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

A Chilly Paddle Among The Seals Off Fishers Island

"What did you say the water temperature is?" my buddy Steve Kurczy called out. "Thirty-eight degrees!" "And how long …" He didn’t have to finish the question.

Death In The Antarctic: Adventurers Who Live On The Edge Sometimes Topple Off

Virtually all outdoor enthusiasts, myself included, regard Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1915 as history’s most extraordinary survival tale, in which he and his entire crew managed to make it...

Death In Antarctica: Adventurers Who Live On The Edge Sometimes Topple Off

Virtually all outdoor enthusiasts, myself included, regard Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1915 as history’s most extraordinary survival tale, in which he and his entire crew managed to make it...

Finally, Some Cross-Country Skiing

After emerging on cross-country skis from protective evergreens into an open field the other day, I pulled on a fleece balaclava as an icy gust whipped across frozen ground and a giant, dark shadow advanced with the lowering sun.

Touching The Top Of The Bottom Of The Planet: Mystic Climber Scales Antarctica’s Tallest Mountain

Experienced mountaineers realize that reaching the peak isn’t the most important goal of any climb. The fact is, it doesn’t count unless you get back down.

Nuts About Acorns

By now I’m sure you’ve noticed, as I have on my regular rambles through the woods, that we’re up to our — er, elbows — in acorns.

A Year Of Fun: It All Begins With The New Year’s Day Run-Swim

First of all, it doesn’t hurt that much. Really.

Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow ... (And Don’t Stick Your Foot Into A Bear Cave)

I know that a month from now, when I could very well be digging out of my driveway just as I was in the accompanying photo taken last winter, I may have to eat these words, but ... Come on! Where’s all the snow?!

An Impromptu Kayak Circumnavigation of Fishers Island in December: Glad I Missed the ‘Fun’ Part

You know those adventures you could have experienced but had to pass up for one reason or another, and then when you later ask how it went your friends gush, "Oh, man, it was awesome! Best time of our life! You shoulda been...

Celebrating Second-place Slackers: A Quiz

Back when my son Tom and I were tagging all 67 of the 4,000-plus-foot mountains in New England, a perverse idea crossed my mind: What if we stopped inches short of each peak and then climbed back down?

With The Fagin Fitness Ankle Bracelet or Fagin Fitness Implant, You WILL Get In Shape!

The problem with Fitbit, Jawbone Up, Withings Pulse, Microsoft Band and other electronic fitness trackers is that, like so many old-school aids designed to get people off their butts and into shape (workout charts, personal trainers,...

Beware The Deadly Deer

Every season presents the potential for paradise or peril.

Autumn Berries: A Succulent Reward During A Long Bike Ride

While biking through the hills and along the shore of Mystic and Stonington the other day with my friend Spyros "Spy" Barres and son Tom, I began to regret that I neglected to bring along a water bottle.

The Rites – And Wrongs – Of Autumn

It’s finally happened: I’ve grown so accustomed to the roar of the leaf blower that I now longer recoil and curse at the first sonic blast of fall, but simply shake my head and sigh.