In 1970 I was riding my bike to school and was clipped by a car. My elbow and bike got a little banged up, but mostly it was no harm, no foul. But following the accident, my parents bought me a bike helmet. I’ve been wearing one ever since. Riding without a helmet feels like riding without any clothes. I feel naked and exposed. Yet, if I could change one bike law with my magic wand, it would be California’s mandatory helmet law for youth. I would make it legal for a teenager to ride his or her bike without a helmet.
A year ago, Djina hit some gravel at 26 mph and wiped out. Rather than her skull, her helmet cracked into three pieces. Helmets save lives. And I wear mine. And I drummed the habit into my kids for so many years that Yonah is possibly the only student at Whitman College who wears one. So why do I advocate letting kids ride without them? For the simple reason that many adolescents will not ride bicycles if forced to wear helmets. For example A, I give you the teenage girl. Oh sure she’ll wear a helmet when she’s a kid, but the moment puberty hits, no way. Do you think that she is going to do her hair in the morning and then stick a helmet on her head before coming to school? Are you kidding? There is a higher probability that the Death Star will vaporize Earth than a teenage girl will walk into a classroom with helmet head. And this is not me talking. Look at the statistics. The day the helmet law came to pass in California, bicycle sales to teens plummeted. Beth Amnon, owner of B & L Bicycles in Davis, told me sales to teens decreased by 40%. These days, she rarely sells a bike to a female teenager.
The helmet law had a serious unintended consequence. It stopped a lot of kids from riding bicycles. So what is better. More kids riding bicycles without helmets and risking severe injuries or more kids not riding bicycles and risking obesity and other health issues related to lack of exercise. Europeans don’t have helmet laws and their cities have much higher percentages of people riding bikes. So clearly such a public policy must work.
As I say, I’m all for helmets, but when they keep kids from riding, it is time to relook at the law. Or better yet. Here is an opportunity for some entrepreneur to make big dollars. Develop a helmet that prevents helmet hair. Still better, develop a bike helmet so cool that it will replace the dorky baseball hats every single teen boy wears. And while you’re at it, can you do something about those sagging pants?