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Bikexchange logo, link to Home   Keeping An Open Mind (Skull?) About Helmets  Bikexchange logo, link to Home

By Jim Joyce

The Background...

"Jim, Jim, hey!"

A fellow coach grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. She was panting and pointing. I was helping a visually-impaired, teen athlete mount a simulated rock climbing wall.

"Your boy's wrecked on a bike. One of your students. I was looking all over for you. You better get over there!"

"What? Who? What happened? Who?"

"Frankie, I think. Yeah, it was Frankie. He's down. Over there. I think he crashed a bike into an I-beam beside the track."

I snagged another volunteer to take my place and I dashed around the corner of the simulated rock-climbing wall, there in the middle of a large recreation hall in the campus of Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania.

I ran to through two fitness rooms. There! I spotted him on the floor ahead. He was sprawled about 10 feet outside the edge of the tartan rubber track, a full-size competition track that ran around the interior of the building. A few feet ahead of him stood a vertical, steel I-beam, helping to hold up the structure. Beside it lay a bike helmet, split in half. Beside the helmet, a mangle bike.

By this time, a speedy paramedic crew had arrived and were busy stabilizing Frankie's head and neck while loading him on to a stretcher.

"Frank, you okay?" I asked, trying to repress a shaky voice.

"Yeah, I think so." he said, unable to hide his fear. "I don't know what happened. I guess I was going to fast and didn't make the turn at that corner."

"Are you hurting anywhere?" I said.

"No, I think I'm okay. I, I feel okay. I'm just a little shaky from the surprise of it. But I don't really hurt. Maybe a little headache, but I'm okay. I'll be okay. Just let me get up and walk around a little."

The paramedics wouldn't hear it. They insisted wisely that he be immobilized and checked into the local emergency room in case of a head or neck injury. They had slipped the stretcher under Frank and positioned his head in place with a complicated neck contraption. This final step proved too much for a confident, somewhat cocky 17-year-old. He began to tear up.

"Jim, I'm scared. This is scary. I'm scared."

The paramedics assured him he was okay but they didn't want take any chances. I tried to calmly back them.

"Frank, you'll be fine. Don't worry. I'll follow you right to the hospital and I'll call your parents. They just have to check you out. It no big deal, you'll be fine. I promise. You'll be okay, you hear?"

Easy for me to say. The poor kid met me only three times and there he was heading on a stretcher to hospital some 100 miles from his home and his parents. And I wasn't even sure he's was going to be alright.

To this point, it had been a perfect day. As a traveling teacher of visually impaired students in public schools scattered across five small counties, I took the opportunity to take several of my teenage students to sports clinic organized to foster the love of fitness, recreation and competition among youth with blindness or partially sight--a group too often relegated to the sidelines.

I had met Frank a few times and had spoken to his parents at length by phone. He had just recently lost a lot of vision and his "emotional plate" was full. He was now considered "legally blind," a person with "low vision." However, in comparison to most of my students, he had a "high" level of vision. I and his parents felt it would be a good chance for him to meet and hang out with other teens who lived daily with severe vision losses like his.

One of the many activities at the clinic was bicycling--in this case, leisurely laps on tandem bikes around the indoor track mentioned earlier. In hindsight, Frank should not have be allowed to ride off by himself on a solo bike. Because of his high level of vision and since he looked as old as the college student "helpers" at the event, he slipped by and took off on a solo ride. Single bikes were to be used only by coaches, parents and helpers.

What ultimately happened to Frankie that day?

Nothing, thank God. Sure, he had his bell rung, "a mild concussion" as the e-room doctor put it. No neck injury. No head injury. Today, he's alive and well somewhere in his mid-twenties, thank you.

His helmet? Toast. Split in half. He smacked the I-beam dead-center on the top of the helmet. Without it, his head would have been split just like that helmet. He'd be gone today, and I? I would likely be a broken man, carrying an albatross of guilt, and banished from my beloved career of teaching.

Sure, Frank's inexperience and incompetence caused this accident. Sure, he should never have been there on that indoor track. Sure, I was incompetent by allowing it to happen. Sure, heads should have rolled (not literally, though) for his having ever gotten on that bike. Sure, there should have been padding around the I-beam. Sure, in a perfect world....

The cold fact is the Frank is alive today because of that helmet.

You can now see why I am such a supporter of wearing helmets while bicycling. I admit I am prejudiced in my view. Now you know why.

The Argument Against Mandatory Helmet Use and Helmet Laws (And My Opinions)

It is quite interesting, then, that I was asked by the Ontario Coalition for Better Cycling (OCBC) to check out their website section against mandatory helmet use. Their argument is well-constructed and well-written. Much of it, too, is supported by research that seriously calls into question the safety value of bicycle helmets. But I can't help but recall what Mark Twain had to say about "damn lies and statistics." Included among their research-support positions (paraphrased by me) are the following:

Here in the US, my only experience with mandatory helmet use has been my observance of the West Virginia "under age of 14" helmet law and the practice of most organized tours to require helmet use for participation. When I lived in West Virginia, my only experience with a "reckless" cyclist was a 13-year-old helmet-free "nut" who tried to impress a buddy by charging me and playing "chicken" on a country road. It resulted in me flipping my Falcon road bike and landing, yes, only my helmet. My helmet didn't survive the crash but I did without even a headache. It took, however, a few weeks before I quit limping and my bike never was never again quite right. And I had to call the little creep's parents and the county sheriff, but that's a whole other story in itself. In this case, it was reckless rider--no helmet; safe rider--helmet.

Again, in my personal experience as a West Virginia resident, my neighborhood was full of kids on bikes and these kids were wearing helmets. Those who didn't were usually chewed out by a grown up before they got very far. But young cyclists without helmets were the exception and not the rule. And they were usually the same kids who were cruising through your yard or passing you on the sidewalk without even saying saying a word. My current neighborhood in Pennsylvania has no more youth cyclists than my WV one, despite the absence of a youth helmet law. In fact, I have had more young teens cross dangerously in front of my car than ever before. This has been especially true with teen BMX bikers, very few of whom wear helmets.

Maybe so, but a helmet sure helped the day I met that creep and the day Frank crashed. And neither of us was going all that slow.

Maybe so, but it will be no time before all new cars are equipped with both front and side air bags to prevent...ahem...head injuries. Likewise, I've never seen a profession motor car racer without a helmet.

Now there's something we both agree on. Having said that, I still feel there is nothing wrong with adding youth helmet laws and mandatory helmet use for organized tours to that formula. Why? Maybe I just can't stop thinking about Frank. Oh, and that little creep on the country road.

How Open Is My Mind?

On their index page, the OCBC quotes John Forester's Effective Cycling book, "Cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles." I definitely agree.

However, I still disagree about lifting your helmet laws.

And I just can't stop thinking...

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