Americans are generally a frightened, cowering bunch of people. The best marker of that is their love of guns. Why have a gun unless you are afraid?
But we express our scaredy-cat nature everywhere, nowhere more obviously than when we ride bicycles, and the emblem of that terror is of course the bicycle helmet. It is Linus’s security blanket minus the comfort, the style, the affordability, and ability to be tossed in the washer when it gets dirty.
The rest of the world isn’t so much that way. What frightens us doesn’t frighten them. What Americans call “danger” most of the rest of the world calls “life.” Every time I try to have a rational conversation with someone regarding helmets, they immediately default to “safety” and “head injuries” and “danger.” They never default to “Why am I so afraid?”
Why are you?
Is the worst thing you can imagine your own death? Is the most terrible thing that could happen to you is to be quadriplegic? Or in a coma for 30 years? Or racked with horrible pain every single day?
I can think of lots of things worse than all that put together, for example, living my life so filled with fear that I need a gun, or guns, to feel secure. Worse still, what would it be like to have lived to age 55 and never have experienced the joy of the outdoors on a bike, unfettered? What if I couldn’t ride my bike without being paralyzed by fear? What if every step I took, I was dogged with anxiety and doubt?
These are all bad outcomes in my book, about as bad as I can imagine.
Fortunately, my rather blasé approach to what Americans call “danger” puts me in the majority, as this article sent to me by a friend demonstrates. For most of planet Earth, riding a bike is a normal activity, like walking down to the store, which, come to think of it, its wholly abnormal for Americans. No one walks down to the store unless they are poor. And for the entirety of the Netherlands, a country remarkably similar to Holland, riding a bike is associated with getting somewhere, not terror of falling down and getting a traumatic brain injury. This story shows how ridiculous, cowering, fearful, and absurd the American obsession with helmets is. Sure, you might get hurt in the Netherlands without a helmet. But you know what would be worse?
Having to live in a place dominated by cars.
In this vein, Peter Flax just published a very long interview with John Forester, the grumpiest hero still alive. Peter absconded a couple of years ago to the high towers of Red Bull media, leaving the grubby poverty of bicycle-activist journalism for something that paid the bills, or at least more of them.
That was a shame because he’s one of the best writers in LA, so good that even though he’s a journalist I’d still call him a writer. In between trips to Austria, though, he found time to visit Forester and do a long-form interview of America’s greatest bicycle advocate. What happened, in part, was that Forester interviewed him, and in other part, Forester digressed at length about the cyclist inferiority complex, one of the key underpinnings of his theory about why cyclists ride the way they do, why it disserves them so mightily, and what motivates policy and planning decisions about bicycles in traffic.
In a word, “fear.”
Cyclists are eminently receptive to fear, at least in the U.S. One of the most common justifications for being afraid, something bandied about by biker and cager alike, is this line, which you’ve heard so often: “When it’s a car versus a bike, the bike always loses.”
Yes, of course, or when it’s the cyclist versus the pavement, or the cyclist versus the lamp pole, or the cyclist versus the angry spouse. But so what? Because one is weaker than the other, is that grounds for using fear of that weakness as the basis for decisions about infrastructure, law, or helmets? In the non-fear based world, the weaker party has the right of way. Smaller watercraft take precedence over cargo ships, for example.
Better, small children are afforded protections because they are weaker. No one reminds a child from the moment they awake that “When it’s adult versus a child, the child always loses.” Instead, we have Child Protective Services, laws, and courts to presumably protect children precisely because they are weaker. Cyclists? Not so much, and it stems from the fear-based mentality of the riders themselves. Cyclists assume that because they’re weak they have to be cautious, frightened, and clad from top to bottom in protective gear, as if a simple bike ride is like a GP motorcycle race.
Imagine what the landscape would look like if cycling advocates said, “Let’s behave and make decisions because we are self-respecting, courageous people entitled to fair and equal treatment by politicians, law enforcement, and other users of the public roads.”
Would we still be helmet shaming? Would we still be cowering in bike lanes or behind car-proof barriers? Would we hug the gutter and screech “Car back!” as if a hungry velociraptor were on our heels?
Or would we look like the Netherlands, a country that closely resembles Holland?
Read this far? Go ahead and hit this “subscribe” link. Thank you!