For most of my adult life I have been both a cyclist and an activist, although I’ve only recently put the two together thanks to the new found inspiration from my amazing partner Beth. Not only does she inspire me but her natural wisdom somehow permeates my unusually thick skull even when I do my best to prevent it. Case in point, my recent research on wearing bike helmets. I expect that most of you, like me, have never given much thought to the idea of whether or not wearing a bike helmet is a good idea. It’s one of those things like eating your vegetables and getting enough sleep, it just seems so obvious you don’t even need to think about it. Or do you??
Now it is probably best to point out that Beth is not at all against wearing bike helmets, and in fact dropped about $300 on helmets for the kids shortly after we met, no doubt at least in part because I, being the anal cyclist, guilted her into it. However Beth has the well honed ability to trust her own instincts even when they contradict the apparent “logic” of the day, and it is her influence that that even allowed me to open my mind to the possibility that helmets might not be a universally great thing.
Now of course kids should wear bike helmets, it’s pretty hard to argue with that right? Well what if making kids wear helmets means that they ride their bikes less, maybe even ALOT less? Since studies have shown that cycling is pretty much the best thing you can do for your health and longevity, (even if there were no studies I would believe this to be true anyway), then anything we do that reduces the number of people who cycle, or how much people cycle, is not so good. Get it? I have to admit it took me a while to get my head around this even though I am one of those people who always tries to consider the epidemiological impact of things alongside the personal and I fully grasp concepts such as the paradox of thrift.
I’ve been reading up on this ever since I saw it mentioned that this Danish cycling guru was against wearing helmets, so now I am doing my own sort of experiment. I left the house on my daily ride today sans helmet. I am so used to wearing a helmet I am one of those people who will occasionally sit in a coffee shop or restaurant with it on for 15 minutes just because I forgot about it. As I have been riding around today I have been asking myself, “am I in more danger than a typical pedestrian or taking more risk than your average person walking down the street”.
For today at least, I am forced to answer both of these questions in the negative. Granted I am a seasoned cyclist and certain things about how I ride go a long way to explaining my sense of safety relative to a novice. For better or worse my experience seems to be proving out the theory of the anti-helmet contingent, which is not at all what I would have expected. In short, I am getting the sneaking suspicion that even though I am inherently skeptical, I may have been duped into believing a big myth and falling in line with the proverbial “conventional wisdom”.
Put another way, I am all of a sudden no longer convinced of the efficacy of bike helmets, which is something I have taken for granted as being a necessity for at least a decade or two. As it turns out I am also asking myself some profound questions about what kind of cycling advocacy I want to engage in and what sort of effort I want to put forward as a part of my sense of civic duty. For those of you who are not inclined to do your own research the anti-helmet logic goes something like this;
Collectively, the studies that have been done on the benefits of wearing a bike helmet are far from conclusive. This largely due to the fact that helmet laws discourage people from cycling and the very notion of wearing a helmet implies, probably to excess, that cycling is a more dangerous than it really is. Additionally, the small and somewhat contradictory body of evidence on a bike helmets raises the question of whether or not a cyclist experienced enough to asses and mitigate risk on their own, should always wear a helmet or should possibly not where a helmet as means of encouraging others to cycle more by making the activity seem less dangerous.
Luckily for me I have a pretty high tolerance for risk relative to the average person so the notion of taking a bit more of a chance for the sake of society at large does not really bother me. What does present a challenge however is the fact that most people, like I was at first, will be baffled by the notion that not wearing a helmet is somehow safer. Explaining the logic behind this thinking is almost certain to cause most people to tune out instantly and then I am left with the vague notion that it’s all for naught. This is an advocates dilemma that does not have a simple answer. Hopefully this will spur a bit of discussion about the culture of fear to get this blog livened up a bit…
We are not a species inclined to question our inherent biases and beliefs. In fact things like confirmation bias make us tend towards interpreting whatever evidence we are presented with through a filter of prejudice that can be incredibly challenging to overcome. We get ourselves into trouble and invite conflict and disagreement based on our tendency to “stick to our guns”. However sometimes we are presented with opportunities to rethink our notions of right and wrong, challenge ourselves to transform our mindset in light of new evidence, or old old evidence seen in a new light, and ask ourselves profound questions about what we really believe.
It is in these moments of opportunity that we choose to grow or to shrink away from a version of ourselves that is on some level incompatible with our current self image. I have a notion of self that is compassionate, idealistic and thoughtful about the world around me and occasionally I am reminded by circumstances or loved ones that I am not living up to my own ideals. Moments of reflection in which I break down my own ideas are therefore opportunities for personal growth.
I don’t expect that this most recent soul searching exercise is somehow going to result in an epiphany or discovery of some universal truth, I’ll leave that to those less inclined towards nuance and oriented more towards absolutes. What I can say is that on a number of levels today was a day of insight and opportunity which I am thankful to have been open minded enough to recognize as such. I have been inspired to do more research, more experimentation and to tune into the world around me on a deeper level and regardless of where it leads I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn something new.