It appears that the fair citizens of Berkeley are considering a proposed law requiring all bicyclists to wear helmets. Even Carol Denny, usually so level headed and reliably libertarian when it comes to legislating the behavior of our citizenry, seems to have climbed on board this bandwagon. She writes in her letter to the editor that it will force us all to become better role models for our children.
I honestly don’t understand where all this helmet hysteria comes from. Otherwise reasonable and rational people, good old fashioned liberals most of them, become almost indistinguishable from those town hall screamers when they see bicycle riders without a helmet. Recently a friend cruised by me in her sedan as I rode slowly down an empty street, safely enclosed in a spacious bike lane. “Where’s your helmet!” she screamed at me as she passed. She leaned across the passenger seat to roll down the window, to make sure that I heard her. In the process she completely missed the stop sign and nearly took out a pedestrian. I would like to point out that the pedestrian was not wearing a helmet.
This fear of the unhelmeted bicyclist seems to be infecting the body politic like a new flu. Several times I have heard acquaintances complain about the reckless and inconsiderate behavior of bicyclists, and they always seem to cap it off with, “And he wasn’t even wearing a helmet!” I’m not sure how wearing a helmet while we bike makes us more responsible, but it seems that nothing can upset the law abiding citizens of Berkeley more than the sight of a cyclist, reckless or not, with a bare head.
But Ms. Denny’s point about role models, now that got to me a little. I was thinking for a moment that she might be on to something. I mean, we do want to make sure that our children inherit our growing obsession with safety. In fact, since head injuries are so common and undeniably dangerous, I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be a good idea to require everyone to wear a helmet at all times. People slip in the bathtub all the time. People fall out of bed and hit their heads routinely, it seems. Shouldn’t we insist that people protect themselves against these common dangers by wearing helmets when they shower and even while sleeping? Head injuries are quite common in car accidents, so perhaps we should require all passengers in moving vehicles (even buses) to wear helmets. Let the children see and emulate our fierce determination to keep ourselves safe at any cost, and to make sure that everyone else feels the same way. So what if helmets cost fifty bucks a pop, and so what if the instructions tell you to throw them out and buy a new one if you so much as drop them on the ground. Our kids are worth every penny.
Well, maybe not. Call me a dangerous nuisance to society if you like, call me a failed role model for our nation’s children even, but I like riding my bike the way I always have—slowly, cautiously, in my street clothes, helmet free. And yes, I am prepared to face the consequences of my actions. If Ms. Denny and her fellow helmet police get their way, I’ll just have to dust off my old civil disobedience pamphlets and budget a few extra dollars each year toward helmet fines. If I like to feel the wind in my hair as I pedal slowly down the empty back streets of my native town, it’s worth a few extra bucks. Maybe they can use the money to make the streets safer for bicyclists, so that we won’t need helmets. That’s something the kids could relate to, I’m sure.
George Rose is a Berkeley resident.