Helmet zealotry

August 13th, 2008
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Articles like this one from Ski Canada magazine regularly get me into trouble with uncompromising readers and activists. Merely suggesting that while wearing a helmet is a good idea most of the time – and noting that I, too, often wear a helmet, and even rank among the “early adopters” – doing so won’t always enhance your safety, nor might it be necessary under certain conditions, simply drives them bananas.
What is it about certain subjects that precludes rational debate? Indeed, where the mere act of requesting a rational debate signals that one is a rebel, an apostate, beyond the pale, to be instantly and viciously denounced. On such issues, it’s clear that belief in the dominant position has become an article of faith – note the religious basis of the metaphor – to which conformity must be ruthlessly enforced.
I’ve noticed this creeping irrationality on certain subjects even among friends and acquaintances who are well-educated and well-read, whom I consider rational on most subjects. They include hyper-rational engineers who often go overboard in attempting to reduce all subjects to quantifiable, measurable questions of numbers. But on these certain issues, they flip out like everyone else.
Recently while mountain biking in some rough terrain with two friends (all of us wearing helmets, of course) I disclosed that I had stopped wearing one for my thrice-weekly exercise rides near our Remote Rural Compound. My reasoning is that there is absolutely zero chance of falling while riding on straight, level, paved roads, and if I were struck by a vehicle traveling at highway speeds I would be dead under any circumstances. Consequently, a helmet in this situation has no purpose whatsoever.
My friends were dumbfounded.
Later during that ride one of them – we’ll call him Rob for writing purposes – took a gentle, low-speed fall after flawlessly descending a long, steep, tortuously rocky mountainside during which any of us could have fallen 30 different ways and broken numerous bones. The ending was in deep mud, with some boulders strewn about. Rob got bogged down, stalled out and toppled to the right, landing on his hip and rolling clear of his bike before ending up in a sitting position.
“My God, I’m so glad I was wearing my helmet!” were the first words out of his mouth. Initially I thought he was being sarcastic.
“Of course we should wear helmets in this kind of terrain. But, um, Rob, your head never contacted the ground,” I murmured.
“Yes it did! Yes it DID!” he replied, with mounting agitation.
I let the matter pass, of course. Clearly he was convinced his helmet had saved him from injury.
A couple of days later Rob showed me the big shiner covering his left eye socket and cheekbone. That’s left…side. But he had toppled to the…right. And his head never touched the ground.
What probably occurred was the sudden movement and perhaps flailing arms shoved his helmet down violently over his face. The helmet had actually caused the injury.
Of course, I’d never advocate leaving the helmet behind when cycling in terrain where you stand every chance of falling on your head. But what can we say when people lose the ability to distinguish between an actual, objective benefit of a piece of equipment and the mere belief in its magical qualities?
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