Monday, June 15, 2009

Helmets: What are they good for?

On CBC radio the other week they were talking about the problem with cyclists. Finally, I thought, those damn cyclists were going to get their comeuppance, the way they take up space on the road, forcing you to wait behind their slow asses or veer into the next lane to get around them, the way they use the left-hand lane to turn left just like cars do.

But no, the people were upset about cyclists not wearing helmets and doing things like riding on the sidewalk. I had to turn it off. I've long been a proponent that cyclists should have no rights whatsoever – for their own safety. It's the way I ride a bike. I agree helmets should be mandatory if you force the cyclists onto crowded streets and make them drive like cars. But take away one and you can take away the other.

I wrote about this in 1995. And it went something like this...
THE SPORTS GUY – June 22-29, 1995

by Guy MacPherson

Attention all cyclists: You have 15 months to crack your head open on the pavement without the fear of penalty of law. As of September 1996, the wearing of helmets will be made mandatory for anyone riding a bicycle. Is it a good thing? Oh, probably. But that doesn’t mean I like it.

I’m sure it will grow on me, just like the seatbelt law did. Thanks to Big Brother, I now buckle up each and every time I get into a car. It makes things awkward when I only want to vacuum the interior, but I just don’t feel safe otherwise.

It’s odd that these laws are passed for our safety and not a peep is heard from opponents. The federal government tries to pass a law banning certain firearms and making registration of all other guns mandatory, and every kook out there takes it as a violation of their rights as neighbours of the shoot-’em-up U.S. of A. In Amerika you can ride free as an uncaged helmetless bird on a motorbike, for heaven’s sake. Where are the Reform nuts on this issue?

And, irony of ironies, the helmet law is announced the very week that the feds have instructed police to stop charging people with possession of drugs. The citizens are permitted to mess their brains up with narcotics, but not with their bikes. Go figure.

I like riding slowly, carefully, defensively, with the wind blowing through me, er, scalp. I realize I may be tempting fate, but I’ve been riding lidless for 25 years with no great harm to my person. I am aware of the dangers: a human skull can be shattered by an impact of 7 to 10 kilometres per hour; helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 85 percent and brain injury by 88 percent. That’s why I’m never in too much of a hurry on my bike. I ride on the roads when I feel it’s safe and take to the sidewalks when there’s too much vehicular traffic. I will never agree to follow the same rules cars must adhere to. The way I figure it, the chances of me getting scrunched by a bus are greater than me scrunching a pedestrian.

I will always cede to a pedestrian the rights he or she has on the sidewalk. And at all times I establish eye contact across a crowded street with any human who might cross my path. I never assume drivers know the rules of the road. For instance, I will not take a left turn from the left lane. That presupposes too much on the part of the driver. For one thing, you can’t establish eye contact unless you have eyes in the back of your head, and for another not every driver is competent or pays full attention. One mistake by a reckless driver could cost you your life and him a small dent. I will always take the crosswalk to cross. Riding, of course.

In Europe and Asia bikes can go pretty much anywhere they choose. They can ride on the sidewalks in busy downtown foot traffic, they can fit as many people onto the bike as they like, and they are not forced to wear helmets. Is there a higher percentage of head injuries? I don’t know, but I doubt it. There’s too many of them to think so. They have the right attitude, and that’s that cyclists have no rights at all. Old people don’t cower and topple over when a cyclist approaches on the sidewalk. They walk straight ahead, knowing that the bike rider will get out of the way. And on the road, the cars are king. That’s the way it should be. Might makes right.

Of course, there’s the argument that the taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill when careless cyclists wind up with fractured skulls. No more, I suppose, than when a big fat guy who smokes and eats cholesterol straight out of the can winds up with a heart attack or when he develops lung cancer. I went to school with a kid who was fooling around with explosives in his basement and accidentally blew off his hand. Why should we have to pay for that?

The argument is ridiculous. We obviously don’t live in such a puritanical society. People make mistakes, accidents happen, and we should help our fellow citizens when they screw up. Wearing helmets will not stop screw-ups. Defensive driving will go a lot further to preventing accidents and lessening brain damage than wearing helmets.

I would encourage everyone to wear one, but respect their decision if they shoose not to. I choose not to. Just like I choose not to own guns, do drugs, smoke or eat right – all things that the government implicitly condones. The law should be made like the old NHL helmet policy (here’s the sports analogy for those of you who were wondering when I’d get to it). Anyone entering the league past a certain date must wear helmets. Before that, it’s up to the individual. For now, let’s set it at 25 years. Those who have been riding their bikes for 25 years or longer have the option of whether they want to wear a helmet or not. All others must don them.

Children definitely should grow up wearing helmets. Just as they are not permitted to smoke or drink. The smart ones will continue to wear them through adulthood. Then we can breed a society of helmet heads that will healthy and productive lives until they die naturally of drug overdoses.


  1. Hey Guy, this appeared in Monday Mag back in the day, didn't it? If so, I'm pretty sure I still own a hard copy of it. I have read it to my classes. You're a legend in my room, bud.

  2. Yeah, a version of it did. I can't remember if I changed anything for the Monday mag version. I remember it got a few letters to the ed, too.