Tag Archives: bicycle safety

Game changer

It's more powerful than it appears.

It’s more powerful than it appears.

When we sold our car, I switched from a dumb phone to a smartphone. I wanted to be able to check bus schedules and arrange rental cars or rides easily, and for those purposes, the smartphone has performed admirably. I’ve also become one of those people who texts my husband from the bedroom while he’s in the kitchen. This is arguably less admirable, although I prefer to think of it as modeling a way to communicate without yelling. Goodness knows that message hasn’t taken yet with our kids.

Although I try not to make my attachment to the phone a 24/7 thing—I put it away at least one weekend day and am obligated to turn it off for almost all work meetings—I am more engaged with my phone than with any other device I’ve ever owned. I’m not unique in this. And in many cases this is a clear win for humanity: since the advent of camera phones, for example, reports of UFO sightings have pretty much disappeared, and that’s a mercy. Nevertheless, it’s been hard not to notice the increasingly vehement urging that people should put their phones down. In some cases this makes sense to me: I embarrass myself when I am checking the phone as my kids are talking to me. Bad parent!

I’m far less impressed with recent arguments that people should put their phones down while walking. If you don’t pay attention to traffic, the argument goes, you’ll be run over. The San Francisco police department had a whole campaign along these lines, and I found it offensive. Trust me, you can be run over while paying plenty of attention to traffic. I speak from experience. More to the point, though, no one should ever be run over in a crosswalk. Only reckless drivers pay so little attention that they run people over, and they can manage that whether you’re paying attention to the road, paying attention to your phone, or you’re a little kid crossing the street with the light while holding your dad’s hand. Pedestrians don’t kill themselves. Drivers kill them.

I am, in contrast to SFPD, a huge fan of people using their phones while walking. And the reason why became very clear recently while I was walking with my kids down Fillmore. A driver making a left turn slammed into a motorcycle, toppling it over and knocking its rider into the street. A dozen people with their phones in their hands began taking pictures the second it happened, and kept taking pictures and videos as the motorcycle rider staggered up and the car started to drive away. I didn’t have my phone out and so I watched the driver, who looked back at the motorcycle lying in the road, started to accelerate the heck out of there, and then noticed two people in the crosswalk filming his car and zooming in on his license plate. At that point, he decided to pull over after all. People walking with their phones out prevented a collision from becoming a hit-and-run that evening.

Something very similar happened when we were hit last year. Golden Gate Park is full of walkers, and they had their phones out, taking pictures, when they saw what had happened. There was also a sheriff’s deputy in the crosswalk who ran over to us yelling, “I’m a sheriff’s deputy!” so it’s hard to say whether the driver who ran us down was ever tempted to hit-and-run. However if he had been, we would have had recourse, because of all those people who ignored the advice to put their phones down.

When I see people walking and using their phones now, I am grateful. I feel that way even if they’re distracted and they sometimes walk into me. Bumping into me is annoying, true, but nothing that I don’t get already from my kids. More importantly, though, it’s a price I’m happy to pay because I know that the more phones that are out, the safer I am walking and riding on the streets. My smartphone is useful and fun and it makes my life easier. But it’s a game changer because it keeps people from getting away with murder.

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Filed under advocacy, San Francisco, traffic

How to protect against disaster

The last few weeks have been trying. My leg did not break simply, but dramatically. Both my tibia and fibula snapped in two, and above the breaks, the bones shattered into fragments. I was admitted to the hospital from the emergency room and went into surgery the next morning, where surgeons drilled into the unbroken ends of the bones and my femur to attach an external fixator. Because I was unable to move my leg with the weight of the fixator, I stayed in the hospital until the swelling went down enough that it could be replaced with internal fixation in a second surgery, specifically, a metal plate along the side of my tibia holding the bone fragments in place with a dozen screws. For much of this time I was given doses of narcotics so strong that I could barely string words into sentences. They did not really control the pain. This level of injury is apparently not unusual for people who get hit by cars, whether they are on foot, on a bike, or in another car.

