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Bike helmets: Put a lid on it

Why is there any debate about requiring a simple step that will save lives and prevent injuries?

By Dennis Nugent

2:19 PM EST, February 27, 2013

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It was a headline that had me shaking my head: "Helmet bill gets objections from bike advocates." Really? Was there a modifier misplaced or a participle left dangling somewhere? How can anyone object to something that could prevent serious injuries and even save lives? What's the problem with a law that would require a person riding a bike to wear a helmet?

An advocate for cycling certainly doesn't want bikes to resemble cigarette packs with warnings like "Riding this thing could kill you." But let's be honest. Sometimes, no matter how careful you are, no matter whose fault it is, the unexpected can occur and you fall off your bike. And when you do, you want to be as safe and protected as possible. A helmet is like insurance. You might think you don't need it, but you're darn thankful you have it if you do.

It's hard to understand some of the comments quoted in the article. Like the executive director of Bikemore stating that "biking is only dangerous when people drive recklessly around cyclists." Some claim that helmets somehow discourage bike riding by reminding people that the activity can be hazardous. An organizer of the Baltimore Bike Party says he doesn't think he needs a helmet for short rides around the city because of relatively low speeds limits and stoplights.

Of course, reckless drivers are a problem. But I've been riding a bike long enough to know that accidents can happen anywhere, anytime. And wearing a helmet is a demonstrably effective way to mitigate the outcome of those accidents.

Case in point: The B&A trail in Anne Arundel County — a converted railroad easement with an asphalt surface bordered by woods — is a serene, safe place for walking, running and cycling. So there I am one morning, riding my bike in the peace and solitude of nature, no reckless drivers anywhere in sight. Suddenly, a squirrel darts out of the bushes, runs into my front wheel and gets caught in the spokes. The bike and I somersault through the air, and I land on my back with the bike on top of me.

I broke some bones and cracked my helmet. Did you get that? I cracked my helmet, not my head.

Everyone I know who rides a bike wears a helmet, regardless of where or how fast they ride. It's the undeniably sensible thing to do. And helmets today are sleek, lightweight and cool, both literally and figuratively. You can even go aerodynamic if you have that need for speed. When I started riding, helmets looked like half a watermelon and were just as heavy. They only had a couple of vents so air circulation was nonexistent. That was then, this is now; style and comfort can't be used as excuses any longer.

I would never want to discourage someone from riding a bike. It's one of life's great pleasures. I love it and have been riding for over 20 years. Plus, more bikes mean fewer cars — a good thing for our health and the environment. We shouldn't need a law to get people to wear helmets. But apparently we do, because there's still a lot of us riding around bareheaded and hardheaded, refusing to acknowledge our vulnerability.

Remember when cars had seat belts and we didn't use them? We knew that we should, but we didn't. The legislature decided to "encourage" us to buckle up by passing a law making it a secondary offense to not be seat-belted; you couldn't be pulled over and fined for not wearing your seat belt. It worked as effectively as the current cellphone ban. So the law was upgraded to a primary violation: click it or ticket. More people were motivated to start buckling up.

A law requiring us to wear our seat belts didn't unduly highlight the danger of driving a car. It just made it safer. And that's what the proposed helmet legislation will do for everyone riding bikes.

Dennis Nugent lives in Severna Park and does most of his bike riding in Anne Arundel County. His email is dennuge@aol.com.

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