton vehicles driven by people who may be distracted by coffee, alcohol, cell phones, breakfast, texting, anger, sorrow, tiredness, or all of the above. Or who may just be recklessly speeding to blow off some excess testosterone (much like the men with pointy sticks).
Am I sending the message that urban cycling is an extreme sport when I dress for protection?
Recently I have started to question all this. If I prepare for cycling like a knight preparing for mortal combat, what kind of message am I sending?
Obviously, I am sending the message that urban cycling is a very dangerous, life-threatening activity – an extreme sport, like solo rock climbing without ropes.
And if I am sending such a message, what does that mean? Well, for one thing, it means that other people aren’t likely to follow my example. After all, it’s tough enough having to go to work every day, without having to risk your life to get there.
I mean, if getting to work involved climbing bare-handed up a cliff (and coming back down the same way at the end of the day), I’m pretty sure most people would opt for welfare.
Sending this kind of message is contrary to my mission of encouraging average people to embrace cycling as a viable means of urban transportation.
On the other hand, cycling in dark clothing without a helmet on the dangerous “cycling routes” of Burnaby is contrary to my mission of staying alive.
It was in this context that I found Mikael Colville-Andersen’s argument against wearing helmets while cycling very interesting. It’s a fascinating TED talk, and well worth a watch. (Note: if you are in Vancouver and watch this, keep an eye out for the world’s most livable cities graphic – and note what it shows about cycling in Vancouver. Of course, this video is a few years old, so maybe things have changed).
Mikael argues that modern humans live in a culture of fear – now that we don’t have to worry about being killed by bears at any moment, we spend our energies worrying that we will get sick and die from touching the door handles in public washrooms. Because of this, we have developed what he calls an almost pornographic obsession with safety equipment.
We live in a BUBBLE WRAP society.
And as with almost all things in modern society it all leads back to big business.
As he says, “Fear is lucrative. Fear is big business.”
If businesses can get people to be afraid, then we will scurry off in our thousands to stores where we can buy things that we think will protect us from the perceived danger. (Imagine how many millions of dollars are currently being spent on the smelly bottles of hand sanitizers that have suddenly become ubiquitous.)
For example, there’s a company called Thudguard that wants parents to buy infant safety headgear so that children don’t hurt themselves in the course of their normal activities (such as crawling, playing or learning to walk).
Yes, really. I’m not making it up. Google it if you don’t believe me.
Having raised three children, I am 100% certain that infant helmets are an insane idea (and as an ex-philosophy student, I am very seldom 100% certain about anything, so this is saying a lot). Kids fall and hurt themselves, and it’s all part of the normal process of growing and learning.
On the other hand, there are things that we do that really are dangerous. For example, 1.2 million people a year are killed driving their cars. However, we don’t acknowledge that driving cars is dangerous, and so it doesn’t even cross our minds to dress in safety gear to drive our cars. Even though motorist helmets have been invented.
However, as Mikael points out, motorist helmets are not promoted (let alone mandated by legislation). For example, they are not given out free with cars. That’s scarcely surprising – giving out these head bands would mean acknowledging that driving cars is extremely dangerous, and that would undermine the enormously successful job car manufacturers have done of convincing people that driving cars is a safe activity. Even though, based on the stats, driving a car is an incredibly dangerous activity.
In fact, if I was sensible, I would prepare for driving my car just as carefully as I do for a bike ride.
- All lights working? Check
- Bumpers in good shape? Check
- Neck brace on to protect against whiplash in the event of being rear-ended? Check
- Knee guards on to protect against broken knee caps in the event of a head-on collision? Check
- Car painted in a bright colour (preferably very bright yellow) with reflective stripes? Check
- And of course … motorist helmet securely buckled? Check
The point is that car manufacturers don’t promote helmets because they don’t want to put people off buying cars by portraying driving as a dangerous activity. And they’re right to be afraid – the stats show unequivocally that the emphasis on bike helmets does in fact put people off cycling.
The more we promote bike helmets, the less people cycle.
Thus, the main problem with promoting bike helmets is that people stop cycling. Especially if you legislate it. This is absolutely proven by research in New Zealand. So people are being scared away from a life-sustaining, health-giving, calorie-burning, fun, and environmentally friendly mode of transport. To make things worse, as Mikael points out, the research on whether helmets help in accidents is ambivalent. And, if you are scared off cycling by the emphasis on helmets, you may be setting yourself up for lifestyle diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
On the other hand, there is a vast body of anecdotal evidence on the protective effects of helmets in bike accidents – see for example some of the more impassioned comments in the video above. And Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist believes strongly that her helmet protected her from head injury when she had a bike accident.
Bottom line for me: I agree that by dressing up as if I expect violent death at any second, I increase the perception that cycling is an extreme sport – and risk scaring other people away from cycling. However, until such time as I can cycle to most places on separated bike lanes, I am going to keep preparing for cycling like a knight setting out for dangerous battle fields where heavily armed enemies will do their level best to kill him. Because even though most motorists emphatically do not want to kill me, the reality is that they could, very easily, kill me accidentally (much like we sometimes step on ants while walking, even though we really have no intent to kill ants).
Related: The Top 3 Benefits of Separated Bike Lanes – # 3 will surprise you!
And if the time ever comes that I am hit by a car and go flying through the air and hit the sidewalk head first, I would very much like my helmet to take the brunt of it, not my comparatively very vulnerable head.
This is not an easy issue – think about it and make up your own mind. Unfortunately, for many of us, our own opinions are irrelevant. We have been brainwashed into believing that bike helmets are essential, and we are governed by laws that force us to use them.
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