When I was released from the hospital I was told that I could get full function in my leg back if I followed instructions. The most important one is no weight bearing for 12 weeks, with extensive home physical therapy. I initially had hopes that I would be able to work from home. But between the narcotics, which induce narcolepsy every time I try to read anything more detailed than my discharge instructions, and 6+ hours of physical therapy each day, this hasn’t happened and isn’t likely to happen for some time. I was told to stay at home except for medical appointments because the fracture is so fragile still that even being bumped on the sidewalk would be a significant risk. I’ve gone to the grocery store twice after my appointments—I was out anyway, and grocery stores have cool electric carts to ride that keep me off the leg—and passed out after each trip. I can’t work, I can’t take the kids to school, I have difficulty moving around the house, I’m constantly sleepy, and for at least four hours each day I’m stuck in a continuous passive motion machine, lying flat on my back. It’s been 3 weeks and I have 9 to go.

As frustrating as this is, it’s not a complete disaster. That’s because I have good insurance.

I work for a medical center and had a choice of several health insurance plans. Because I work in a medical center, I know how much a serious condition can ring up in expenses. I only considered the two plans that had no lifetime coverage limit. As a result, no matter how much my care costs, the insurance company will not cut me off. And I’m sure it will cost a lot. We haven’t seen many bills yet, but just the ambulance ride to the ER that I took with my son cost $5000. Add two surgeries, two weeks in the hospital, several weeks of home physical therapy, all the assistive technology, and an expected 18 months of follow-up and the numbers become staggering. There will be a financial reckoning for us at the end of this, of course, but there’s no point at which everything becomes solely my personal responsibility.

Because I am a professor, I also had the chance to buy affordable disability insurance. It’s cheap because it takes a lot to get professors to stop working. I like my job and it makes me crazy that I can’t do it. I will get back to work as soon as I’m allowed to drag myself into the office. Disability insurance doesn’t cover my whole salary, but it will ensure that twelve weeks off the job don’t topple us into bankruptcy. Being disabled is expensive. Matt has had to take time off work, we have had to line up sitters to take the kids to and from school, and there has been a lot of takeout. There was a co-pay for our son’s ER visit, I’m taking a dozen new medications, and Matt has had to arrange extra car rentals and rides that ferry me to various medical appointments. It adds up. I never thought I’d need disability insurance. Now I know better.

In a perfect world, the drivers who cause messes like these would be responsible for all of the associated costs. Unfortunately, not everyone is hit in front of dozens of witnesses as I was. Many drivers hit and run. Even drivers who don’t can be laughably underinsured. Most states require low levels of liability insurance, maybe enough to cover the cost of an ambulance ride to the hospital. And the kind of irresponsible driver who rams into a pedestrian or cyclist is probably not the kind of person who chooses anything more than minimum coverage required by law.

So I am very lucky: this situation is awful, but whatever happens with the driver’s insurance, I have coverage for my medical costs and part of my income is replaced when I can’t work. Not everyone is so fortunate. While everyone should have access to affordable health insurance, not everyone does. And disability insurance is even harder to come by: self-employed people often find they can’t buy it for any price. People who have the option to buy either or both kinds of policies would be crazy not to, especially if they have dependents. But what about people who can’t?

There is another way to get insurance for these kinds of worst-case scenarios, although it is more complicated. If you are hit by an uninsured or underinsured driver and have auto insurance of your own, any costs incurred for treatment can be covered through your uninsured motorist coverage, even if you were on foot or on a bike. Even people who don’t own a car can buy a named non-owner auto insurance policy—these policies are cheap, and also cover car rentals. For further insurance, especially for the self-employed who can’t buy disability coverage, an umbrella liability insurance policy will provide up to a million dollars that can be used for expenses that go beyond what any auto insurance policy will pay. These policies pay out after the fact, and that can take a while. But they will protect against bankruptcy and keep your kids off the street. And like named non-owner auto insurance policies, umbrella liability coverage is typically inexpensive.

I didn’t know much about any of this until I got injured. I never thought it would matter: I’m healthy and active and rarely sick. Why would I need disability insurance? I was lucky that my employer more or less defaults everyone into decent coverage. In hindsight, knowing what I know now, I realize that I could have made better choices.

I am bitter about losing time off work and the vacation time I had planned to spend with my children this summer. I am frustrated that I am stuck at home in bed every day and useless, and that there are many more weeks of this to come. I am angry when I’m in pain, which is a lot of the time, and that I haven’t even been able to take a shower for a month. I am depressed that while I can expect full range of motion to return in my right leg, I will probably never get my full strength back—I may not be able to ride an unassisted bike again. But I’m not afraid that we’ll go broke. And because of that, I can usually remind myself that this is temporary, and things will get better eventually. Despite my ignorance, it turns out that we were prepared for disaster. And we’re all still alive. It could have been much worse.

