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When In Rome, Or, “Darling! Avert Your Eyes!”

Some comments I saw on a friend’s FB page concerning this wonderful video of Dutch kids arriving at school and filling a bicycle parking lot with their bikes got me thinking generally about some of the general differences between “us” and “them” (bicycle education and type of bicycle ridden) but also about one major difference in particular: helmets. Some of the comments indicated many non-Europeans aren’t aware of the bike education Dutch kids get, nor did they appreciate the kind of bike the Dutch kids are riding, and they definitely are perturbed by the lack of helmets.

Education: The Dutch provide bicycle education to kids: how to ride the bike, of course, but also how to negotiate road markings, signs and traffic (both car and bike). But it’s not like they are robots… they are still kids. And they manage to get safely to school and back under their own steam.

Bikes: Note that the kids in the video are on upright “utility” bikes, and not on “toy” bikes like the BMX bikes, mini mountain-bikes or currently trendy “fixies” that are the standard for North American and Australian kids. The utility bikes are much easier to ride and do not lend themselves to the hi-jinks one would expect from a youngster. So, they are safer.

Helmets: Somebody commented “Where are all the helmets?” I have come to expect that question among North American, Australians and to some degree the English, where cycling is more a sport/exercise than a normal means of transportation and in some jurisdictions kids and even adults may not ride a bike without a helmet. But I wonder what “helmet people” here (The USA and Australia are the places that in my personal experience seem the most dogmatic about bike helmets) do when they visit continental Europe, where people get around on bikes as much as they do in motorized transport, and see that there are many more cyclists on the roads by magnitudes and – except for occasional young bike racer types – virtually none of them wear helmets? Even on roads in cities like Paris, among vehicular traffic?

After school shopping, Bordeaux

After school errands, Bordeaux, 2012

By way of background, I was raised in the “pre-helmet” USA so, for me, it is normal for cyclists of all ages to ride without a helmet, regardless of the style of cycling. I rode and raced a bike as a kid, but only when racing did I wear a little leather strap “hairnet” helmet. As an adult, when racing (but not otherwise) I wore a hairnet until about April of 1986 when the bike racing governing body in the USA mandated “hardshell” helmets. And even in 1987, in France, I raced without any helmet at all. While I haven’t raced since the eighties, I have ridden a racing bike regularly since then but it never occurred to me to wear a helmet until the late 2000s, when, frankly, I realized I was the only one who didn’t have one. I can’t say exactly what made me don one (and no I have never bumped my head).

But, newer cyclists (US and Australian) have evolved the idea that a helmet is part of cycling. And I wonder: what would be their reaction when faced with the absence of helmets in continental Europe? Would it cause a reassessment of the belief that helmets are required for all cycling? Or would it be patronizingly dismissed as a “When in Rome” peculiarity like red wine at lunch, topless women at the beach and public breast-feeding? Because many American, Australian and English cyclists must go to Paris, where helmetless cyclists on the road, among cars, are the norm and there is no great incidence of head injuries.

More specifically, I’m curious about the mindset of those people – cyclists and non-cyclists alike – who feel it warranted to shout “Where’s your helmet?” to complete strangers who pedal past them bare-headed (whether you are riding 20MPH on a street or 5MPH on the grass). I’ve seen kids on tiny training-wheeled bikes scolded by condescending strangers for pedaling around on the grass without helmets in the USA and in Australia.

I wonder what those people would do if they were transported to the street corner in this video I made last summer near the Louvre in Paris.

Would they simply “not see” the bareheaded cyclists? Would they see the cyclists, but cynically, write it off to some European deficiency?

Or, possibly, would they reassess their mindset?




David Huntsman

Husband, father, cyclist, lawyer

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