Helmet Nazis and the Culture of Fear

Saturday, April 21, 2012

This is my article appearing on LewRockwell.com for April 21, 2012.

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I despise the Safety Nazis and the culture of fear they have created. Wear a helmet. Don’t go out when it’s too hot. Don’t leave your home when it’s too cold, and if you do, heed the 1,001 warnings. Be afraid at all times. Run for cover. Lock your children in enormous safety devices called car seats. Buy a stroller built like an armored Volvo, complete with side air bags and ironclad sun protection. Stay inside if the wind blows or a snowflake falls. Is there a dark cloud or two in the sky? Close the schools. Call your doctor if you sneeze, and call your lawyer if you trip. Don’t ever do anything that has the potential to cause injury. Red alerts, orange alerts, and now text alerts – they are all imbecile alerts that are geared toward emotionally crippling the masses.

The save-you-from-yourself nannies are an intrusive and irritating bunch. “Safety” has become a sick obsession in the modern American culture, and this fear mongering has long been promoted by an overreaching, paternal state that has churned out a nation of helpless idiots through the revolving doors of government schools and a politicized nanny state that holds people captive to their own bogus fears. I have at least one archive dedicated to this topic on my website.

One of the most fashionable forms of lifestyle fascism in the American Folly Safety Parade is the sustained push for mandatory helmet laws and the crush of propaganda asserting that certified, bulletproof, and government-approved helmets are necessary for every activity from the baby crawling to biking along your neighborhood sidewalk.

As an avid cyclist, the folks I ride with are a mixed bunch. Very few are helmetless, many are helmet Nazis (they love preaching safety and the wearing of helmets to others while they wear shorts in 20-degree weather on their 50-lbs overweight, heart-attack-ready bodies), and some are helmet neutral – they don’t think too much about your choices and why you make them. Most recently, I received the standard summary lecture from a very overweight, helmeted cyclist whose belly hung halfway between his seat and the ground, yet he gave me the snide lecture on no-helmet riding by summing it up as, “it’s your noggin.” Apparently, being without helmet for two hours is undertaking a risk while carrying around an obese, disease-ridden body for twenty years is no risk at all. It is astounding how folks will perceive peril and create their own twisted reality to suit their inclinations.

When I do the group rides, I usually wear a helmet unless it is so cold that I need to wear my warm, hippie beanie. Then I may go no-helmet, and immediately, the Nazis begin to buzz and give rise to the predictable comments. On Saturday, March 24th, 2012, I rode with a group of cyclists, most of who are very recreational riders. I wore my helmet as our group of 70+ folks left Grand Circus Park in downtown Detroit for our first 2012 group ride. No big deal – I just felt like wearing a helmet, as I usually do in these rides. These folks were mostly recreational cyclists, with only a few of them being experienced cyclists or skilled riders. A few of the riders, like me, used to be dedicated lycra jockeys but gave that up for adventure riding and fun exploration. The problem with these rides is that most folks don’t hold a steady line and are predictably unsteady on their bicycles. That kind if riding can wreak havoc on a pack.

A little over an hour after we started, I ended up in what was the most violent bike crash I have had in 27 years of serious cycling, mountain bike racing, track riding, and high-speed training pacelines. As we approached a median with two routes around it (on the right and the left) most of us were on the left side of the landscaped median. A few cyclists on the far right side of pack went around the right side of the median, and a guy from the far left side of the pack saw those few folks going right, and so he decided to veer on a strict right line across the front of the pack, from left to right, to catch the turnoff and follow them. No experienced pack rider would ever do such a thing knowing that seventy bikers were right on his tail. It is hard to believe that anyone with any common sense could be so careless. But this stuff happens.

He blind-sided me from my left side, and I t-boned the rear of his bike. All I knew was that it felt like I was shot from a cannon as I flew up and then landed on my left side, on the cement, with my hip and shoulder taking the entire hit as my bike slammed my body to the ground, and then my neck whiplashed, causing my head to slam the pavement with ferocious force. Since this was a purely recreational ride, our speed was a very slow 12-13 mph. And still, it was a violent meeting between the pavement and me. This collision came just six days prior to a scheduled hip surgery, so immediately post-crash, I was concerned about the damage.

