To Helmet or Not To Helmet

by William Smith. 0 Comments

There's no right or wrong answer here, as there is only one answer: wear a helmet. Period.

Here is why. Last July, my wife and I crashed our tandem on a 30-mph downhill near Antietam when our front tire blew out on a piece of gravel that punctured the tire sidewall. We were both ambulanced to the hospital in Hagerstown. I sustained a back injury and a leg muscle injury that kept me on crutches for 2 ½ weeks. I was fortunate enough that my head did not strike the pavement, but my wife was not so lucky. She hit the pavement with enough force to crack her helmet in about eight places. As we both were laying down on the ground moments after the crash, I looked over and saw that her face was covered with blood. She was (and is) fighting cancer, so she is taking blood thinners. This made the blood loss even more severe and dangerous. She experienced memory loss and confusion and, to this day, does not remember the crash. After inspecting her helmet, and taking into account the concussion she suffered, I am convinced that the helmet saved her life.

“ But I am a good rider and never crash,” you say. Maybe you are a great rider. But not everyone is, mechanical failures occur, and you cannot anticipate everything that will happen. Riding your bicycle without a helmet just increases your likelihood of becoming an organ donor.

For a primer on how to properly fit a bicycle helmet, go to this link: http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/bike/easystepsweb/

And remember, just wearing a helmet does not make you invincible. It is simply the first step. There is much, much more I can write on the subject of safety, and I will in a future blog post.

What I really want to discuss is Maryland's latest effort to place into law a mandatory helmet use provision for everyone. According to www.safekids.org, currently, the law is written so that people 16 years of age and younger must wear a helmet, though I believe that this only applies to Maryland state roads. The state wishes to change this so it applies to everyone, regardless of age.

Is this wise? I am not sure.

On the one hand, anyone who rides a bicycle without head protection is taking a great risk. I know a large number of cyclists, and many have been involved in a crash. Some of my friends would not be alive today if it were not for the protection provided by the helmet that he/she wore. Should it be made mandatory?

I read recently that our freedoms end when they negatively affect someone else. For example, I am a property owner, but I cannot place a chicken coop on my ½ acre or build a small incinerator in my backyard. There are limits to what I can do with my land if those actions adversely affect my neighbors.

The same can be said for someone who, while riding a bicycle, motorcycle, or driving an automobile, does not use the safety equipment made for that vehicle. If I crash and suffer a brain injury, society is left to assume the cost of my care as long as I live if I cannot pay the costs myself, which is going to be the case for almost everyone. If I choose not to wear my helmet and have a crash that causes me to lose a month of work, my employer is adversely affected as well. Someone else has to pick up the extra work resulting from my absence (note – as a result of our crash last year, I only missed one day of work.).

On the other hand, we face a dilemma. If the wearing of a helmet is mandatory, will cycling decline in popularity? It is healthy for the bicyclist. It is good for the environment. Using a bicycle for transportation cuts down on traffic and pollution. Could forcing a person to no longer ride helmetless cause him/her to give it up?

Take a look on route 40 over by the “Golden Mile” near US 15. Observe the riders on bicycles. Most of them are likely to be lower-income people, possibly Hispanic, who ride their bicycles to their jobs because it is all that they can afford. Most of them will not be wearing helmets and will be riding on the sidewalks (which is actually more dangerous than riding on the roadway in most cases). Perhaps they cannot afford a helmet, were never educated on the protection a helmet provides, or something cultural that causes a person to just not wear one. What will happen to these people when helmet use is mandatory? Will they stop riding? I doubt that very much. Will this be another reason for the Frederick County Sheriff's Office to stop an Hispanic bicyclist in order to determine his/her legal status?

So where is the line drawn? We mandate seat belt use for motor vehicles. We have truck safety inspections at weigh stations. Smokers pay higher insurance premiums. People living on the shorelines are charged more for flood insurance, if they can get it at all. Should a bicyclist be mandated to wear a helmet?

I see both sides of the issue. I wish the discussion were not even needed. There is no reason for a bicyclist not to wear a helmet. The bicycle club that I most choose to ride with, the Frederick Pedalers, does not mandate helmet use. We use peer pressure to influence the rider. I would estimate that we have 99.75% compliance. I can only recall one person in the last ten years who was on a ride that I attended who did not wear a helmet. He is currently a Frederick County Commissioner. He is also a competent rider. It is his choice to go helmet-less. I disagree, but it is still his choice.

I do not believe that a helmet law is needed for adults. It is not necessarily the proper logical conclusion, but it is my opinion. Peer pressure and education can go a long way to encourage helmet use. It has worked very well to reduce drunken driving (yes, I know there are laws against it – the point I am making is that public opinion changed over the years concerning driving under the influence more from public service announcements and MADD than our laws – in my opinion).

We shall see what the legislature decides. In the meantime, just wear a helmet when you ride.

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