Mind your manners

September 19, 2018 § 25 Comments

In late 2005 I started wearing a helmet every time I rode, and it wasn’t exactly by choice. Russell DeBarbieris and I would show up at the First Colony ride on Saturday in Fort Bend County, he with a temper and me without a helmet. And we would proceed to smash the ride.

I was new in Houston; although I grew up there I had lived and ridden elsewhere from 1982 on, so I didn’t know the crowd. They hated us because we didn’t do what they told us to, we didn’t let their designated leaders lead, and we smashed the ride into bits. Every time.

It was so much fun, except for the part that wasn’t.

Where’s your HELLLLMETTTTT?

They couldn’t drop us, and they couldn’t hang with us when we decided it was time to smash, but they could always say at the beginning of each ride, at the regroups, and at the brokedick end when Russell and I would be hanging around having our third cappuccino to watch them arrive in a shambles, “Where’s your HELLLLLMETTTT?”

At first it didn’t bother me. I’d never worn a helmet except in races, and after twenty-three seasons of racing and riding, I’d never been killed.

More than that, riding without a helmet felt completely different from riding with one. Not just different. Better. If you’ve never done a 100-mile ride in the heat with nothing but a jaunty cloth cap, don’t talk to me about how helmeted v. helmetless riding does or doesn’t feel. Because you don’t know.

Before they banned Russell and me from the ride, though, I had given in. It wasn’t just at the First Colony dorkothon that I got shouted at, it was everywhere. No one seemed to hesitate to ask me where my helmet was, and they were retort-proof. Blibby-blabby little people with their first pro bike and a whopping 5k on their legs felt completely confident asking me where my helmet was, even though they’d broken femurs, had concussions, lost teeth, shattered elbows, ripped off every shred of skin on one entire side of their body, busted both collarbones twice … didn’t matter cuz they wuz wearing a helmet.

Didn’t matter that I’d never broken anything and had virtually no road rash scars, didn’t matter that I could ride and they couldn’t, that I was a grown man and they weren’t, that I’d raised three kids and they were still living with mom and dad.

Didn’t fucking matter. Ever.

“Where.”

“Is.”

“Your.”

“Helmet.”

It wasn’t a question.

Peer pressure works. For a while.

So I caved and started wearing a helmet no matter what. Whereas in the past I had always worn one judiciously, i.e. “Am I racing?” “Do I have to?” “Am I alone?” “How long will I be surrounded by idiots?” I fell into the pattern of never leave home without it. The times I’ve fallen since then, I’d have had a helmet on anyway because it was either during a race, riding in/to/from a cluster like NPR or Donut, or that one time I practiced a wheelie on the back of my skull after separating from the group ride.

This past summer I was in Vienna and my buddy Damir had just brought over a bike for me. I was fresh off the bus from Bratislava and hankering to ride. Damir was lid-less and I rode sans helmet, too.

With the exception of the time my son Woodrow and I rode helmetless across Germany on cruiser bikes, this day was the first time since 2005 that I’d bothered to take note of the thousands of people not wearing helmets. Whether that was safe or not I might write about later, but you know what I noticed? Not one single person screamed “Where’s your HELLLLMETTTT?” as I passed.

No one cared. At all. For two weeks I rode without a helmet and there was enough IDGAF to start a Bank of No Fucks.

So back in LA I regressed to my pre-2005 ways. Wear a helmet when you think it might be gnarly, enjoy the breeze blowing through your hair the rest of the time, because at age 54, there are a whole bunch of people who have none. And you know what? No sooner did I appear on the streets of the South Bay than the catcalls started.

I wondered about that.

Where’s your DIIIIETTTTTT?

I wondered why people felt so free and easy screaming at me to wear a helmet. One particularly ill-mannered screecher advised me that it was because he was “concerned for my safety.”

I wondered how he would feel if the next time we saw each other on the bike I were to shout, “Where’s your DIIIIIETTTT!” and then explained that I was only concerned for his health due to the fatty buildup around his abdomen.