The fallout was a brutal headache and perhaps a slight concussion, neck whiplash that my chiropractor has mostly fixed, a bruising where the helmet dug into my head, a black-and-blue hip, and a shoulder that was mostly frozen. I still have a very swollen anterior rotator cuff in that shoulder four weeks later. That means another trip to my shoulder orthopaedic surgeon for a check on a joint that has already endured two surgeries. But mostly, it was the fierce head slam that left me in goose bumps. I remember thinking “I’m done” just as my head was smashing the cement, and then I felt the most meaty part of my helmet take the hit, causing my head to bounce, and then the helmet seemed to absorb the cement like a sponge. Immediately, I felt perfectly alive, and I was stunned that I was still conscious.

I could not have survived the force of that blow, intact, without that helmet. I would have been another closed head injury casualty on a ventilator, with my family and friends stopping by the hospital to help me with basic life functions. I keep thinking what if that had been one of those days where I didn’t wear my helmet. I had nightmares for several days, repeating that incident in my head without the helmet. Bizarre but true. These types of events can often be life changing.

This story, however, is more about the risk and how we each subjectively perceive it, and not the accident itself. Some folks believe that not wearing a helmet while cycling or motorcycling is “stupid,” though this comment is actually pretty dumb on its own. The lack of a helmet is not a result, at all, of lacking intelligence, or even common sense. The wearing or non-wearing of a helmet reflects how you comprehend and rate risk.

There is a website called Helmet Freedom: Risk in Perspective, and its motto is “Cycling without helmet laws is safe. Fear is unhealthy.” I like that motto because as much as the fear mongering and obsession with safety is worldwide, in America, the totalitarians-at-large have turned safety fixation into a national pastime.

On TedX Copenhagen, bicycle advocate Mikael Colville-Andersen gave a talk, “Why We Shouldn’t Bike With a Helmet.” In his talk, he discusses the culture of fear that controls the public. He calls it a “pornographic obsession with safety equipment” in a “bubble society.” While the culture of fear ignores facts and science, the fear mongering is big business, and it is lucrative.

Mr. Colville-Andersen points out the inanity of the mindsets that hanker for excess “safety” at every junction in life, for every man, woman, and child with a pulse. For example, he points to the Thudguard child helmet, a monstrosity of the purveyors of fear that he describes as “the ultimate example of the slippery slope we are on. Is this really where we want to be headed after 250,000 years of Homo sapiens?” Products like this abound, however, and the dumbed-down public has become dependent upon safety decrees and devices while they are psychologically enslaved to the paternal-authoritarian decrees of their safety masters.

The big news in Michigan has been Governor Rick Snyder’s recent repeal of the mandatory helmet law for motorcyclists. While helmet laws have been steadily encroaching upon every facet of life, the most visible and controversial helmet laws, for motorcyclists, have been flipped in my home state. Immediately, I noted that the vast majority of riders were out, helmetless, starting on day one of the big news.

I have ridden often without a helmet; in fact, each time I visit Ohio I take my helmet off immediately after I cross the border. I’ve teased the wild curves and steep hills of the Ohio Valley many times without wearing my helmet, pushing my Sportster 1200 to the limit in the valley’s mind-bending twisties.  As much as I love my hair flying or sporting a naked do-rag, at this point, I have no desire to strip off my helmet and dodge a bunch of numbskulls mindlessly yapping on the their cell phones, and worse, texting while attempting to drive.

In fact, I don’t see myself without a helmet while bicycling in the near future, no matter how innocuous the ride may seem up front. When you have an experience such as I had, it can be a game changer. There are countless pros and cons when looking at the research around helmets. Some research claims helmets cause more injuries, while most claim they prevent injuries. Mostly, the pro-helmet law forces employ simplistic and collectivist arguments to justify their authoritarian posture and lifestyle laws.

