To Hell With Helmets (Monday Magazine)


To Hell With Helmets

Monday Magazine, September 5-11, 2002

I have been breaking the law daily for six years. As of September 1996, it has been illegal to crack your unhelmeted head open on the pavement while riding a bicycle without fear of penalty. In those six lawless years, I’ve been stopped by the constabulary a grand total of two times, each netting a warning. Every other time I’ve ridden past the police, they cheerfully ignore my wanton disregard of jurisprudence. If this is their idea of enforcement, is it any wonder there are growhouses on every block?

I must not be alone. A recent poll revealed that more than half of all Canadians don’t wear bicycle helmets. Not even when they’re on a bike.

I’m not saying I don’t like this particular law, just that I don’t like it for me. I’m of the belief I should be exempt from any number of them at any time as it suits me. Everyone else should wear a helmet while riding a bike. Helmets are sensible; I’m not. I know that. I’m tempting fate even writing about it. Potential irony is staring me in the face saying, “For God’s sake, don the lid.”

I really should. I didn’t like the seatbelt law either at first. Now, thanks to Big Brother, I buckle up each and every time I get into a car. Sure, it makes things awkward when I only want to vacuum the interior, but I just don’t feel safe otherwise.

These laws are passed for our safety, so opponents like me are in the minority. The federal government passes a law banning certain firearms and making registration of all other guns mandatory, though, and every Ted Nugent-wannabe out there takes it as a violation of his rights as neighbours of the shoot-em-up USA. Where are the conservatives on the helmet issue? In some U.S. states you can ride free as an uncaged helmetless bird on a motorbike, for Pete Fonda’s sake.

One interesting aspect to the bicycle helmet law is that people with giant melonheads are exempt. Mine is just under the wire, despite having the biggest head in my grade seven class, even bigger than Mr. Robbins, our teacher. I can’t imagine a bigger head but they must be out there. And they’re riding around sans helmet, guilt-free. Does the government value their mammoth craniums less than the rest of ours?

The very week the helmet law was announced, the feds instructed police to stop charging people with simple possession of drugs. The message being that citizens are permitted to mess their brains up with narcotics, but not with their bikes. Go figure.

Keep in mind I ride a bike like few others. Never in a hurry, I like riding slowly, carefully, defensively, with the wind blowing through me, er, scalp. I’ve been riding lidless for over 30 years with no harm to my person, save for a skinned knee as a pre-teen. But I’ve come a long way since then. I’ve even learned to ride one-handed.

I am aware of the dangers, though: a human skull can be shattered by an impact of seven to 10 kilometers per hour; helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent and brain injury by 88 percent. That’s why I further break the law by riding on the sidewalk when there’s too much vehicular traffic on the streets. The odds of me getting scrunched by a road-raged bus driver are greater than me scrunching a pedestrian – and to much less severe effect.

Don’t get in a huff; I ride responsibly, sometimes even slower than the foot traffic, ceding all rights to the pedestrian. Similarly, I don’t exercise my rights on the road because, let’s face it, my rights don’t mean a heckuva lot to a driver paying more attention to his cell phone than the road.

In Europe and Asia bikes can go pretty much anywhere they choose. They can even fit as many people onto each bike as they like, and are not forced to wear helmets. Is there a higher percentage of head injuries overseas? I don’t know, but I doubt it.

They have the right attitude, which is that cyclists have no rights at all. Old people don’t cower and topple over when a cyclist approaches on the sidewalk. They walk straight ahead, knowing the cyclist will get out of the way.

And on the road, the cars are king. That’s the way it should be. Might makes right.

Of course, there’s the argument that the taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill when careless cyclists wind up with fractured skulls. No more, I suppose, than when a big fat guy who smokes and eats cholesterol straight out of the can winds up with a heart attack or develops lung cancer. I went to school with a kid who was fooling around with explosives in his basement and accidentally blew off his hand. Should we have to pay for that? Of course we should! The argument is ridiculous.

We obviously don’t live in such a puritanical society. People make mistakes, accidents happen, and we should help our fellow citizens when they screw up. Wearing helmets will not stop screw-ups. Defensive driving will go a lot further to preventing accidents and lessening brain damage than wearing helmets.

I would encourage everyone to wear a bike helmet. I choose not to. Just like I choose not to own guns, do drugs, smoke or eat right – all things the government implicitly condones.

If they really insist, the law should at least be grandfathered (with the possible exception of actual grandfathers, for whom I would add full body armour to the mandatory list). Children definitely should grow up wearing helmets, just as they are not permitted to smoke or drink. The smart ones will continue to wear them through adulthood. Then we can breed a society of helmet-heads that will live healthy and productive lives until they die naturally of drug overdoses.