Or what if every time I saw a friend guzzling one beer too many, I were to shout, “Quit boozing!” and explained that I was only concerned for his liver, family, job, memory, heart, and happiness.

And why limit the screeching to people who drink too much and who carry around a few pounds too many? Why not start screaming at fellow cyclists when they pass, “Quit banging your buddy’s wife!” and “Get those herpes lesions cured!” and “Where’s your mortgage PAAYYYYMENNNNT?” and any other number of admonitions to show how much I care?

Then I could follow up the public berating by emailing links to articles about the perils of shacking up, the dangers of alcoholism, the risks of having a stressful job, the evils of not getting marriage counseling, the repercussions of credit card debt, and even better yet, do it on #socmed. What a nice way to show you care, and to show everyone else you care, right?

Of course the reason that I don’t do those things is because I just did them, here. And see? It doesn’t look very good. Berating people like a pompous jackass because you think you have the right to tell them what’s good for them is the mark of, well, a pompous jackass. If you’re so concerned about my health, where were you when I broke my hip? Where were you when I was a raging alcoholic? Answer a) You were busy. Answer b) You hadn’t started riding then. Answer c) Huh?

Not everyone is that way, though. A couple of people have ridden up to me and politely inquired, “Why no helmet?” and I’ve answered. We’ve had a pleasant and civil conversation and parted without me feeling like someone just asked “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”

The hypocrisy of helmet safety nuts

In addition to wondering where people get off screaming at me about my helmet, I’ve paid close attention to the thousands of people I’ve seen on the bike paths here since August, yes, thousands, and have noted that many don’t wear helmets. The e-bikers seem to be the least helmeted of all.

And oddly enough, no one is screaming at them as they pass. No one is berating them at stop lights, accosting them in cafes, and as far as I know, badgering them on the Internet. Why is that? Why do the least skilled, least experienced, highest-motorized riders get a free pass? Why aren’t all the do-gooders screaming at them?

The answer, aside from the fact that the average LA commuting e-biker has fists like hams, is that the do-gooders aren’t really do-gooders. They’ve never read any scientific literature about helmets. They know zero about the correlation between mandatory helmet usage and decreased ridership in nations like Australia. They don’t understand Chris Boardman’s point that a few deaths and head injuries are a small price to pay if the trade-off is increased ridership and an across-the-board drop in the lifestyle diseases whose societal burden vastly outweighs any increase in head trauma. They don’t understand that sometimes wearing helmets can cause riskier behavior, or that not all helmets protect against all types of impacts, or that helmet standards are not, and have never been, devised to protect the brain but rather to meet industry-written, wholly unscientific standards. It has never occurred to them that emphasizing rider responsibility is often nothing more than victim blaming, when the real transgressors are 2-ton steel cages and the distracted steerers operating them.

In short, they are oblivious to the fact that helmet usage is a vigorously debated subject with strong, data-driven arguments on both sides.

Their ignorance doesn’t explain why helmet Nazis are compelled to screech, though. I think it comes from an American road cycling culture that is often based on humiliating others. Whether it’s your clothing, your equipment, your hairy legs, your gender, or your color coordination, road cycling has always feasted on the insecurity of riders by telling them they are doing it wrong, whatever “it” is.

Helmet Nazis are another outgrowth of this insecure cyclist desire to humiliate others, a nasty urge codified by the Velominati and their ilk. I’ve never had an experienced cyclist, with one exception, yell at me regarding my helmet, and this particular person is famed for his nervous insecurity in all things. The rest of the time the yammering is coming from people who are still trying to figure out how to get through a turn without taking out half the field.

Here’s the thing: I encourage you to wear a helmet if you think it makes you safer. If you want to have a discussion or even a debate about helmets, I might engage if I am absolutely bored out of my skull and have nothing else to talk about and no way to escape. Otherwise, you might consider refraining from asking me where my helmet is.

Because if it’s not on my head, you can be pretty sure it’s at home.