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Don’t you worry that it’s not safe to ride a bike with your kids?

Not trying to kill each other

Before we had our son, people tried to explain what it was like to have kids. It was impossible. They said it was like having your heart walking around outside your body. It’s not like that for me.

When I think about my children, I think about falling in love. You fall in love, and everything is passion. It’s like being cast in your own personal opera. Everything your beloved does is beautiful. Every fight is world-ending. It seems like the feeling will never end. But it does end. You get used to one another, and life fades into normalcy. You fight about the dishes and the world doesn’t stop turning. You settle down.

My son has ridden the Golden Gate Park carrousel since he was a year old.

When my son was born I fell in love the moment I first saw him. A minute before we’d been told he was dying. My daughter’s birth was the same thing all over again. I have two children because I couldn’t stop with just one. I have two children because that’s as much as I could bear. And for me, what’s different about loving my children is that I’ve never gotten used to them. It’s still passion. Everything they do is beautiful. Every fight makes me want to kill them.

Exploring the living maze at the Bay Area Discovery Museum

They insist that I sleep with them, and I’m worrying about that paper that absolutely must be finished tonight, and I try to get up and get back to the computer and they grab my hands and their palms are sweating. “I love you infinity, Mommy!” they whisper urgently.  “Don’t go!” And I stay.

I am across the room and they are fighting and I see where it is going but before I can get to them one is bleeding and the other is shrieking, “I didn’t do it!” and the world goes black, in that moment I am literally blinded by terror and rage.

It’s been almost seven years now. I haven’t gotten used to it. How could I? Every day they are different people. Every day I fall in love with them again. My heart isn’t walking around outside my body. My heart is right here in my chest, clenched tight as a fist.

Rest assured that my daughter was trying to jump off something when this picture was taken.

Do I worry about my kids? Sure. My daughter, who has never seen a vertical surface she didn’t want to scale and jump off, has been to the emergency department so many times that I have seriously considered making her one of those flip charts like they have at nuclear power plants: “It’s been X days without an accident!” (Fun fact: Matt and I took a tour of a nuclear power plant together, the first month we met.) Make it ten days in a row and you can have an ice cream cone, kiddo. Every photo taken of her at preschool is in motion. My son’s innate cautiousness used to worry me as well. I should be careful what I wish for.

Learning from his sister, my son locked himself inside the delivery box of a Bullitt.

Do I worry that it’s not safe to ride a bike with my kids? Well, there have been moments, but not really. There are always moments, on or off the bike. When I walked down the street with my son as a toddler he was fascinated with everything. He would run into the street when he saw something exciting—letters on a sewer plate, a shiny bottle cap. (Why are streets so dangerous that kids can’t make mistakes? Only drivers get to make mistakes?) I remember driving in a rental car on a suburban strip when my daughter figured out how to open her door, and so she did, right into traffic as we were moving and we screamed, and she screamed because we were screaming, and we tried to move over to the side of the road and get the damned door shut, and then we sat there in the stopped car, panting, wondering if we’d ever drive again.

Sitting in fire trucks is fun, but my kids have little interest in ordinary cars.

I don’t feel particularly threatened by city traffic on our bikes. People fear riding bikes because it’s unfamiliar, not because they’ve reviewed the evidence. Taken as a whole, public health research makes a strong argument for getting out of the car by any means necessary. And we are enjoying the ride. I don’t snap in frustration at my kids as I circle the streets endlessly, praying my son won’t get a tardy slip today because it’s street cleaning day and there is nowhere to park the damned car, there’s never parking in the city. I don’t get stuck in traffic and rack up late pickup fees as my daughter wonders why today she’s the very last one to be picked up at preschool. I don’t have to decompress from a stressful commute when we get home.

Can we take the Bullitt?

“Did you see that?” they ask me when we ride. Did you see that squirrel, did you see that dog, did you see the moon? Will you pick up that leaf for me? Will you carry my rock? Can we stop at the bakery, can we stop at the playground, can we stop at the library? Can we go to the beach? They have a new sense of direction. They know where we are. They ask: can we take 6th Avenue instead of 9th Avenue?  Can we go past the Japanese Tea Garden instead of along JFK Drive? And now I say: yes. Yes, I see it. Yes, I will. Yes, of course we can.

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Filed under family biking, San Francisco

New helmet

My son likes the outdoors too. And he likes climbing up the hidden waterfalls of Golden Gate Park. With his helmet. Safety first!

