One of my favorite bloggers, the infamous Bike Snob NYC, wrote the following about helmets in a very funny post which included jabs at both the NYC Fuseproject and the new Kick Starter launched “Folding Helmet” which, among other virtues, is capable of protecting the user from the weight of one used book, gently applied.
And then this classic from 2009:
Slow and Steady: The Tortoise and the Helmet Hair
Bike Snob relates:
“It’s also typical of the non-cyclist to focus on the helmet as a symbol of cycling safety. Indeed, the helmet has become a symbol of safe cycling just as the condom has become a symbol of safe sex. However, there’s a big difference between the two. If you use a condom properly it will be highly effective, but if you use a helmet properly it won’t make a difference if you’re still doing everything else wrong. Riding without a helmet will not make you crash, but riding with a bunch of stuff dangling off your handlebars might.”
The winning design!
Back to Dressage Snob. (I’m not nearly as funny as he is–though perhaps more polite. . . )
Re the offering above: actually, over the years having been subjected to the equestrian versions of helmets, these look pretty good.
Dressage Snob bias and disclaimer: I have been a egregious offender in not setting a good example by always wearing a helmet. Why?
I am 56 years old and have been riding since I was s little shy of three. I was a B Pony Club member before I was 12 (this means jumping things). My friend Darcy and I logged over 200 falls each before we were ten. We rode every day at breakneck speeds all over the country and we survived.
The only broken bone I have ever suffered was while skiing, which made me so mad I quit skiing for a number of years.
How come I broke my leg skiing? I was not very experienced and found myself in the middle of a large patch of ice. I was a relative beginner. And while being experienced is no guarantee of not getting hurt, (as you will see below,) it helps.
So though we in the sixties always wore helmets when jumping, it was not traditional to do so when riding “on the flat.”
Why until recently?
None of MY dressage instructors wore them.
But, times change and helmets are both safer now and more comfortable, never mind used by virtually everyone in the US. I have several current helmets, ranging in price from a bit over $100 to almost $500. The latter, with a fancy front vent, that I do not wear because even though it is my size, it falls down over my eyes so I cannot see where I am directing the poor beast. Riding momentarily with the eyes shut is often something I ask my riders to do on the longe line, but I try not to practice it for long periods solo. (Refer to note on condoms above.) The first rule of staying safe in any sport is to not do stupid things.
So, just as it takes some time, effort and expense to procure a beast that you are comfortable with, it takes some effort to get a helmet with the same qualities. I understand this and I do now routinely wear a helmet.
Please do so as well.
And now that you have done so I will tell you the bottom line of why you must:
If you are unfortunately injured, (and we hope this will not be the case,) you will have to answer this question from every medical person you meet from now until your eventual demise:
“Where you wearing a helmet?”
And as telling stories is my business here, I will tell you a quick story–which I hope will have a happy ending.
This is my partner. His name is Rick.
Both of the pictures below are posed–and these are literally the only times I have ever seen him not wear a helmet on a bike.
The rides lasted twenty feet or less.
They were staged, and the expression on his face is the point of both pictures. Well, particularly in the first the expression might not be the only point of the picture. What is not to LOVE about a handsome guy in shorts and an ironed shirt arriving with broom (see back of bike), fresh towels and duster to your door?
He rides real bicycles–and not just our cargo bike–for fun and transportation.
He has been know to try out other models as a lark. He disliked the gearing in this one.
Here is how he really looks when he really rides:
Last year, Rick to the left and his son to the right getting ready to ride up the side of some unthinkable incline.
Rick is a very, very experienced cyclist. He does not do stupid things. And it is logical that a very experienced cyclist can probably beat the odds of bicycling across the driveway on a clear day with no traffic.
Knowing which situations are likely to be dangerous is part of being experienced.
But in this case it did not help. Coming home from working out in the late afternoon (daylight) on December 1st, 2014, helmet securely strapped on, sporting a neon yellow jacket, astride his bright red Cinelli bicycle, lighted on front and back, Rick dropped behind the line of cars passing him as he rode down the bike lane, and eased into the traffic lane.
He does this every time in this location, where he rode nearly every day. It is standard “best practices” for bikers in this situation for two reasons:
1. The bike lane is ending, if he stays to the right it is possible that cars will attempt to turn right over the top of him.