END

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§ 25 Responses to Mind your manners

  • alanardeng says:

    Good one Seth. I arrived in NYC last night, and since few remember me, except the Central Park hard core, who don’t GAF, I’m rolling out on one of my antique three-speeds, without a helmet, up for some laps in the Park, then to Zabar’s or downtown to Saigon Bahn Mi, confident that I won’t hear “ Where’s your helmet”.

    • fsethd says:

      The case study of Australia, where helmets are mandatory, and their impact on ridership, is incredible. Even if helmets always made everyone safer all the time, the number of people they discourage from riding more than offsets helmet benefits by the disease and death associated with being sedentary.

  • dangerstu says:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and why people feel compelled to comment when you ride with out a helmet. I typically ride with a helmet and only fail to wear it if I’m in a rush and forget. This happened to me earlier this year on a ride and I needed both hands to count the number of people who felt compelled to say something.

    The last two times I’ve crashed I’ve destroyed my helmet, and on the last occasion broken my hip and clavical. Compared to when I used to road race motorcycles and crashed I got up and walked away because I was wearing 20lbs of protective equipment, not just clothing with the same protection as underwear.

    Getting back, I had not thought of the velominati aspect, because I try not to think about those wankers, they probably have a rule involving pantone in relation to helmets, saddles, bartape and this mornings turds. But I suspect that you have a point.

    I myself have been wondering if it has to do with a subconscious form of self policing, let’s make sure we all wear helmets all the time so they don’t pass a law to force to wear helmets all the time.

    I also thought about why I don’t feel compelled to say anything to non helmeted, cyclist of any kind. The best answer I can come up with, is it’s simply non of my damn business.

  • Jon Phillips says:

    Given head injuries per mile travelled are higher for pedestrians and cagers, you should be shouting it at them. Me, always wear one but thats entirely my choice.

  • fsethd says:

    From a reader:

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and why people feel compelled to comment when you ride with out a helmet. I typically ride with a helmet and only fail to wear it if I’m in a rush and forget. This happened to me earlier this year on a ride and I needed both hands to count the number of people who felt compelled to say something.

    The last two times I’ve crashed I’ve destroyed my helmet, and on the last occasion broken my hip and clavicle. Compared to when I used to road race motorcycles and crashed I got up and walked away because I was wearing 20lbs of protective equipment, not just clothing with that offers the same protection as underwear.

    Getting back, I had not thought of the velominati aspect, because I try not to think about those wankers, they probably have a rule involving pantone in relation to helmets, saddles, bar tape and this mornings turds. But I suspect that you have a point.

    I myself have been wondering if it has to do with a subconscious form of self policing, let’s make sure we all wear helmets all the time so they don’t pass a law to force to wear helmets all the time.

    I also thought about why I don’t feel compelled to say anything to non helmeted, cyclist of any kind. The best answer I can come up with, is it’s simply non of my damn business.

    • fsethd says:

      Helmets reduce head injuries in many situations. Across a wide spectrum of users, they are more beneficial than not. An unthinking way to use them is to put one all at all times if the primary concern is head injury. Of course if the primary concern is head injury, you probably also wear one in your car, because statistically that is where all the head injuries occur. Funny how few of the shoutypantsers I’ve ever seen wearing a helmet in their SUV.

      As you and I know, we don’t have the luxury of getting to predict when and where we will fall. So I would never criticize someone for riding always helmeted.

      On the other hand, there are other safety and health reasons to not wear a helmet. I’m an advocate first and a cyclist second. My job is to increase ridership. That’s the only way to decrease road injuries and fatalities, which are caused not by helmet use but by cars.

      Ridership also decreases mortality and morbidity associated with sedentary lifestyles and forces the political system to take account of us in its laws and roadway designs. If it takes my head injury to inspire 100+ people to become active, it’s a worthy trade-off. My life isn’t worth the lives of 100 other people. And I’m confident that in the last 36 years I’ve inspired perhaps thousands of people to ride bikes.

      The other issue is pleasure and comfort. These are real things. My cycling experience is different without a lid, and it’s better. So understanding the risks, which I try to minimize, I selectively ride without a helmet. My personal experience is that I ride a lot more carefully bareheaded, although that may just be me, as I see plenty of zany shit on the bike path, especially by e-bikers.

