Monday, October 1, 2012

Bike helmets

An article in the New York Times by Elisabeth Rosenthal says:
In the United States the notion that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries is taken as pretty near God’s truth. Un-helmeted cyclists are regarded as irresponsible, like people who smoke.
Then Rosenthal goes on to point to cities elsewhere in the world which have experienced sharp growth in urban cycling by foregoing laws requiring helmet use, and contrasting the limited use of bikes in Melbourne, Australia, which like U.S. cities has a mandatory helmet law.

I wonder whether other cycling-friendly policies might contribute as much as or more to the popularity of bikes in other cities. Nevertheless, let's take Rosenthal's premise as given, that mandatory-helmet laws dissuade people from ever taking up the activity. I would have no problem making helmet use optional — if injured, helmet-less cyclists were not eligible for medical or long-term treatment on the public's dime.

That is a harsh sentiment, yes. But there are certain activities that should not be underwritten, as it were, by the public. Smoking is one of them: smokers who develop emphysema also would not be eligible for subsidized medical or long-term health care in my world. If you choose to smoke in spite of all the warnings, you have exercised your cherished right to choose ... but your (informed) choice should not require my financial support.

Life is full of hazards for which one cannot be held responsible. Let's help people who suffer accidents. But if you choose to ride without a helmet, that's a choice, just as smoking is (and just as riding a bike without adequate front and rear lights is, for that matter). Lifetime care for a brain-damaged cyclist whose health could have been preserved by an inexpensive helmet — I find it hard to muster a lot of enthusiasm for that.

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