2. Taking the lane makes him more visible to any crossing traffic.
From a side street an elderly woman, not expecting to see a cyclist, did see her chance to get home a bit early and when the line of cars passed she gunned her car out in front of him. If she had been turning to merge with traffic he might have gotten around her. But as it was, there was no place for him and he struck the car with enough force to be thrown over the hood, across two lanes and into the other curb.
One can hear her voice on the 911 call, “But he hit ME!” as the gathering crowd insisted that she stay and wait for the police. She was given a ticket. Failing to yield right of way. $170 fine. Probably wrecked her evening.
Rick was given an ambulance ride. And a good deal more time than the evening has been wrecked for him
Though over 60 Rick is a fine athlete. He lived though being hit by the woman’s car and thrown across two lanes into the curb.
Broken rib. Concussion. Also broken helmet.
A friend gave him a new helmet.
The black one was cracked. And it probably did save his life.
The problem is that it did not save him the concussion. And truthfully, most helmets, biking and otherwise will not. In a high speed wreck they are more effective at making you look good in your casket than preventing your entry.
As they explain it to me in later months, your brain is like a lump of vanilla pudding floating inside your skull. And when you stop the head very fast (as in hitting a solid object from some speed) the brain bounces within the skull. It hits the interior wall and then rebounds back to the other side. It is called a coup contrecoup injury, and this is not something the brain likes. It typically leaves no mark, but small and frequent chemical and electrical connections are disturbed, disconnected, severed, bruised, bled on–or all of the above.
And though the brain may reroute eventually along different pathways–restoring the survivor’s ability to be in bright lights, listen to more than one conversation, balance with his eyes shut, remember yesterday, understand context–it can take a while. Like a few weeks. Or months. Or years.
After a time there is what TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) folks call “the new normal”.
You may ride again, if your balance returns.
You may drive a car again if your depth perception improves.
Or you may ride in a different manner:
(Trust me, for an avid cyclist, after three months of not riding at all, the stationary bike was a huge treat. The dark glasses and basement are because concussion folk are often very light sensitive.)
Here’s the next step–if he is lucky.
So yes, wear your helmet.
Being dead is not the preferred outcome. But don’t discount other types of brain injury.
The point is, don’t think wearing a helmet is going to be all you need to do. It may be relevant, it may not be. Accidents happen. Particularly when you are learning. You can be safer wearing a helmet, but not unless you make good choices–like riding a suitable horse in a suitable place for your skill level. And today’s helmets are cooler more comfortable and actually somewhat safer than those of old–the fashionable antique velvet ones had a nasty tendency to break their owners neck in a fall, perhaps explaining some of the old-timers hesitance.
Anyway, find one you like, approved and designed for riding. Wear it. If something does happen, your family will thank you.
Nevertheless I do wish the medical community (and everyone else) would quit it with the first question to Rick:
“Did you have your helmet on?”
Yes, and biking instead of driving as a valiant symbol of saving the planet in a town known for hating cyclists. Someone not so thoughtful ran him down.
That’s why we pay careful attention to the other people on the road–and in the riding arena. If someone is vulnerable we look out for them. Sadly, people surrounded by air bags within four thousand pounds of metal tend to arrogantly forget those more vulnerable–while texting, which is an entirely different subject. (Please, drop the phone in the glove compartment and drive. Nothing can be that important. Would you appreciate the Karma of the woman that ran Rick down?)
For those of you in countries that have a sensible attitude about bicycles and cars, let me reassure you it is quite true in the US that running over a cyclist is largely acceptable. Some people even do it on purpose. Just a light tap to tell them where they aught to be. (I kid you not–it happened to Rick a number of years ago coming home at night on a deserted street. Car approached from behind, a light tap, then when he recovered, the driver came and did it again to make sure he fell.)
The granny who hit Rick will not lose her license to drive. Not for a day. Those of you in Europe will be dropping your jaws at this, but it is true.
And any lawyer around will tell you US juries hate cyclists. The vast majority of drivers do NOT want to share the road. But US cities paint bike lanes and encourage biking–it is good for their image. What it amounts to is a massive experiment with the cyclists lives when the drivers are both unaccountable, not expecting to encounter a cyclist, and angry if they do. The only real cure is for people to expect to see cyclists, to be looking for them. And that takes both seeing more of them–hopefully upright–and being trained to look.
I have bicycled in places where “this is MY road” attitude is not the case–and it is a real pleasure. Hats off to the law makers and the educated drivers in these places! Ironically, in many of these bike-friendly places, it is not required that the cyclist wear a helmet. But that drivers of cars are vigilant. Go figure.