Thursday, April 16, 2009

Bicycle Commuting Sans Helmet--Cool?

Apparently, one reason potential bike commuters still fire up their engines every day is an aesthetic aversion to wearing helmets.

In this recent NYTimes article on the fashion of bike commuting in the Big Apple, dummy court attorney James Vicente declares, "Riding a bike should be normal, and you shouldn’t have to wear a funny Styrofoam hat."

He clearly has never handled a dooring case. Or a "T-boned by a fat lady" case. Or an "I fell over the speed bump" case. Or a "I clipped in and then ate it in front of all of my friends" case.

These events may seem harmless enough, but think of it like this: Picture yourself standing up. Now fall backwards without extending your arms, or stepping back to catch yourself. Your big fat head just struck pavement from an average height of 5' 1" if you're a dude, or 4'almost 8" if you're a lady. (Given a head length of 8".)

Even if you've been diligent about your calcium intake, your cranium is heading for a Humpty Dumpty moment when you fall off of your bike. You don't even have to be moving. It's a big drop for a very unbouncy, and quite important body part.

The NYTimes author concludes that not wearing a helmet, à la Dutch bike commuters (who have enviously made bike commuting a simple fact of daily life), is a "style perk" afforded by riding a stately Dutch bike.

If a point of the article was to examine ways, like introducing Dutch bikes to the city, to make bike commuting hip and fashionable to people who don't self-identify as "cyclists", the author should have more responsibly jump started the "wearing your helmet is cool, yo!" initiative in the process.

Because people fall--and not only when descending Alpe d'Huez in a pack of 20 cyclists going 50 mph. Even a fall from 0mph can have dramatic consequences.

Drooling on yourself for the rest of your life, Mr. Vicente, is far less fashionable than wearing a "Styrofoam hat".


  1. hey googling myself i found this ... i wish you didn't call me a "dummy". anyways "funny styrofoam hat" is a funny characterization of bike helmets i had read somewhere on the internet, in an article basically arguing against helmet laws.

    i actually didn't tell the writer i "never" wear a helmet, just not on the vast vast majority of my everyday rides ... and i didn't mean to come off as defiant or assholeish about not wearing one; i'm actually pretty apologetic about it and sympathize with the nice people who care enough about me to tell me to put one on ... i just don't usually.

    the reporter misquoted/paraphrased me in other parts too ... i wouldn't usually call "fixed gear" bikes impractical, strictly fashion-over-function ... i ride one! i even referred him to sheldon brown's website if he wanted to get a lot of the rationales people offer for the advantages of fixed gear ... if i recall correctly, i was saying that riding fixed brakeless is impractical, and that most people who do it, as far as i can tell, do it for some kind of badass cred, not because they're track racing usually. typical bikesnobnyc sentiment, i think. and i meant for commuting, as that was the gist of the article as i understood it ...

    more importantly, i never crashed into another cyclist while wearing a suit ... it was a van, and it swerved into the bike lane, and i hit the pavement, not the van! furthermore, i do not think i even own a polo shirt. good work, new york times fact-checkers. another jayson blair fiasco.

  2. OMG! I can't believe you found this! I'll have to admit, your misquoted comment was a perfect opportunity to plug my ongoing helmets-are-cool campaign. :)

    On the plus side, maybe simply having your name in the NYT will be good for business? Or for dating? At least now everyone knows you ride to work, which makes you instafashionable amongst the prospandex crowd.

  3. The NYT misquote someone to make a point??!! I am shocked - SHOCKED - to hear such a thing!! From what I've seen (some from personal experience) the NYT does not actually need "fact checkers" as they feel that anything they put in print is by definition "fact", even when they just flat out make it up (to which they have actually admitted). But I digress.

    On the issue of helmet laws, I can sympathize with Mr. Viscente. I put them in the same category as seatbelt laws. You shouldn't need to make laws to force people to do things that are just common sense or to protect them from their own stupidity. In my book, we are all accountable for our own actions and responsible for the outcomes of our decisions. When someone eats pavement not wearing a helmet, I just can't find sympathy in myself for that. It's nature in action. Culling of the herd. Survival of the fittest and all that.

    But that should in no way be construed as a rejection of the utter necessity of a helmet when riding a bike. I never get on mine without my helmet and it's an ironclad rule with my daughter. To that end, I simply have to agree with your characterization of "dummy". I'm sorry if that offends, but that's exactly what I'm thinking when I ride past someone without a helmet.

    I understand that helmets are not a guarentee of anything. I understand that if I am clipped by a car, there's a decent chance that my helmet is not going to make a difference. But when you find your head flying toward the pavement at 30 mph, what would you prefer hits first, your skull or a funny styrofoam hat?

    There are only two types of cyclists in the world. Those that have wrecked and those who are going to wreck. Everyone who hangs out with triathletes and cyclists knows at least one person who would not be here today if not for their helmet. Seems like kind of a big risk to take in the name of being "stylish" or "cool".

    But people will do what they gotta do.

    Good luck with that.

  4. Joe! I'm so happy to hear from you! Perhaps the NYT will come up in some sort of "questionable journalism practices" seminar next year :)

    You're right, I don't believe in helmet laws either. But I do believe in familial helmet laws! Way to be a good dad!