Either way, common sense tells me that not wearing a helmet may find me incurring substantial and unnecessary risk. And just one experience demonstrated to me how a collision could potentially turn a productive and happy life into a vegetative state. Your experiences are your own, and no one else can own the consequences of those experiences or relate to your personal misgivings. But then again, just one experience has likely shaped my behavior going forward, for all time. And I still don’t like the helmet nazis.

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13 Responses to Helmet Nazis and the Culture of Fear

  1. jon b says:

    April 21st, 2012 at 2:52 am

    Karen, I too had a near calamity in a bicycle accident. I landed head first, but broke my collarbone. The lesson I learned that time[30 years ago] was not about wearing a helmet. I learned that bourbon and bicycling are incompatible! Along the way I also learned that riding in groups is exponentially more dangerous the greater the number of riders involved. I am very glad that you are alright, you are a great treasure to many of us! I ride with a helmet now. After all it is a ‘brain bucket’. And I despise all safety nazis! JB

  2. Karen De Coster says:

    April 21st, 2012 at 7:56 am

    Jon – I was never too worried about the pack when riding with my racing pals in the old days, but these mom & pop riders are scary. They start out from a dead stop in their highest gear, and thus can hardly pedal the bike, and so they wiggle all over trying to mash their pedals to get going. Funny, but that causes accidents, too.

  3. Bob Wallace says:

    April 21st, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    When I was a kid not only did we not wear helmets riding our bikes (but then, we didn’t have racers that would do 25 miles an hour), we also rode in the back of our father’s pick-up trucks (of course without helmets), which I never see anymore. If it happened these days I suspect the police would pull them over after busybodies with cellphones called in.

  4. Treg Loyden says:

    April 21st, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    I enjoyed your article. I would like to see the helmut that saved you. And I would be even more interested in your opinions on helmuts themselves, since they all cannot be equally good. Finally, as a father of 3 boys ages 5, 7 & 16 and being a kid from the 1970′s who rode banana seat bikes with large u bar handles and never used a helmet (what kid did?) I am being shamed all around by the helmet Nazis. I gave into the helmet Nazis, not because I suddenly appreciate the risk, no, I gave in because the helmet Nazis all got to my boys. As you know confidence is 95% of the game, and I could see they only get that confidence with the helmet on. Game over. Wear the helmet. Riding with fear, I reason, just increases their risk of crashing, so ride with Confidence.

  5. Rojelio says:

    April 21st, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    In response to the Ted talk: I was riding with a pack of guys pretty fast, almost racing. Then one guy went down and broke his rib and smashed his head on the pavement, cracking his helmet in half. I am convinced he would be a retarded man right wearing diapers right now if he had not been wearing a helmet. However, I do understand the points of the talk. Sometimes I do not wear my helmet.

  6. cousin lucky says:

    April 22nd, 2012 at 10:28 am

    Thank Heavens you are all right Ms De Coster!! your article brought to my mind the fear cartoon in Michael Moore’s Bowling For Columbine!

  7. M. Terry says:

    April 22nd, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    I despise busybody Safety Nazis, their rules, and all they stand for. That being said, I’ve ridden a lot of miles on and off road on motorcycles and bicycles. I’ve hit my head (inside a helmet) several times. I always made my own choice to ride with a helmet before the advent of stupid helmet laws.

    I lent a Bell Star helmet to a friend who had just purchased a Yamaha road bike years ago. He was a crappy rider, and split my helmet on a curb. Again, he made his own choice.

    I also know a guy who crashed in a motorcycle-deer collision. I’ll spare the details, but he could likely have been seriously hurt if wearing a helmet at the time.

    Wearing a helmet should be a choice – not a potential revenue source for the helmet police, who gleefully extort money from topless riders.

    Obviously, everyone would be “safer” locked into little rubber rooms. IMO, busybody rule-making crazies should simply mind their own f**king business.

