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


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.

Privacy/Preservation: The Roads Not Taken At Fishers Island And Other Enclaves

Imagine strolling to the tip of one of Connecticut’s most magnificent natural habitats, Bluff Point Coastal Reserve in Groton, and instead of gazing at tidal marshes, salt ponds and sweeping, unspoiled view of Fishers Island Sound,...

Part II: Serenity, Solitude And Soggy Socks In The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

When we last left Tom and Steve, they were paddling through muck and mire (though mostly sparkling water) in northeastern Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Here is the second and final installment describing...

Serenity, Solitude And Soggy Socks In The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness

Gusty blasts that shook our tent during the night blew away thick clouds and rain showers, bringing morning sunshine that sparkled on Cherokee Lake when my son Tom and I crawled from sleeping bags last week.

The Continental Divide Trail: 'Overall It's Amazing, But You Have To Be OK With Getting Lost'

After tramping more than a month some 700 miles along the fabled Continental Divide Trail, Mystic native Hilary Sueoka and her boyfriend, Dan Stedman, who started hiking April 22 at the U.S.-Mexican border, finally rambled from the...

The Josh Billings Runaground Triathlon: Racing Is The Easy Part.

By the time Phil Warner and I hit the water in his lightning-fast tandem kayak last Sunday for our team’s leg in the Josh Billings Runaground Triathlon in Lenox, Mass., we had already spent a good part of the morning lugging gear...

There’s No Accounting For Taste When It Comes To Favorite Mountains, Or Tacos

En route to a hiking expedition in Nepal’s Himalayas a number of years ago, my wife and I took a detour to India and spent a day bouncing along on a bus from New Delhi to Agra to tour the Taj Mahal.

Mount McKinley Renamed Denali: Better Than Mount Reagan

Three cheers for the Obama Administration’s decision this week to officially restore the name of North America’s tallest mountain to Denali, which is what early inhabitants called the 20,310-foot peak in the Alaska Range.

The Endless Summer: Too Much Of A Good Thing?

Remember when you were a kid how your mom wouldn’t let you have ice cream every day even though nothing in the world tasted better on a hot day than a double scoop of butter crunch?