I’ve been commuting more with my son on the Brompton. This raised an unexpected issue. He’s tall enough that the top of his head touches my chin. I can see over him fine, and it’s certainly easy to make conversation. All of that is good. He is taller than his sister, and that makes pedaling around his legs more of a challenge, but that’s okay. And for some reason when he’s in front he’s more supportive on the hills. “You can make it, mommy! Keep pedaling!”

But there has been an unexpected downside to our commute. His helmet is one of those aero-style Giros that bumps out in the back, and has a sharp edge where the plastic decoration stops and the uncovered foam begins. When we rode together his helmet was cutting open my chin. My chin was bleeding because of my son’s helmet. It was the world’s most implausible bike injury.

We’re taking a trip soon and mailing our helmets in advance. Having a spare helmet was starting to sound like a good idea. Shopping for a helmet with a smooth back, which was my personal goal for his new helmet, was much harder. For some reason the aero-style with the back bump is all the rage in kids’ helmets locally. I had to go online, and that raised issues with fit. My son has a giant head. I picked stores with generous return policies (Amazon and Real Cyclist) and ended up using them as we worked our way up through the sizes that were supposed to fit him based on head circumference and did not. Eventually we found a Bern helmet that fit him in blue (he really wanted a blue helmet). It was an adult size small.

I love this helmet. It has never cut my chin. It’s as smooth as glass. I kissed it while we were riding on Friday, I was so grateful not to be gouged. I liked it so much I got one just like it for my spare helmet. Matchy matchy.

My son likes both his helmets. Specifically he likes having two helmets. Sometimes he wears them both in one day (not at the same time). As long as he wears the Bern while he’s riding the Brompton, that’s just fine.

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Filed under Brompton, commuting, family biking, San Francisco

How wide is a bike lane?

What you see is not always what you get.

I was reading an article about bike lanes recently, which claimed that the newest bike lanes in San Francisco (on Kirkham Street) were 6 feet (183cm) wide, which is the new city standard.

It also claimed that most of the existing bike lanes in the city were 5 feet (152cm) wide, which I’ll admit, I thought was cracked. I ride in a lot of bike lanes in this city, and I would eat my helmet if they were all 5 feet wide. Time to take out the tape measure!

After stopping in various awkward places around my commute, I concluded that bike lanes are the opposite of trees: the older they are, the narrower they are.

  • On Arguello and Sacramento north of Golden Gate Park: 4 feet (122cm) travel width
  • New JFK bike lanes within Golden Gate Park: 5 feet (152cm) travel width
  • According to the article above, the new Kirkham bike lanes: 6 feet (183cm)–I didn’t measure

The protected bike lanes on JFK Drive rarely feel crowded.

My feeling is that the narrowest 4 foot lanes are by far the majority within San Francisco right now, although admittedly I don’t ride as much South of Market, and they’ve striped a lot of lanes down there in the last few years. If the lane has a marker reading “BIKE LANE” or a picture of an un-helmeted bike rider you’ve hit a 4 foot lane for sure, although some of them have been repainted with a helmeted rider. I would guess the odds of these lanes being restriped to a greater width are pretty slim. Most of the attention right now is rightly concentrated on creating new lanes and expanding the network.

Why does it matter? Two major reasons: car doors and traffic.

In the new JFK bike lanes, 5 feet of width is plenty: they’re right against the curb and cars park on the left, they’re protected from the door zone with a buffer zone, and so there is plenty of space for me to ride alongside my son, or for another rider to pass us.

In the 4 foot lanes in the city, and even some of the new 5 foot lanes things can get hairier.

At the dotted line, the cyclists move left and the cars turning right (if there were any) move to the right before heading into the intersection.

These lanes are primarily to the left of parked cars, and an opened door can easily cut the bike lane in half, giving a rider an effective width of a 2 foot (61cm) to 2.5 foot (76cm) travel lane. Dooring incidents are relatively low on weekdays as San Francisco drivers are conscious of bike commuters. Dooring incidents are rampant on weekends when out-of-towners drive into the city and leave their doors hanging open in the bike lanes for no apparent reason, maybe to air out their cars. It’s a mystery, and they get angry when we ask them, politely, to stop blocking traffic.

