There’s a billboard currently around Toronto that depicts a smashed watermelon in the middle of pavement. The text reads, “It’s a no-brainer. Wear a helmet.” Just remembering the image of that juicy red fruit spilling all over the place is enough to terrify anyone into grabbing their helmet before leaving the house! It sends a pretty powerful message.
I used to do a lot of biking in the city, clocking close to 25 km a day traveling between school, work, and home. My helmet accompanied me 90% of the time. It got left behind when I had too much to carry – laptop, textbooks, and violin – or else when my hair could absolutely not get squished. (Ha, those days are long-gone. My hair exists in a perpetual state of squished-ness.)
Despite being aware of how important that helmet is, I hated wearing it. Even though my cousin’s life might have been saved by a helmet when she was hit by a car, and knowing that my friend’s friend died when she hit a pothole without a helmet, these gory facts didn’t make me love it any more. I always wore it with grudging resentment toward the vehicles on the road that made it a necessity.
That’s why I was particularly interested when my dad told me about an interview he heard on the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) with an urban cycling advocate. This guy was arguing against a growing movement to make helmets legally mandatory for all cyclists. Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? His argument was that imposing rules and regulation only makes it harder for cycling to catch on. No one wants to carry around a helmet. If it’s forced on people, even fewer will hop on their bikes to head to work.
Instead, cities like Toronto need to learn a lesson from northern Europe and construct bike lanes that are physically separate from car traffic. That way, many potential dangers are eliminated because cyclists will not be competing with aggressive, frustrated, and distracted drivers for road space. As long as bikes and cars occupy the same space, helmets are a very good idea to reduce smashed watermelon incidents, but complacently leaving it at that is far from being the ideal solution.
When I visited Amsterdam, I was delighted to see individual, well-marked bike lanes, complete with mini traffic lights. Bikes and cars are close, heading in the same direction, but their paths don’t interfere with each other. As for helmets, little kids wear them but parents do not. It’s not as important, anyways, because accidents are less likely to involve cars, thanks to the separate lanes. It is thoroughly unlike Toronto, where a typical daily ride feels like a battle of wills between cyclists and drivers, each trying to prove one’s superiority and claim to the territory.
I thoroughly support the guy’s point. Let’s eliminate one safety precaution – the helmet – and make cycling much safer overall by constructing proper bike lanes instead. There’s no reason why that couldn’t be part of regular road construction. I bet the reduction in serious accidents would be significant and there would be a large jump in the number of people wanting to bike.
Just imagine no more fear of getting the “door prize” (car door opening into the path of the bike), or nearly getting side-swiped by drivers misjudging distances, or hearing angry horns from cars wanting to pass. Friendly reminders to use one’s hand signals and toot one’s horn when passing could replace those scary watermelon billboards. Drivers wouldn’t have to put up with those erratic, unpredictable cyclists who get in the way. Everyone would be happier – and fitter.
(Also see “De-motorizing Utopia“)