The terror of fear

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?

END


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20 thoughts on “The terror of fear”

  1. Well…. I have hit my helmet multiple times on low hanging branches riding my MTB, and it still hurt like hell. I’m not sure that is fear, might just be experience.

    I also ran into a parked car while fiddling with my brakes… no helmet in this case… I was barely moving, it hurt, but even more it startled the crap out of me.

    So… I’m going to go with experience on this one.

    … I have little hope a helmet would save me from a car, in fact I reckon I hope it wouldn’t… let me go quick.

  2. “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
    ― Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living: Eleven Keys for a More Fulfilling Life

    And for a recent (last month) look at cycling in Amsterdam (which is very close to the Netherlands), see

      1. In it, actually (that’s close!).

        I should add that every cyclist I saw on a bike with drop bars (roadies) both in Amsterdam (very few) and outside in the country (more) was wearing a helmet.

        1. Here we go! A number of the roadies I ride with in Austria don’t wear them. And none of the e-bike riders, who are traveling at equal or greater speeds do. So …

    1. It’s intuitive to wear a helmet when out roadieOHing but not when on beach cruiser. Even in Holland which is very similar to the Netherlands, apparently.

      1. “Intuitive.” Is that a more scientific sounding way of saying “fear based”?

  3. I spent a week in Utrecht (very near The Netherlands) back in March. Nearly everyone riding a bike and coexisting with cars when both were there. Cagers watched out for anyone under the age of 5, giving them a wide berth but everyone else wasn’t because they appeared to know how to ride. It was refreshing to ride there. Did see people with drop bars and kits all had helmets, though.

    On a related note, there was a huge motorcycle crash in Richmond VA last weekend, and 4 died. They ran into a guard rail and all crashed together – no cars. There are many reports about whether or not they were wearing helmets (the law here). One person was impaled by the guardrail. Pretty sure the helmet had no impact on her death.

    1. I wonder how many cyclists think this before putting on a helmet: “I’ve evaluated the risks, read the studies, looked at my own history and riding behavior, considered why I cycle, looked at the alternatives, and therefore have decided to wear a helmet.”

      Versus:

      “I’m scared of getting killed or hurt.”

  4. Amen Seth.
    Self-fulfilling prophesies of risk-increasing and detracting “solutions”.
    And it’s only getting worse. Next, cyclists need plastic bollards and “protected” bike lanes 🙁

  5. The price you pay for living in the fake free world, but to be honest it’s getting worse in the free world too I fear.
    You do make a good point about the guns, the first time I heard some one tell me I needed a gun to protect my self and family, I initially thought they were joking, until about 30 seconds into a rabid monolog about how dangerous it is I realized I wasn’t in England any more.

    1. Danger and fear will motivate people to do what you want them to do, whether or not the danger is real and whether or not the fear is justified. Instill it and they will baaaah.

  6. Those of us, like you and me, who have ridden since before helmets, we know what we have done, and what we have gotten away with all those years. I can say, I certainly liked the old helmetless days a lot. My family asked me to wear one, so how could I argue? Then one day, we were milling about in a quiet neighborhood while a flat got changed, I was hardly moving at all when I went to go left, someone was there, so I stopped, and before I could get a foot out, fell over. The helmet cracked. I would have said, my head didn’t touch the ground, but the helmet said otherwise. It’s just another piece of equipment, and though I don’t fall off my back a lot, I feel it’s better to play it safe.

  7. Hello Seth,

    When I was a fighter pilot in the USMC I wore a helmet, torso harness, G suit, gloves, wore an oxygen mask, had an ejection seat with a parachute ….

    i wear a seat belt in my car, have air bags …crumple zones …. I get my shots …… flu, tetanus, cholera, pnemonia, yellow fever, shingles, plague, and most anything else available.

    I have cracked my helmet in a race …

    You cannot ride well when you are injured ….try to stay healhy

    My cousin was a pro baseball player and said his contract prohibited skiing…..

    As previously mentionred beach cruisers not so much helmet

    Prudence should not be mistaken for fear.

    This might be helpful ….. https://helmets.org/stats.htm

    1. Do you wear a helmet in the shower or when you walk or drive a car? I hope so!

      And prudence is always the mask of fear, so it’s hard to tell when you’re being prudent and when you’re being a chicken-ass. The older we get, the more frightened we get, and we compensate for that fear in a variety of ways, some sensible, some less so.

      I’ve never gotten a preventive shot of any kind except for childhood vaccinations and tetanus. I always wear a seat belt. I have hit my head at least a dozen times, hard, without a helmet, and have only died once. Twice.

      Helmets come at a price. They turn the cyclist into the one who is responsible for everything bad that happens, and they discourage lots of people from getting into cycling. Couches are far more lethal than bikes. The price of this attitude is, as John Forester says, a cyclist inferiority complex, and worse, rules/regulations/policies/law enforcement that make cyclists deserving of getting hit and make motorists innocent when they are the ones running us over.

      I applaud everyone who wears a helmet if that’s what they want to do! I wear one too! Sometimes!

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