For many years, on this blog and beyond, I’ve been railing against our obsession with bicycle helmets.
The common wisdom in this country and others is that you should always wear a helmet while riding a bicycle. It’s also the official line of governments and medical professionals, and in many cases it’s even enshrined in law. (Legislation ranges from Australia’s mandatory helmet law for all riders to our local laws requiring them for children under a certain age.) And regardless of the law there is no shortage of people who will shame and vilify you for riding a bicycle without wearing a helmet, and will even wish serious injury upon you should you choose to forego a foam hat. (I don’t have the time to go through my Twitter mentions, but I assure you there are people standing by ready to gloat should I wind up with a serious brain injury.)
Even before I started writing about cycling “professionally” and thinking and reading a lot about this stuff, our attitude towards helmets never sat well with me. The vitriol people are prepared to direct at other people for simply engaging in the benign act of riding a bicycle always seemed born not of genuine concern, but of spite. Over time, as I delved deeper, I found that there are plenty of valid reasons to not only question the overall effectiveness of bicycle helmets, but to conclude that on balance our fixation on them in fact makes bicyclists less safe. (I’m leaving out the supporting evidence here for the sake of time, but I’ve linked to it all about a zillion times in the countless other posts and columns I’ve written on the subject.) Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a credible bicycle advocate who thinks the way forward lies in getting bicycle riders to wear helmets–or, if you don’t abide the “experts,” you can always just go to the Netherlands and see for yourself.
So here we are, locked down amid a pandemic. I don’t question the potential severity of this illness , just as I don’t question that there are people who get their brains bashed in while riding bicycles. At the same time, as I mentioned the other day, I do have a problem with all the shaming of people for going outside. Like the helmet-shaming, it is grounded in what governments and medical professionals are telling us, but also like the helmet-shaming, the bilious and spiteful nature of it all intrinsically compels me to question it. (No matter what your politics are, wishing death on Boris Johnson is going too far.) Viscerally, telling parents to keep their healthy children indoors in the springtime and to avoid each other feels wrong and unnatural to me, and watching masked families walking by blossoming cherry trees like we’re under chemical attack fills me with the sense that we’re needlessly squandering some of life’s greatest gifts. (Then there are the people walking around with facemasks around their necks while smoking, which evokes all those kids you see at the playground wearing bicycle helmets cocked way back on their heads with six inches of slack in the chin strap.)
Again, in no way do I question the misery this virus is causing many people and their families, and of course I believe we must do what we can to mitigate that suffering. I do however find myself questioning our current response and the attitudes surrounding it, and I’m dismayed by the current climate in which doing so has become tantamount to heresy. Moreover, I’m saddened that expressing any form of concern for the economic toll our reaction is taking is immediately dismissed as selfish, or else mindlessly mocked with “Stonks!” memes. My household has been directly and significantly affected by the economic implications shutdown, and yet I fully realize that we’re among the fortunate ones in that our vessel can sustain the hit. Millions are not so lucky. We’re also in the enviable position of having high speed Internet and various electronic devices so that our children can engage in “remote learning” or whatever they’re calling it. This is not the case for many families. How then can it be considered impudent to question a policy that sustains this state of affairs?
Worst of all (in a discursive context) is that all of this has become a political proxy war. As a bicycle riding citydweller you can probably guess where I tend to fall on the political spectrum. Yet if I suggest that maybe we should protect the vulnerable while also allowing children to be children and low-risk people to get on with life so they can support both the children and the vulnerable who depend on them, then I’m liable to be excommunicated by my fellow urbanist smuggies and branded as some sort of red-hatted cultist, a conclusion I’ve reached based on the tenor of their Twitter feeds.
All of this is by way of saying I found the video below highly compelling. As someone who writes about bicycles I’ve generally been “staying in my (bike) lane” by avoiding the subject, but it addresses many of the questions I’ve been raising in my personal correspondence with friends and family members. Of course I don’t know anything about this guy beyond his stated credentials, and for all I know he’s since been outed as some sort of closet eugenicist or something, in which case I stand fork in hand and ready to eat my words. That eventually aside, much of what he says resonates with me, and so I present it herewith for your consideration:
This pandemic offers many of us a once-in-a-lifetime chance to feel like we’re playing a direct role in saving humanity. This could be true, or it could be hubris; if it’s the latter then the danger is we’re that much more incapable of determining whether we’re doing the right thing. Either way, it’s important for all of us to remember that this is not the end of humankind, and that the birds you hear outside are still singing for us. It would be a shame not to join them.