Last week was yet another week of sweat, and all I did was complain about it. So I’m going to spare everyone and skip right to a good ride, and a very muddled meditation on helmetlessness.
In the morning I walked my bike to the top of the hill and then realised I’d forgotten my helmet. I clutched my head like a character in a Chekhov story. Around once a year, or less, something short-circuits in my brain and I forget my helmet. I knew that walking all the way down the hill and then back up again would unleash another wave of sweat, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I decided, the hell with it – I would go forth helmetless.
I worried that I’d be shouted at from a car window, but I always worry about that anyway. Asided from that, this ride was excellent. I felt free, and fast, and my mullet looked better at the end of the ride than at the start.
I used to ride around without a helmet sometimes in London, and I always loved how much more connected I felt to my bike, to the road, to the weather. But I never lost the sense of helmetlessness being transgressive, sort of asking for trouble, even though arguably I was much more careful when I rode without a helmet.
On my ride this morning I saw two people zooming along the road on e-scooters, going faster than me, and I remembered how weird it is that you can legally ride an e-scooter on the road without a helmet, but it’s illegal to go bare-headed on a bike. (I’ve always thought that a person looks more vulnerable standing up on an e-scooter than they do sitting down on a bike. It’s something about seeing the full length of the body and being more able to imagine it falling over. I feel this way about those bike racks where the bike stands on the car’s roof, making the whole contraption weirdly tall. Things that move at speed should not be tall.)
I can’t remember what my first helmet looked like, and wish I could. It was probably one of those foamy-looking ones, like your head was packed in polystyrene packaging. It probably had ‘highlighter yellow’ plastic on the outside and badly fitting straps so that the whole thing slid about uselessly. I do remember that wearing a helmet (the helmet compulsion law came into effect in NZ in 1994) was frighteningly uncool, so much so that riding a bike didn’t really feel like a viable day-to-day option.
Anyway, the helmet debate is complex, and full of people yelling in circles. I fear confrontation, so I won’t try to distil the debate here or construct a big argument either way. But it does seem clear that historically we’ve tended to focus obsessively on cyclists and what they do or don’t do, and how they need to protect themselves from danger – at the expense of focusing on things that would make a more meaningful difference to their safety, like drivers’ behaviour and proper infrastructure that would protect people on bikes. Also, droning on about helmets and hi-vis and screaming ‘It’s a no-brainer!!’ is, in the end, incredibly annoying and unhelpful.
The business of helmets is also more complicated than it intuitively feels. There’s been research that suggests that drivers are less careful when passing a cyclist wearing a helmet, giving them less room than somebody not wearing one, almost as if a helmet were a full-body forcefield – and, as well, research suggesting that cyclists themselves take more risks when wearing a helmet. I think in some horrible way, over a lifetime, I’ve internalised this idea that we have to dress up as if for warfare when riding a bike, and if we don’t and we get hurt, of coure we’re to blame. But in the last few years, some of this ‘Everything is my fault’ thinking has started to come loose, and these days when I have a near miss with a car, I usually feel furious – as has been documented in this very blog – rather than embarrassed. My next step is to figure out how better to channel my anger rather than letting it eat me alive (the old-fashioned way).
Anyway, I haven’t worked out where I land on the helmet question exactly. Partly it’s because habit is such a powerful force. Partly it’s because I’ve had a few incidents where I’ve got home and absentmindedly haven’t taken my helmet off for a few minutes, and in that time I manage to whack my head very hard on something – a mantelpiece when getting the cat food; the metal edge of the washing line when getting clothes off – and have been quite grateful I was wearing it.
Maybe it’s just that a lot of things can be true at the same time, and often, when that’s the case, people go crazy and cannot have a conversation. Some things that are true are: helmets are generally good at reducing a head injury in a crash. They can also unwittingly encourage worse behaviour from drivers, make ride share schemes hard or impossible, and reinforce the message that cycling is dangerous (and this is that self-perpetuating thing: obviously cycling can be dangerous! And it often is. But when there aren’t as many cyclists because of fear, and because we focus more on cyclists themselves than on infrastructure, the ones who are there are more vulnerable).
Anyway, after work I walked my bike all the way to Kelburn village and then snuck on and rode the rest, slowly winding up the hill in the drenching heat. I was not stopped and arrested. Happy Friday!
Hi Ashleigh, Great blog as always, but loved ‘Things that move at speed should not be tall’. Your mother, my dear sister, personifies this sentence perfectly – ha ha. Cheers and love! Hedy xx
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