  8. John says:

    April 22nd, 2012 at 7:36 pm

    Glad you survived the crash! In Mexico they say that if all the idiots had wings they would cover the sun. Treg makes a good point. As I kid I did the craziest things, but the bike was one of those heavy balloon tire bikes. Racers are another story, and mountain biking was unknown. Mountains are for hiking, not biking :-) I’ve read that those heavy helmets can also be dangerous because of what can happen to your neck. Maybe a lighter helmet is a good middle ground. Personally, I don’t bike, I walk, and for exercise do intensity sprints once a week. Few of us will live to over a hundred anyway, so basic fitness is enough for me.

  9. Tom Stenzel says:

    April 22nd, 2012 at 7:41 pm

    In 1982 when I was on the PALM (Pedal Across Lower Michigan) bike tour, a 14 year old girl in front of me hit a crack in the pavement and went down. Her head smacked the pavement HARD.

    After she was checked at the hospital she wanted to finish the tour. Her father said she had had enough for the day.

    She was wearing a Bell Biker II, I had never seen a bicycling helmet before that tour. The way she landed, I hate to imagine what could have happened if she wasn’t wearing it.

    Since then I’ve been on an number of tours, including working staff on PALM for 9 years. PALM began to require helmets for, you guessed it, insurance reasons. We couldn’t get affordable insurance without it.

    From my recollection on PALM tours the number one type of crash is bike – bike. Solo bike crashes were second, with railroad crossings that are not dead perpendicular a real problem. Bike – pedestrian were third. Bike – car collisions were rare. A typical PALM ride has about one third novice tourists so the bike -bike collisions are no surprise.

    For myself, I always wear a helmet when I ride my Trek road bike, but almost never when I ride my commuter bike.

    Good to see that your head is in one piece. I hope the rest of your body follows suit straightaway and you can get out and about again!

  10. George Keagle says:

    April 22nd, 2012 at 11:12 pm

    Wearing a hard hat (or helmet) is an option, and probably not a bad choice for many. Consider hard hats the same as safety nets: many troops should perform over a safety net.

    As with seat belts, bike helmets will only save your life if you’re crashing into something or somebody. If you plan on that, I recommend ‘em. However, what’s going to save your life is skilled, safe driving and biking — avoiding dumb accidents — not helmets or seat belts.

    Nannies appear to be born with victim mentalities.

    Geo. Keagle

  11. bw says:

    April 23rd, 2012 at 11:07 am

    I was in a motorcycle accident, sans helmet.. in 1989. 3 Doctors, and 2 accident reconstructionists (lawsuit, both sides of the argument) all agreed that had I been wearing a helmet the damage would have been worse, ranging from broken neck (all agreed on that) to permanent brain injury. This was stipulated in pre-trial motions.. I’m still trying to get all the docs I’d love to scan them and post online.

    That being said, I tend to wear a helmet.. I find the wind protection (+ ear plugs) really makes the ride more enjoyable and I’m less fatigued. However I would never presume to tell anyone how they should ride, if you want to ride in flipflops and shorts.. do it.

  12. Tommy Udo says:

    April 23rd, 2012 at 9:47 pm

    I tend to do my road cycling solo because I find a lot of the people in group rides to be too squirrelly, but I crashed all by myself in March of 2011 when I hit some sand. My head bounced off the ground and I had a mild concussion and some short-term memory loss. My helmet was bashed in on one side and I hate to think what would’ve happened to my skull if I hadn’t been wearing it. But I believe it should be a personal choice, not mandated by the state. And those baby/toddler helmets are assinine.

  13. Robert Noval says:

    May 24th, 2012 at 12:29 am

    I’ve kept this article in mind…

    Sure enough, a Helmet Nazi commented on our Facebook page for Friday’s CM (“safety first everyone! WEAR YOUR HELMETS!”).

    No surprise, as we’ve been drawing over 1200 riders lately.

    You provided the perfect response.

    —Thank You

    https://www.facebook.com/events/102741489865604/

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