Critical Mess

Are We Ready to Get
Rid of Bike Helmets?

Jerry Seinfeld has a famous bit, about the use of helmets by skydivers: that in case of accident, the helmet would be the one to hold on to the diver, not the other way around. He has a point. But only those who’ve already lost their minds may argue against their use by bikers.
Not so, say some bike advocates, who certainly have yet to split their skulls open against a curb. For them, to enforce the use of helmets, as New York and many cities do, may discourage biking and its benefits. It makes a pleasurable activity look more like a chore, they say.
Perhaps, but just to put it in perspective, of the over 600 bike accidents in this country in 2010, 70% of those riders not wearing a helmet died, while 85% of those who wore, survived, according to Still, studies show that overall, bike riding health benefits outweight the risks of not wearing a helmet.
The controversy has long, well-toned legs, and in cities where bike riding, and lanes, have already achieved a critical mass, such as Amsterdam, or Portland in Oregon, a solution have settled all disputes: education. Rider and car driver awareness can be pointed as definite factors for the safety of riding a light two-wheel, slow-moving vehicle in these big centers.
The same factors that have got in the way of New York to join them as a bike-friendly place, as City Hall would have it. Even a sharing program, slated to begin this summer, was postponed, once it became clear that people were not that interested in taking advantage of it, if the use of helmet was mandatory.
What no one disputes is that, in the city’s daily struggle between bike-riders and car drivers, the results are more or less predictable. Most of the time, bikers get crushed, drivers are rarely fined, and to the pedestrian, the great, forgotten element in this equation, often goes the brunt of the whole accident.

It’s also indisputable that even a slightly direct hit to the brain can disable a person for the rest of their lives. With that in mind, it may sound ridiculous that many still argue against placing something, anything, between the stiff, but far from unbreakable, shell that covers our brain, and the hard, unforgiven pavement, usually hit at a high speed. If that happens, even helmets that actually call for help, won’t make much of a difference.
But, this being New York and all, fashion, or at least, the need to protect our hair style can take the best out of us. After all, who wants to show up at the office or gallery open with a ‘helmet hair?’ Because, let’s face it, to some, that’s way more important than to actually preserving our original thoughts, but we digress.
So in the interest of finding a middle ground that most would feel comfortable navigating, we humbly suggest that some kind of award be given annually to those who can come up with innovative, and of course, awfully fashionable, helmet designs. Perhaps even some of the celebrated designers who’re city residents could step into the fray and present their ideas too.
Something like the Red Dot Award, an ‘international professional award for design concept, ideas and prototype,’ which in 2011 rewarded the work of Igor Mitin of Almaty, Kazakhstan, for his Helmet Experiments series, that illustrate this post. Altogether, there are 14 models but, what’s more important, it opens the way to a whole new realm of possibilities.
His designs go from the intuitively clever, like the one with a shaved head or the ‘exposed’ brain (duh…), to the playful (tennis balls, anyone?), to the funny (fruits and nuts), to the plain devious (as in sexually suggestive). It also helps that they’re made according to safety standards and high-polished materials.
They still will be larger that one’s own head, of course. Until ultra-resistant materials such as Titanium become accessible pricewise, there may not be a way around the bulk, so to speak. But that doesn’t mean one can’t make a statement, that can actually go a long way assuring he or she will be able to make statements of their own for years to come.

Many still would hate to be forced to wear anything on their heads, in order to ride a bike. They say it goes against the very idea of being outdoors, in touch with nature, letting your hair flow and the breeze embrace your face, or something like that. For them, we give you Anna Haupt and Terese Alstin.
These two Swedish design students created the Invisible Bike Helmet, a revolutionary departure from the basic concept of the car airbag, taken to a two-wheel level. As an exam project, they challenged themselves to come up with a design that would be safe, and discreet, to wear for the ride, since they consider the bicycle, ‘a tool to change the world,’
They too hate helmets, like riding with ‘a hard mushroom on your head,’ and in Sweden, the controversy over using one is whether a new law, requiring its use for children under 15, should also be extended to adults. It took them seven years, but in the end, they came up with one of those things that everybody would say, how come we didn’t think of this before?
The design is deceptively simple: it looks like a fluffy collar, with a zipper, and a hidden button to activate it. Once in place, it’ll deploy, becoming visible and, yes, ruining your hairdo, only in case of an accident which is, granted, the only time you really need a helmet. Tests with dummies proved that they’re as safe as any helmet can be. Bingo, everybody’s happy.
It may take a while, though. They’ve secured an initial investment, but their ultimate success is conditioned to a wider acceptance of their idea. In other words, they may consider coming to New York. While winter discourage weekend riders, as they say, death and misery don’t take holidays. So people will still be getting into bike accidents.
Part of the effort to get rid of helmets, so to increase a healthy, and environmentally sound, habit of bike riding, is based on an idyllic idea: to have a countryside experience while living in a urban center. Proponents of such lifestyle are usually right, and can be credited for campaigning for better traffic laws, more trees planted, even reducing smoking in big cities.
All sensible and correct efforts towards a better life for everybody, to be sure. But there’s probably a limitation as to how far they can get with such drive to make cities quieter and more suburban-like. That comes from the rights of other residents who enjoy the city just the way it is: smelly, noisy, chaotic, dangerous.
There can’t be any winners if these two parties decide to come to blows over their differences. Therefore, for as much as it’d be ideal that most bike riders could simple pedal at their leisure, without being forced to speed up, or follow strict traffic rules, there will always be the rude bikers, the sidewalk riders, the hurrying messengers, the bike activists, and everybody else who just hates bikes.
So, at least for now, and even if that delays for a bit the expected onslaught of new bike converts out in the streets, committing all sorts of infractions, it may be better to have them, at least, wear helmets. Because we may be several years away from a ultra civilized society, or at least, one whose cab drivers and delivery truckers won’t despise so much bike riders.
Too many people still die in our streets for no fault of their own, and many more will always perish, no matter what the proponents of a pastoral for the city can say about it. So if one person’s cognitive ability is saved by a helmet, either one with a sexually suggestive design, or some of the popup kinds, it’ll definitely be worth enforcing its use.
It’s fine to aim at a better world, one that we’d all be enlightened enough to respect all good laws of living in society, never cursing or failing to brush your teeth, and always smiling at your neighbor, and all that. But as that guy who asks us for a dollar everyday likes to say, that ain’t happening anytime soon.
In the meantime, we wouldn’t want the potential inventor of a revolutionary device, on that would end once and for all all transit fatalities, to get smashed on a corner, his or her precious grey matter splattered all over the pavement, now would we?
Read Also:
* Ghost Riders
* Biking in the City
* City of Ghosts
* Win Some, Lose Some

2 thoughts on “Critical Mess

  1. Lisa at fLVE says:

    invisble helmets sounds a nice idea. 🙂


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