These lanes are also striped to merge at intersections, allowing cars to turn right and bicycles to move left, which is why San Francisco doesn’t have the right-hook issues that other cities do. As long as everyone signals it is a little complicated but works fine: when the line becomes dashed, turning cars move right and bikes pass them on the left to go to the front of the intersection. (Moving forward in the intersection is a safety move to prevent a car further back in queue from turning right in front of a bicycle moving straight, the dreaded right-hook.) But this merge dance results in cars blocking the right half of the bike lane: once again, the bike lane effectively narrows to half its width whenever a car is turning right. Cars can’t usually pull right up to the curb for a right turn as they would when parking, or they’d run over the corner and pedestrians, so they’re partially in the bike lane.

When a bus moves into the right lane for pickups or turns, it takes some guts (and a narrow bike) to move to the left as suggested when heading straight.

Why does this matter? Most bikes can effectively navigate a 2 foot bike lane, but cargo bikes like our Kona MinUte can be more problematic; the bags on the side hang out several inches when full, making the bike up to 25″ (65cm) wide. I prefer to keep them in the folded position while I’m riding even though they can hold less that way. Then the bike is 16″ (40cm) wide, which is no problem (or I can fill one but not the other.) Matt typically keeps both filled but is actively looking for a better replacement for the stock bags due to their width. Can you put FreeLoaders on a MinUte?

I also had real problems getting the Yuba Mundo through these pinch points when it was visiting. For a long time I couldn’t figure it out: long-tail bikes are basically the same width as other bikes and we were using the front Bread Basket for cargo, so we didn’t have the MinUte rear bag problem. Why was I feeling caught at intersections all of the time and forced to stop behind turning cars (blocking other bikes behind me)? I hated taking the lane from the bike lane when the kids were on deck; cargo bikes are slow to start when laden, and drivers understandably get a little annoyed when riders swing in and out of the bike lanes. And I was the only bike doing it.

I only recently realized that my issue was the Mundo’s Side Loaders. To keep heavy loads off the ground or carry bicycles or give kids a place to rest their feet, the Mundo has two bars sticking out from each side of the rear deck, so the frame’s total width is over 20” (51cm). If you add a pair of full GoGetter bags, the bike’s width increases to over 35” (90cm). I didn’t even have the GoGetter bags, and 20.5” isn’t that much wider than an ordinary bike, but it was changing the way I rode. And yet: I didn’t feel like the Bread Basket in front, at 19″ (48cm) was the problem, even though it was almost as wide. And Yuba notes that the Side Loaders are supposed to be no wider than the rider’s feet on the pedals. Was it just that I couldn’t see the wide load in back?

Why does it matter? We are trying to figure out a new family bike, and width is apparently an issue. Most family bikes and cargo bikes are much wider than an ordinary bike. My problem, even if it was just perceptual, was the same problem people have with child trailers in San Francisco: at 28”-32” (70-82cm) they’re often wider than the space available in the bike lane, and as a rider, you can’t see whether they’re going to make it through. We have an additional issue: no trailer on the market would fit through our narrow basement door, which when opened is just shy of 28″ wide.

Could I handle a wide bike in normal bike lanes, when I arrived at intersections where the lane is cut in half? Would it be easier if the load were in front where I could see it? These are San Francisco problems, but they’re real for us.

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Filed under commuting, San Francisco, traffic

Change is good

The bike lanes on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park mostly look like this now–unblocked by cars.

This morning I was talking to a dad at my son’s elementary school. With all three of our bikes in the shop (two for brakes, one for an annoying whining sound from the front dynamo), Matt and I played “hot potato” about who had to drive our son to school in the morning. I lost. But it’s always nice to catch up with other families before school lets out. My son’s last day of first grade is tomorrow!

This dad asked me if I had ridden in the new JFK bike lanes yet. These are striped to have auto travel lanes in the middle, parked cars alongside, then a door buffer zone, then a bike lane by the curb. When they were first installed drivers seemed to have trouble giving up parking at the curb, which meant I was constantly weaving around cars in the bike lane. With time and some improved signage, this hasn’t happened in a while. When I said that I had ridden on them, he asked if I liked them as much as he did. He thought they were amazing, and that having cars completely separated from bikes, and bikes protected by parked cars, was a fantastic innovation. “They should do that all over the city!” he exclaimed.

What impressed me about hearing this, unsolicited, is that no one in his family rides a bike. They like the new bike lanes as drivers. They feel they’re safer. I would never have thought these new lanes would appeal to drivers as much as they do to riders. There are changes in the air, and I like them.