      And I’m not down with the humiliation of people for their riding choices, because if they weren’t riding they’d almost certainly be sedentary or in a car. If helmets were my serious safety issue, I’d talk to people one on one, like I do about lights, not in a rude screech or public post designed to shame. If we’re not enjoying the ride, we’re doing it wrong.

      • senna65 says:

        Wanker, I tend to disagree with you on lots of things, but love your spirit regardless. Still, the below is maybe the silliest line you’ve ever written since I started reading this blog.

        If it takes my head injury to inspire 100+ people to become active, it’s a worthy trade-off. My life isn’t worth the lives of 100 other people.

  • LesB says:

    Thanks for referring to e-bike people as “riders” and not “cyclists”.

    BTW, where’s your helmet?

  • gcziko says:

    This diagram by Dan Gutierrez puts helmets in perspective.

    His comments:
    The important talking point about this diagram is that the layers are cumulative and build upon each other, with the first 4 to eliminate crashes, to hopefully NEVER reach layer 5, which is only useful AFTER a crash occurs. The main motivation for making this diagram is to show that bicyclist skill development is the 1st through 4th lines of crash avoidance, and that helmet use does NOTHING to avoid crashes, but is useful if a crash occurs.

    I spent a lot of time working on this diagram to get the right look and feel for the colors and sizes so it would look like a buildup.

  • I don’t think most people actually think about helmets, except the dedicated spandex wannabe racers. Those guys barely count in my book. (Sorry Seth!) Seems to me anyone willing to spend $200 for a slightly lighter helmet, has a fetish for bike gear. Helmets all work the same – they might help in the rare event of a low speed crash. No color is better and none will save you if you crash into something at 40mph.

    The rest of the cycling population hasn’t any interest, clue, or concern with helmets. The only people who comment to me (in the last few years) are the truly stuck in 1950 mindset ones – they wouldn’t think of trying a bike, a scooter or an e-bike. These people have to well…invent a reason to not try these mode of transport. They are the ones running about shouting “Where’s your helmet?” in the hopes of getting everyone else to demonetize cyclists. Then they don’t have to change and try something new.

    The shouting is really a plot against bikes to keep it out of the mainstream of transport. There is no reason to play along. Helmets are not the issue – multi-thousand pound cars are.

    PS Thanks Seth for the interesting post! You got me to write!

  • gcziko says:

    Helmets are the last layer of protection.
    ==================================
    The Five Layers of Bicycling Safety

    By Daniel Gutierrez
    Enhanced by Mighk Wilson

    Layer 1: Control Your Bicycle (Don’t fall or collide with others)

    If you can skillfully control your bike by starting, stopping, and turning properly, you will not fall down all by yourself or run into others. Do this and you cut out about half of your injury risk. To ride in groups, a cyclist must have good bike handling skills.

    Layer 2: Follow the Rules (Don’t cause traffic accidents)

    Follow traffic laws, obey signs and signals, use headlights and taillights at night, and use the correct lanes for turns and through movements and you won’t cause a collision with a motorist. About half of cyclist/motorist crashes are caused by cyclists who violate the basic rules of the road. But you don’t do that, right? Combine Layers 1 and 2 and you cut about 75% of your injury risk.

    Layer 3: Lane Positioning (Discourage other driver’s mistakes)

    Knowing when to use the full lane or to share a lane is something few cyclists fully understand. Your position in a lane is the best way to make yourself conspicuous, to tell drivers what you are doing, and to discourage them from making unsafe movements. Many of these effective lane positioning principles have been forgotten by the modern cycling community, so they may be contrary to what you’ve been taught! Combine Layers 1, 2 and 3 and you cut out about 99% of all potential crashes.

    Layer 4: Hazard Avoidance (Avoid the other driver’s mistakes)

    There are evasive maneuvers you should know that can help you avoid major motorist mistakes or dodge obstacles. Knowing how to stop and turn quickly helps you avoid motorist mistakes that aren’t discouraged by lane positioning. These skills are not instinctive and must be taught.

