By David Ward
I am on a couple of cycling email lists, including that of the Salt Lake City Mayor’s Bicycle Advisory Committee (MBAC). It is interesting to observe on occasion how a single posting will spawn several days of debate, argument, rebuttal and retort. So it was this week when the hot subject was the rather tiresome topic of mandating helmet use.
The same arguments were trotted out in favor: Helmets save lives; helmets prevent serious brain injury; the social costs and emotional distress to others caused by death and injury are extremely high; etc. And the anecdotal testimonies go on ad nauseum: “If I had not been wearing my helmet, I wouldn’t be here today.” “I talked to an ER doctor who told me . . .” “My sister knows a man whose son’s best friend’s dad didn’t wear a helmet and . . .”
Then there are the arguments against (a much more cogent lot, in my opinion): There are no valid studies demonstrating that helmets provide anywhere near the protection claimed; helmet laws result in greatly diminished cycling numbers which, in turn, create even greater risks for cyclists; education of both cyclists and motorists will be far more effective than bandage helmet laws that fail to address the causes of injuries. All good arguments, frankly.
Had this been the sum total of all these email exchanges, I would have sighed and left it at that. But there was one argument put forth, and it usually is, that always gets my dander up. As cogently stated in one email, “Are we taking away freedom of choice or are we not really still just protecting those who cannot, or will not, protect themselves?”
Ah, yes, the old , ”We know what you should be doing, and we will force you to do it.” I don’t intend to address the other arguments, or the issue of those under 18 years old, a far different issue. But this particular proposition raises my ire. First, it is irritating because it steps into the arena of passing laws to force what “we” believe is good behavior. This is, indeed, a slippery slope. Depending on which “we” currently hold the reins of power, you can expect, in addition to helmet laws requiring cyclists to wear helmets, a plethora of additional laws addressing what someone arrogant souls feel everyone else should be doing. This might include, but is certainly not limited to, laws that:
Mandate helmets for pedestrians, motor vehicle occupants and skiers.
• Ban ear buds while biking, skiing, walking in a crosswalk (actually proposed in New York City), driving a car and operating a lawnmower.
• Ban or heavily regulate base-jumping, bungee-jumping, sky-diving, motorcycling, back-country skiing, extreme skiing, other extreme sports, and yes, bicycling.
• Prohibit or limit tobacco usage, and the consumption of alcohol, fatty food, sugar, soda, and salt, as well as a host of other products deemed “unhealthy”.
• Require a certain amount of exercise a given number of days each week.
• Regulate sound levels on personal listening devices, in spin classes (I would like that), in dance halls and clubs.
I could go on indefinitely, but you get my drift, or more appropriately my diatribe. I would actually not mind many of the above suggestions because I consider them good behavior. Those who disagree are at best misinformed, if not just stupid. Of course, that is just my opinion. And that is just it. Who decides what is “good” and what is not? Maybe, by my values, I am doing nothing wrong, but some wrong-headed legislator or bureaucrat may think otherwise.
And there is the “law of unintended consequences.” Laws and regulations imposed to force “good behavior” often cause greater ills to society than those they fix. A classic example of this was the FAA’s ruling some years ago that required parents to purchase seats for their small children on all airplane flights originating in the USA. The intent was to prevent serious injury to children who, prior to the new rule, were being allowed by some airlines to fly free of charge if they sat on their parents’ laps. After the regulation was adopted, a noted economist showed that for every life the new rule saved, it probably resulted in nine lives being lost. His research established that the added cost imposed on the typical family by the FAA’s new policy would cause a substantial number of these families to forgo air travel and take to the highways instead. Statistics make it painfully clear that a person is nine times more likely to be killed when in a car than in an airplane. Similarly, mandating helmets would ignore the consequences of making cycling more dangerous due to decreased participation in and awareness of cycling. And this is in addition to the loss of health benefits to those who disdain helmets enough to cease riding their bikes if helmets required.
But this proposition of forcing good behavior raises my ire on a more deep-seated level. If I want to do something that even I consider somewhat risky, very risky, ill-conceived or even downright stupid, why should someone have the right to tell me I cannot? If I am only risking harm to myself, no one should be able to prevent me from doing what I want to do.
In fact, we allow risky behavior all the time. I deem most downhill bike racers rather crazy. I think extreme skiers have a secret death wish. Mountain climbers are a particularly risky lot. I envy them all their courage, and I admire their skills. But they are courting danger every time they engage in their chosen activity.
So, if I want to ride my bike without a helmet, so what? I am risking injury only to myself. Sure, if I get hurt, others will be impacted. My wife foremost, but also my children and grandchildren, my community, my clients and others. The same is true every time I climb in a car, board an airplane and walk across the street.
We cannot escape risk. Each of us is engaged in a constant risk/benefit analysis. When I climb in my car, I am weighing the benefits of doing so against the substantial risk of being seriously injured. I have a good friend, an orthopedic doctor no less, who rides his Harley without a helmet. He rides carefully, but he loves the feel of the wind blowing through his hair. He recognizes the risk, and accepts it because the benefit of riding without a helmet is, to him, worth it.
A few years ago, I was in Amsterdam. I was overwhelmed by the thousands (more likely, tens of thousands) of cyclists I saw. For 99% of them, a bicycle was a means of transportation. The journeyman bikes were heavy and relatively slow. I know. I spent a day on one. In my several days there, nary a helmet was to be seen. They clearly did not deem them necessary, and no legislature decided they need to be mandated.
It has been amusing to see the comments of those who argue against helmet laws. Except for one lone standout who readily stated he does not wear a helmet, everyone in this flurry of emails was careful to say, in essence, “I always wear a helmet” before or while stating their reasons for opposing helmet laws. It is as though, despite their positions, they do not want to be perceived as suggesting that maybe helmets are not as great an idea as we are led to believe.
However, my point is this: Even if helmet usage is wise, I should not be forced into it when not doing so poses no harm to the person or property of another. So, I ain’t sayin’ whether I do or don’t wear a helmet. Just leave me alone, and let me make my own decision.