Monday, May 11, 2009

“The problem with a head injury: we can’t fix it.”


Chris Carlsson, one of the founders of Critical Mass, is considered an intellectual by the bike people, though it's hard to see why. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed is king, I suppose. Carlsson sneers at the idea of wearing a helmet while riding his bike.

Most bicycle accidents cause injury that a helmet cannot help, but still many cyclists share the mass media bias that says "if you’re not wearing a helmet, you have given up your rights to complain about an accident or the injuries you may have received." I find this absurd and offensive.

I've never seen any statement in the media, mass or otherwise, like the one he puts in quotes. Seems like Carlsson won't wear a helmet until the country's "hostile road structure" is a thing of the past, which means never:

It’s not a moral imperative to buy a commodity that offers meager protection in order to be critical of a ridiculously hostile road structure. You don’t deserve to die, or even suffer injury, just because you refuse the "common-sense Consumer Duty" to buy and wear a helmet. Road engineering today guarantees serious accidents between bikes and cars, and of course, cars and cars.

No, of course you don't "deserve" to die just because you aren't wearing a helmet while cycling, but not wearing one makes it more likely that you will. And it's not "a moral imperative," either. It just seems prudent. Carlsson then backs off a little:

You may survive a slightly higher percentage of these predictable and designed "accidents" wearing a helmet, but you are reproducing an insidious logic when you criticize bare-headed cyclists. It is terribly false to place the onus for traffic safety on the individual vehicle driver, whether car or bike. The system is designed in such a way that it is entirely predictable that many thousands of people will die in the "normal" course of events on America’s roadways. Cyclists who ride without helmets do not thereby deserve the fate handed out by the unforgiving streets of America.

He puts "accidents" in quotes, since he thinks it isn't really an accident when cyclists get hurt because of the way our traffic system is designed. But it seems that much of the "onus" for cyclists staying safe in traffic should be placed on them, and it's irresponsible to suggest that not wearing a helmet makes you some kind of rebel.

See the writings of Robert Hurst and John Forrester, who emphasize that the safest cyclist is the most experienced, best prepared, best equipped, and wariest cyclist, all of which are under the control of the individual cyclist. Both writers note that most cycling accidents have nothing to do with other vehicles; and both recommend wearing helmets, as does the National Safety Council, which tells us that 85% of cycling fatalities are caused by head injuries.

The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute says that that number is only two-thirds:

But helmets aren’t meant to prevent accidents. They’re there to prevent head trauma in case of an accident. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute says two-thirds of bicyclist deaths are from brain injuries. And while some riders worry that helmets will be useless in a high-speed collision, experts say that most brushes with the pavement do not happen at a very high speed. Helmets are designed to deal with the average impact exceptionally well...“The problem with a head injury is that we can’t fix it,” says head injury specialist Mary Pat McKay. “If you come in here with a severe brain injury, you’ll never be the same again. You may not go back to the same job you had before. You may need round-the-clock care.” McKay says the hardest thing about her job is giving families bad news. It hit close to home when her friend’s son crashed on his bike without a helmet. His head hit a pole. He was about to graduate from an Ivy League law school. Now he paints houses.
 
Kirk Janes, a San Francisco messenger, died last year when he ran into a truck near Alamo Square. He wasn't wearing a helmet.

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