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

Protected bike lanes on JFK Drive

Most (not all) cars seem to understand the new lane markers

Recently San Francisco striped new separated bike lanes on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park, which is a bicycle arterial through the western half of the city for commuters, including me. Thanks, San Francisco Bicycle Coalition! We take this route around the park with the kids on the weekends, but many more people take it east to the Panhandle on weekdays, and from there to the Wiggle and downtown. San Francisco is only 7×7 miles, so even people living at Ocean Beach can reasonably ride a bike all the way to work on this route, which is largely parkland, and now features protected bike lanes as well.

The new striping put two-way car traffic in the center of the road, with a parking lane to the side of each car travel lane. Then there is a buffer zone for car doors (so awesome!), a constant risk in the park, and a bicycle lane on the right at the edge of the road.

Am I a bicycle?

Figuring out the new system is apparently a struggle for some drivers. Although the bike lane is clearly marked, some people just can’t get over the idea of parking against the curb. This driver ignored all the cars appropriately parked in the strip to the left, not to mention an open parking space immediately to the left, in order to block the bike lane. It’s rare that I would advocate for a narrower bike lane, but maybe that might help this person get the point. Maybe not, though, as the car is parked right on top of a bike lane marker (an oppressed bicycle).

We don't need no stinkin' buffer zone

Still, having ridden these new lanes all week, I like them. Although I find it annoying that nearly all the cars park over the line so that they’re sitting in the door buffer zone to the right. Apparently drivers don’t really like being forced into moving car traffic when they’re stepping out of a parked car. The doorers now get to experience the consequences of dooring. Welcome to my world.

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I do, in fact, wear a helmet

It looked even less like a helmet when it was fitted wrong

I never really liked the look of helmets. But I never really liked the look of rain pants, either, and I wear those. When we rode bikes in Copenhagen, we didn’t wear helmets, mostly because we got blank stares from the bike shop owners when we asked about renting them (they did, however, have helmets for the kids to rent).

The blank stares reflected the fact that there is little reason to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle in Copenhagen, where there is extensive protected bicycle infrastructure and drivers know that hurting or killing someone who is not in a car would have consequences. Like losing a driver’s license. Pedestrians and bicycle riders in North America may now laugh bitterly.

So I was delighted to discover that there was a helmet I would not be depressed to wear, by a Danish company no less, the Yakkay. It costs a freaking fortune, compared to other helmets, but honestly, even expensive helmets are not that expensive compared to other things, like, say, a tank of gas these days. The Yakkay does not look like a helmet. It looks like a goofy hat (see also the Lazer CityZen). My kids call my Yakkay the hat-helmet. It has some advantages over a traditional helmet; one of them is that like a hat, it provides ample sun protection. It can also be difficult to fit correctly, which is a hassle and annoying for an expensive helmet, but not really a long term kind of problem.

My kids think my helmet looks goofy. I can't argue with that.

What I did not anticipate when I started wearing this helmet is the widespread perception by the rest of the world that I wasn’t wearing a helmet at all, and “the rest of the world” includes bike shop owners. I get lots of compliments on my “hat,” and occasionally, I get dirty looks or comments about how I should be wearing a helmet if I’m riding with my kids. This IS a helmet, I say, rapping my knuckles on it. “OH!” is the typical reply. “That’s COOL!” But I have begun to realize there are a lot of people who pass judgment without bothering to ask.

Why wear a helmet at all? My mother was surprised that this was actually a serious question. Of course bicycle riders should wear helmets, right? I don’t think it’s so clear-cut, but there are some reasons one could go either way.

Why not? It’s not clear whether helmets are really that protective, relative to the costs. There’s no such thing as a risk-free activity, and we all make choices that balance cost, safety, and convenience. People may drive (less safe) instead of riding the bus (more safe); people eat processed food (less safe) rather than preparing food themselves (more safe); people cross against the light in the crosswalk or fail to make a complete stop at stop signs. Some people find the cost of purchasing and the inconvenience of remembering to carry a helmet not worth the potential increase in safety. Bicycling simply isn’t that dangerous in most circumstances, and helmets don’t protect against many of the likely risks. A culture that demands helmets make bike share programs much more difficult, and creates the perception that riding a bike is a dangerous thing to do, rather than just another form of transportation. Pedestrians and drivers don’t wear helmets, despite the fact that in some circumstances their need for them may be greater. My colleagues at SF General joke darkly that pedestrians in the city probably should be wearing helmets, at least in certain neighborhoods.