  5. but it's an interesting point that really dovetails nicely with the substance of the article -- which one must really read into it, since the style section seems to go to great length to avoid substance. there's an internal tension in bicycling circles, about whether cycling is a challenging, even elite, sporting activity, a fringe political identity group, or whether it is, or can be, as this article ostensibly advocates, perfectly unremarkable and acceptable as totally normal. insofar as helmet use tends to stigmatize bicycling as an inherently dangerous activity, it might reasonably be characterized as "bad" for bicycling. for the individual rider, of course, the tendency of a helmet to prevent traumatic brain injury can be good for bicycling. whether the other effects of helmet use (inconvenience of carrying, storing, expense, the way they sometimes look) are good or bad for individual riders is up to the rider. but if you're trying to make cycling look normal even if it's not, thereby hopefully increasing the ranks of cyclists to the point that -- hey, it actually is normal! -- and safer, due to an increased awareness of all this cycling going on amongst the dwindling car driving population -- that might weigh in favor of foregoing personal interest and riding helmetless. a dead or maimed or drooling mr. vicente is a one-day story at most ... the incremental popularization of cycling as a normal means of transportation is a movement much bigger than my self interest. something like libertarian sympathies, widespread in america, keeps you both, both zealous bike helmet advocates, from endorsing mandatory helmet laws, but to whatever extent possible, you exercise your control over your personal dominion to enforce a little helmet law. you wear helmets, and you make your children wear helmets. this makes sense, especially since a drooling brain dead father is impaired as a breadwinning head of household. but for the young and stupid, those who perceive themselves as relatively invincible, and who therefore often forego even the safeguard of medical insurance, with no babies who can be pinned on them, footloose and fancy free, why shouldn't they do what they want? there is some argument, often deployed in the case of mandatory helmet laws for motorcycles, that the societal costs that the brain-injured crash victims exact in terms of emergency room visits, hospital stays, morgue fees, bumming out their friends, etc., justify the government's paternalism in that case. the counterargument with respect to bicycles is that the increase in cycling activity presumably would reduce the even greater yet less obviously impactful health care fees associated with overweight heart diseased lethargic teevee watching diabetic americans. so my point is that whether you wear a helmet or not is a personal choice that has a lot to do with whether you feel the need to continue living (or not drooling, at least) very badly or not. whether cycling becomes stylish and fashionable and something that even lazy people start thinking they ought to be doing just for the psychic benefits of associating themselves with the beautiful and famous people who all do it all the time everyday omg i just read about it in people magazine is really a greater cause, something comparable, say, to the free world's never-ending war on terror. lol

  6. I'm gonna go out on a limb and say you're the first person to compare cycling's never-ending identity struggle to the war on terror :D haha!

  7. I think this debate goes well beyond the content of what amounts to little more than a fluff piece on beach cruisers.

    I believe we are talking about two different things here. Trying to gain acceptance of the sport of cycling as "normal" as a means to promote bicycle riding as transportation is somthing akin to arguing that marathon runners should wear hard shoes so that people will feel better about walking to work. The two are not the same thing and Erin and I are probably not representative of the masses anyway, being sort of out on the lunatic fringe ourselves. Among cyclists, bike cleats, spandex pants with big pads in the butt and garish jerseys are the norm. They are functional for the sport, so they are accepted and embraced, even though we look like idiots to others. These things are just as much ,probably even more of, an impediment to the acceptance of cycling as normal. However, they are not remotely necessary for bicycle commuting, so be my guest and chuck 'em. But, promoting the removal of a key piece of safety equipment to make people feel "safe" and "normal" is irresponsble, in my opinion. If the helmet is the thing holding back wider acceptance of bicycling as a means of transportation, then we are probably better off focusing our efforts in other areas. And as for the increasing safety due to dwindling cars, I'm just not going to hold my breath on that one. You'll notice that McDonald's isn't knocking on the government's door for a bailout! The U.S. is a car culture and no amount of promotion is going to change that anytime soon (not to suggest that we shouldn't try, I just wouldn't recommend putting all your eggs in that particular basket).

    I would never make the argument that taking personal risks is the business of anyone other than the individual, quite the contrary. Erin and I have had the dicussion of personal risk tolerance in this very blog (unfortunately lost when she changed servers). One could very easily argue that engaging in endurance sports such as triathlon and ultra-cycling are inherently risky and stupid things to do. And our ongoing quest to increase the max speed attained on our bike computers borders on insanity at times. You don't need to make that point to me, I see it almost every day in the looks people give me when they find out what I do after work. I completely agree that your risk tolerance changes with conditions throughout your life. I've done a lot of stupid things myself in my youth. That doesn't make them less stupid, it doesn't mean I'm going to repeat them and it doesn't mean I'm going to promote them as worthwhile activities to others. The bottom line is that, yes, young males are going to lead the way in doing stupid and risky things. That will never change. All the common sense in the world will not keep people from being stupid at some point, nor necessarily should it. But promoting foolishness as a means to get others to feel better about being foolish is...well...foolish, regardless of what other good may be served. I just can't agree with you on that point and I'm certainly not going to put myself at risk to make such a point to others. But at the same time, I'm not going to tell you that you CAN'T, if you so choose.