... or How did I ever make it to 50?
I turned the big Five-O this past January. I’ve lived a life (so far) of fairly average activity with the possible exception of above normal cycling. As I have gotten older, riding a bike has become an even bigger part of my life. I made the move to a recumbent about a year and a half ago; partly because they have always intrigued me and partly because my aging body was beginning to complain a little too often about the very un-ergonomic up-right bikes that I had spent such a great part of my life getting around on.
My cycling love-affair and career began long before not wearing fluorescent vests and polystyrene helmets became the moral equivalent of child abuse. In fact the only bike helmet I had ever seen as a kid was one of those soft “hair-net types” that were on the head of just a handful of riders in the Tour de France. My mother worried about sun burns, breaking a leg and cursing, but never a word about my noggin. Outside of a few minor scrapes (mostly from trying to jump something that was un-jumpable) and those sun burns (I was warned!) I rarely came home with anything more than a beaming smile and two very tired legs. Was it less dangerous to be a kid in the sixties? Or were we all just a rabble of reckless and irresponsible punks who got very, very lucky? How did we ever manage to survive? Because surprisingly enough, the vast majority of us did.
From “Danny and the Demon-Cycle” produced by the highway safety division of Virginia in 1972Over the past two decades the obesity rate for children has doubled. The average 10-year-old in the United States weighs 10 pounds more than the average child in the 1960s. Kids are suffering from type two diabetes, high cholesterol, sleep apnea, asthma, menstrual abnormalities and heart problems. They may not live lives that are as long as their own parents. We learn about school boards banning children from cycling to school because they fear that it’s too dangerous. At a recent Vancouver bike film festival, attendees were entertained with a video produced by school children on the dangers of cycling without a helmet that explained if you take that risk you will end up being bald and wearing a diaper for the rest of your life. What is clear is the message that we are teaching : cycling is very dangerous! But is this true? It certainly isn’t responsible for what is ailing today’s children.
When you tell a child or parent that death or permanent brain damage hangs in the offing if you don’t follow the new moral imperative – wear a helmet – will they feel safer riding and wearing a helmet, or simply not riding at all? If riding a bike is that dangerous, can an inch and a quarter of polystyrene in a thin plastic shell be the difference between a long, healthy, happy life or eating through a straw? What choice would a rational parent make? Cycling has been around for 150 years or so. It was in the late 19th century that the invention of the ‘Safety Bike’ and mass production established the bicycle’s place in modern transit, several decades before the age of the automobile. Helmets for the non-competitive cyclist have only been around since the late seventies and only used regularly for the past twenty years. The first all ages mandatory helmet law in Canada was passed in British Columbia 1996 – thirteen years ago. Are we any safer for it?
In any case, the number of people dying annually of heart disease due to physical inactivity and from obesity both massively outweigh those who die while cycling, let alone those whose deaths result from head injuries which a helmet is only rumoured to prevent. A British Medical Association study in 1999 found that the benefits of cycling outweighed the risks by 20:1. Clearly cycling is a low risk, high benefit activity that we’ve been managing to profit from quite successfully for some time now. So why all of the hysteria over helmets?
A study by Dr. Ian Walker, a traffic and transport psychologist and lecturer at the University of Bath, concluded that there is evidence that passing motorists employ less care and pass at closer distances to helmeted cyclists – as opposed to un-helmeted cyclists -- putting the former at greater risk. ‘Risk compensation’ is a term coined by Canadian psychologist Gerald Wilde in the 1970s to describe the behavioural adjustments of people to perceived changes in safety or danger. With regards to bicycle helmets, it suggests that cyclists would be less likely to ride cautiously when wearing a helmet owing to their feeling of increased security, therefore eliminating some, if not all, of the alleged benefit. Wearing a helmet increases both the size and mass of the head, and for many is an uncomfortable experience. Do we understand how this can affect how we cycle, how we fall, how we impact? There are studies and there are studies (and there will be more studies) but what is clear is that if the jury is out then the efficacy of bicycle helmets – and certainly the legitimacy and merit of helmet promotion and mandatory helmet laws – must remain seriously in question.
So, if it’s difficult if not impossible to demonstrate that a bicycle helmet can mitigate serious injury yet it’s entirely demonstrable that it may cause increased risk. Since the promotion of bicycle helmets and specifically mandatory helmet laws have been proven to reduce cyclists numbers on the road and there is abundant evidence that the concept of safety in numbers is a real phenomenon while our children get fatter every year and less healthy day by day. What should we do? Turn to the most efficient and sustainable form of transportation ever invented which also happens to have a massive health payback (on a personal, societal and planetary level), that is as safe if not safer than any activity we choose to do – not to mention fun. Or (for whatever reason: misguided altruism or monetary gain) create fear and invent obstacles that for the preceding century few seemed to have any need for.
All you need to ride a bike... is a bike!When I was a boy in the sixties and seventies we would never had needed to ask that question. We just got on our bikes and rode. It probably would have remained like that if some clever motorcycle helmet manufacturer, with slumping sales, hadn’t smelled a pot load of cash just waiting to be plucked. So how do you coerce people, who have never needed something before, to suddenly believe they need it now? Welcome to the culture of fear.