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!





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