    Layer 5: Passive Safety (Protection when all else fails)

    This is actually the least effective layer. Helmets and gloves protect your most vulnerable body parts as a last resort in case of the very rare failure of Layers 1 through 4, but they do nothing to help you avoid crashes.

    • fsethd says:

      I’d insert Layer 1(a): Use the very brightest front and rear lights you can afford at all times. This is a great post; thanks, Gary.

      • alrslars says:

        Dan and I had this conversation years ago. Asked “Given a budget of $50, would you rather see someone walk out of a bike shop with lights or with a helmet?” his answer was unambiguously “lights.”

      • fsethd says:

        And if they were really doing it right they would ride out of the bike shop!

  • John Hughes says:

    I can’t imagine yelling that at someone…but that said, I hope you do. Understand, it’s for a selfish reason. I don’t wear one on my townie or city bikes, but on my road and mountain bikes I do. I encourage my peers to do so also (though not by yelling, and certainly not to strangers) for reasons that area both obvious and i am sure known to you. Bones mend, skin scars, these things heal, but that stuff in the can at the top of our neck does not. I make my living from it, I derive my greatest joys from it being intact and allowing me to continue to do what I desire most…think, read, love, learn, etc.

    As for my selfish reason…well, I miss dearly the nearly daily reading of Mr. Tilford’s blog (he wasn’t giant fan of helmets either), he left too soon (though not helmet related), and you have filled that vacuum for me…I suspect others too. I would hate to think I might not be able to continue reading your musings and observations and stories just because some freak accident and lack of helmet cut short your ability to do so.

    I don’t actually know you, we have never met, but I do very much enjoy this part of you that you put out into the world. I would hate to think it could cease sooner than it should for the sake of the wind in your hair. Regardless of how much better it really does feel…and I know it does (except in hail, that hurts).

    And thank you.

  • tbernhardt100 says:

    Now I’m really glad I didn’t mention anything about you not wearing a helmet when we rode together. 😉

    I’ve worn a helmet consistently since I was a (much) younger man, when — unhelmeted — I t-boned a car, flipped over it and landed on the road on the other side, and was lucky enough to walk away (thanks, gymnast training?). When I bought a bike to replace the one I’d totaled, I asked the guy at the bike shop what the best helmet he had was. He recommended a yellow Bailen, but cautioned me: “It’s $60.” (Yes, I’m old.) “Okay,” I said. “I think my head is worth $60.”

    If you know those helmets, you know I was miserable wearing it. But though I dearly loved (and still do) the feel of wind in my hair, it was a trade-off I was willing to make, just as I was willing to always wear a seatbelt when I drove, knowing the difference it could make. Now, it’s gotten to the point where I feel weird without it.

    As Gary says, it’s the last line of defense. I fully realize it won’t make a lick of difference if I don’t do the other things right. I also realize that there are good people, and good science, on both sides of the debate, so it’s ultimately a personal choice (which is ultimately why I didn’t say anything to you about your choice when we rode together). That said, the MIPS system has addressed some of the scientific concerns on the anti-helmet side of the equation, and venting has gotten better and better … so, when I make my choice, it’s still to wear a helmet. YMMV.

  • zigak says:

    Americans always overdo the doubling down thing. 0k, I fully understand that people yellin at you about the helment pisses you off, but have some perspective! Basically what you’re saying is you let a bunch of assholes influence your decision making re helments. You’ll get a brain injury to own the libs (helmet yellers in your case).
    If you don’t mind I’ll continue this “rant” tomorrow.

  • senna65 says:

    Wanker: Because of your guilt inducing lecturing, I went out and bought a reliable rear blinker and committed to running a 300 odd gram headlight at all times, further handicapping my slow ass. Now this nonsense? In 15 years of riding I’ve crashed hard once and pretty certain I wouldn’t be able to read this blog had I not been wearing a helmet. That said, to each his own. If you like riding without a helmet you should move out here to AZ, let your hair grow out and get Harley!

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