Bicycling Without a Helmet: What are You, Stupid?

While pedaling merrily along the other day I passed another rider heading in the opposite direction and gave the official Bike Wave authorized by the Uniform Code of Bicycle Etiquette: a barely perceptible lifting from the handlebar of four fingers of the left hand, accompanied by a nod of the head not to exceed 7-16ths of an inch.

This is not to be confused by the runners’ greeting, which sometimes includes the word, “Hey,” or the kayakers’ acknowledgement of a fellow voyager, which often incorporates a wave of the paddle, or the backpackers’ salutation, which for the uphill hikers universally includes the phrase, “How much farther to the top?” (To which the accepted response is, “Not too far.”)

Anyway, I was tempted to break protocol and add a few words to my greeting because the biker I encountered was missing a critical piece of equipment, to my mind as necessary as a rear wheel or brakes: his helmet.

These are the words I would have uttered, had I not been concerned about breaching the code: “What are you, stupid?”

I shudder when I think of the years I spent whizzing down hills and around hairpin turns at 50 mph with nothing on my head except a baseball cap. It was an era when most of us casually and ignorantly engaged in all sorts of reckless behavior, such as riding in cars without seatbelts or eating McDonald’s double-cheeseburgers.

Early in my kayaking career I also paddled down Class IV rapids without a helmet, never worrying what would happen if I flipped over and bashed my head on a rock. When I bought my first whitewater boat I spent a fair amount of time checking various designs, paddles and spray skirts, and don’t remember anybody at the store ever mentioning a helmet.

Same with my first bicycle, also decades ago – I road-tested a variety of models and made sure my selection came with a rear rack and a water bottle, but the question of head protection never came up.

Today, of course, like all my friends, I wear a helmet when I’m whitewater or surf kayaking. I wear a helmet (and ear and eye protection) when I cut trees for firewood – just the other day I got bonked my an errant limb that would at least have raised a lump. I’ve also worn a helmet while ice and rock climbing, and if I ever decided to downhill ski again (these days I’m strictly a cross-country schusser) I’d make sure my head was encased in hard plastic, not just wool or polypropylene.

And I’d no sooner hop on my road or mountain bike without a helmet than I would without pants.

Like most riders over the years I’ve taken a few spills, and the most serious injury I suffered, during my helmetless period in high school, was a broken nose.

Since then I’ve cracked a few ribs and sustained some road rash, but as far as I can tell my noggin and its contents are still intact.

Interestingly, and depressingly, despite numerous studies showing how bicycle helmets save lives and minimize the risk of debilitating injuries, there are no federal laws requiring their use.

Most states and municipalities began passing helmet laws only about 15 years ago, and they vary widely. Many require they be worn only by minors – here in Connecticut, the law applies to riders under 16 – which makes no sense.

Does your head get harder than concrete when you age? Based on the experiences of a few acquaintances, I’d say if the law had to be based on age it would be better applied to those over 60.

You can buy an inexpensive helmet for about $25 (or a high-end model for more than four times that amount) but whatever the cost, the protection, as they say in the credit card commercials, is priceless.

Now that days are getting longer and warmer – and gas prices continue to climb – we can expect to see more of us riders on the road.

Here’s hoping we stay upright, but if we do go down we’re wearing something to keep our heads off the pavement.

Here’s to safe cycling!

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

Death in the White Mountains: Recklessness and The False Security of GPS, Cellphones and Locator Beacons

After being battered by 70 mph winds, blinded by whipping snow and nearly frozen in temperatures that plunged to 20 below zero and beyond, Kate Matrosova must have realized early on she had no hope of completing her solo climb of four of...

You Never Miss The Water Till The Well Runs Dry — Or The Pipes Freeze

After shoveling a path to the woodshed the other day for the 138th time this season (or so it seemed) and lugging what certainly felt like the 862nd load of logs to the house and the 243rd bucket of wood stove ashes to the distant pit,...

Hey! Wanna Ride? Detroit Distance Walker James Robertson Shouldn't Look A Gift Car In The Hood, But ...

You no doubt have heard about James Robertson, the 56-year-old Detroit man who for more than a decade walked 21 miles a day to and from his factory job because he couldn’t afford a car.

Blizzard Be Damned – A Great Day To Enjoy The Outdoors

With blizzard-force winds whipping great clouds of snow across the frozen lake and waist-high drifts piled above 2 feet of still-accumulating powder, the only question was: Snowshoes or cross-country skis?

Kill The North Stonington Mountain Lion! (And Other Phrases I Hope People Never Utter)

Every time there’s a report of a dangerous, predatory animal prowling local woods or waterways I fervently wish that two things don’t happen:

A ‘Frozen’ Moment: Don’t Let It Go

This week’s cold snap has spread a shimmering, silken coating over ponds and lakes throughout the region, creating some of the best conditions for skating in years, so you must get out now and enjoy it because who knows...

Hey, It’s Winter — Deal With It! Embrace The Cold, Snow And Ice

First of all, it’s way too soon to start whining about the cold. Let’s all agree that by March, if we’re still getting hammered by ferocious winds, driving snow and frigid temps, then a little complaining might be in...

Eagles, Seals, Swallows, Mountains, Rapids: You Can Never Have Too Much Fun

The problem with New Year’s resolutions is that people, even — make that especially — hard-core adventurers/endurance athletes tend to set the bar way too high: bike across the country, qualify for the Hawaii...

Brace Yourself For The New Year’s Day Run-Swim

When those uninitiated in the longstanding New Year’s Day tradition of running from Mystic to Fishers Island Sound and leaping into the icy water ask, "How can you stand it? Doesn’t it hurt?" we stoic veterans...

Two's Company, Three Hundred's A Crowd – On The Trail Or On A Sidewalk

While kayaking the 341-mile Erie Canal from Buffalo to Albany a few years ago I spotted another paddler a mile or so away headed in my direction. Having encountered only one or two other kayaks nearly a week into what turned out to be an...

Wouldn't It Be Wonderful To Hibernate?

When I pried a rock up with a mattock the other day, rushing to finish a small retaining wall before the ground froze, I inadvertently disturbed a hibernating spotted salamander’s winter home.

Happy Days Are Here Again: Cheap Fuel And Gas-Guzzlers!

Isn’t life great?! Gas is so cheap now I can get rid of my puny, poky, fuel-efficient econobox and get behind the wheel of an auto with plenty of ponies under the hood that any American would be proud to drive, just like the good...