Which brings me to the opposite question: why? The short answer to that question for me is that I don’t live in Copenhagen. In a city like San Francisco, where trauma physicians can make a serious argument that pedestrians should be wearing helmets to walk across the street, wearing a helmet while riding a bike starts to look pretty reasonable. I’m going faster than a pedestrian, so if I’m hit I’ll land harder, and I don’t have the same legal right-of-way.

Not that that necessarily matters. Recently, while riding the university shuttle, I watched the driver mosey between two parked trucks into an intersection only to stop dead just before mowing down a man in a wheelchair. “Oh my god!” he cried. “I didn’t even see him!” Seriously? Dude, it is your JOB to drive safely enough that you don’t mow down people in wheelchairs in the crosswalk. But “I didn’t even see him” is the driver’s equivalent of the “Get Out Of Jail Free” card in Monopoly. It works when mowing down pedestrians and wheelchairs and it works when mowing down bicyclists.

San Francisco, like a lot of cities, is undergoing a commuting shift. There are more bicycles on the road than there used to be, and there are, sadly, drivers who view that as an unacceptable imposition on the world that they were used to experiencing. With the protection of a two-ton vehicle, these drivers can express their opinions very dangerously indeed. That’s no reason to get off the road, but it does make me modify some of my choices. I don’t ride my bike on Masonic, for example, or any of the other streets in San Francisco that are widely recognized as high-speed arterials for driving. And I wear a helmet.

My son's helmet has flames on it, and he'll wear it everywhere he can.

There’s also the issue that although wearing helmets is optional (but encouraged) for adult riders in San Francisco, it is required for children. We are very fortunate that our children have never objected to wearing helmets, which is by no means a universal sentiment among the small. They like playing dress-up and we let them pick their own helmets (within their size range), and that helped. But part of the reason we’ve been so fortunate is that we ourselves wear helmets and have never given the impression that it’s an imposition or a hassle. It’s just something we do before we get on the bike, like checking the brakes or packing the lock. Many of the parents who have complained about their kids not wearing helmets admit that they themselves either don’t wear helmets or that they complain about it. We’d much rather wear helmets without complaint than risk not riding at all because our kids refuse to wear their helmets.

My daughter wears her helmet while practicing riding her balance bike in the basement, because it has pink hearts on it.

I do a lot more stupid things to fit in and smooth our daily lives than wearing a helmet when I ride a bike. My helmet is either cute or goofy, depending on whom you ask, and it keeps the sun off my face, and that makes wearing it even less of a burden. It provides some extra protection against accidents (just as a helmet would for a pedestrian or driver), and weighed against the marginal imposition it makes on my life, I choose to wear the helmet every time.

Other people make different choices based on their life circumstances, and I have zero problem with that. I don’t judge other riders for not wearing helmets, and I’ll defend their choice when it comes up in conversation with people whose knee-jerk response to seeing a bicycle rider without one is to call them crazy or stupid. That said, I won’t ride with adults who aren’t wearing helmets when I’m with my kids, as the idea that wearing helmets could be optional is a can of worms I am not ready to open with them.

So I have this crazy hat-helmet, and in the tempest in a teapot that is the question of whether bicycle riders should wear helmets or not, I now get to experience the moral high ground and various minor inconveniences of wearing a helmet as well as the opprobrium of people who think I’m setting a bad example for my kids and risking my own life by not wearing a helmet at all. It is not something I expected when I bought the Yakkay, but I can live with that too. Knowing what I know now, I will not, however, ever buy their kids’ model, even though I think it’s super-cute.

Helmets are also handy while picking dandelions in the park.

I think that there are much bigger problems to worry about in North American cycling than helmets or the lack of them. I find advocacy about helmets, whether pro or con, tiring. When cities in the US have the infrastructure to make cycling feel safer, like extensive protected bike lanes and stronger legal protections, I suspect that bicycle helmets will become a quaint relic of a more dangerous time, used only by certain specialists, much like chainmail.

Until that happens, my feeling is that arguing about whether or not to wear helmets is like arguing about whether a red fire truck is more visible than a neon green fire truck. Maybe one color will make drivers pull over more quickly and thus help get the truck to its destination a little more quickly, but a better use of everyone’s time would be preventing the fire in the first place.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco, traffic