Carefree Living is Not Easy

Barefoot

I am conflicted.

I’m sick of yelling at my kids to don a bike helmet and throw on a pair of shoes before they scoot off down the street.

But every time I caution them the image the wizened old lady with wild hair and a “Go Barefoot Earlier in the Spring” bumper sticker on her convertible flashes through my mind.

We live on a cul-de-sac. As they get older and more independent, I feel comfortable letting them play outside without being on full-time watch.

The problem is this; I leave them playing Wimbledon on the driveway to go and sweep up the summer soil they’ve tracked through the house and and the next thing I know they are on their scooters doing loops around the circle at the bottom of the street completely unprotected. Soft, tanned skin against ball-bearing road grit and centrifugal force.

The event that changes the game is usually one of the neighbors coming out with their kids to play on the road, which only adds the several layers of guilt to the situation as she ends up watching my kids while they set a bad example for her toddlers.

I’m not a reckless guy. Riding a motorbike in flip-flops, a T-Shirt and cap seems like a very stupid thing to do. But I don’t want to put my kids in invisible bubble wrap.

It amazes me that they don’t want to wear shoes. If I cross the street barefoot every little bit of gravel gouges into the soles of my feet. I’m sympathetic to the idea of going barefoot. When I guided backpackers on the Routeburn Track in New Zealand’s Southern Alps I met a guy walking the trail without boots.

He grew up in Papua New Guinea. He had shoes but he never wore them. Instead he developed a natural pad of hard skin on his feet, which insulated him from most bumps and pricks. For most of our history this has worked for humans. Many people blame shoes for all sorts of afflictions.

My chiropractor thinks the arch-supporting insole is an insult to evolution. But he is a new-age, anti-establishment type. For a more accessible insight into the perils of the shoe read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.

So let them go barefoot.

But a bruised brain is more consequential than a broken toe, which counts against the wind in their hair argument for being helmet free. My interest in helmets was piqued by a radio interview I heard a few years ago about bike sharing.

Mandatory helmet requirements are fatal to bike sharing programs. The expert on the radio claimed that the benefits of cycling far outweigh the risk of having an exposed noggin at the speeds most urban cyclists move, but requiring helmets like they did in Melbourne, Australia results in far fewer riders.

Melbourne’s 600 bikes where used for 70 rides a day. In drizzly Dublin, Ireland they have over 5,000 daily trips on fewer bikes, and as of 2011 had not experienced a single fatality. (Article in The Grist) Melbourne has since started offering free helmets to riders.

The benefits of a successful bike sharing program are numerous; healthier people, less congestion, cleaner air and safer streets. The more cyclists there are on the road the more drivers are prompted to look out for them, which leads to fewer accidents. Bike share programs also tend to introduce new riders to cycling, which amplifies the good.

Before I let my kids loose completely I decided to do a little research into bike helmets. Four days later I am none the wiser! Oh, the curse of the internet. I feel like I’m trapped in a thicket of conflicting facts, tangential statistics and personal agendas. I can’t even get a straight answer to simple questions like:

Do helmet laws make cycling seem safer or do they “dangerize” it as some anti-helmet law campaigners claim?

Is cycling a more dangerous mode of transport than driving or walking?

Does the speed you are cycling matter?

Apparently, your forward speed makes little difference to the performance of the bike helmet. The force on your head from a fall is all produced by gravity, so what matters the height from which your head starts descending to earth. Now there is a deceptively named “smudging” effect as other parts of your body hit the ground they can slow down the impact of your head which is good for your brain, but not so kind on the parts that get smudged over the road.

Which means falling off your bike while playing that silly little balancing game at the red light is just as risky as falling off at high speed, unless you get thrown up and your head falls from a great altitude, or you hit a vertical object like a lamppost or the back of a big rig.

Does that make sense? Not so fast; if your ride at Olympian speeds your chances of avoiding an accident are lower, so that needs to be factored in to your risk assessment. Then, some people claim wearing a helmet makes cyclists more careless and motorists less wary of them.

So you can see why it is hard to gauge the risk of cycling without a helmet. Is it like the chances of being attacked by a shark; real, but not high enough to stop you swimming in the sea? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean it is risk free.

As one reads the websites railing against mandatory helmet laws it is hard to escape the logic that wearing a helmet is safer than going bare headed. Whatever the consequences for bike sharing or public health, or arguments for making pedestrians wear helmets too, the fact remains in a bike crash any individual is better off with a helmet on.

If the hottie in the car next to you at the lights fails to appreciate your beauty beneath your foam crown that’s a small price to pay. Most of us parents are off the market for hotties anyway.

Parents should encourage our kids to wear them. And we should set the example of helmeting up ourselves.

If you are visiting a city with a bike share program and you have to explain to the kids the concept of risk per hour of exposure before they hop on one of those clunky bikes without a helmet then you have done your job.

Or they a being lazy little sods trying to weasel their way out of a bit of exercise, which is a completely different problem.

A link to most comprehensive anti-bike helmet law website I found.

A link to the opposite point of view (Note this page includes a picture of naked cyclists from a Swedish safety campaign).

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