Today was "Bike (or walk) to School Day" around here. We have two extra kids staying with us for a couple of weeks while their mom is out of state with the National Guard, so it was a bit more of a production for us to participate, but the kids were motivated so we did it. It was Quinn's first time biking to school since he learned how to ride last summer, so he was really proud of himself, and I was impressed that he had no problem doing the nearly two mile route. Our youngest guest doesn't bike yet, but she took her scooter about a third of the way before that became too much and we packed her up into the bike trailer for the rest of the trip. It was a lot of fun, and definitely something worth making the effort to do again.
This got me thinking, though, about one of the choices I make that diverges from the norm in parenting circles nowadays:
I prefer not to wear a bike helmet. I hate them. I have a nice one, and I do wear it when I know I will be using busy streets or I'm participating in an event where it's required, but otherwise? No thanks. And when just biking around the neighborhood? I don't make my kids wear them either.
My kids all own bike helmets. On the long ride to school, or anywhere that involves riding in the street, I make them put them on, but if they are just biking around the block or in the alley I do not. If they want to wear their helmets that's up to them, and most of the time they do, but it's not a rule.
I know this might be shocking to some other parents because I seem fairly reasonable, and this is about safety! The children! Head injuries! But when I look at the relevant information out there I'm not convinced. If helmets are such a good idea we should be wearing them while just walking around, and I don't see anyone doing that. Based on head injury data and teenagers they should be wearing helmets in cars, and that's not going to happen.
I think it's always interesting to see where different people draw the line at certain risks. I don't take many, frankly, which may look boring. I have never had a drink, I don't smoke, I've never tried recreational drugs, I don't keep a gun in my home, I leave the safety guards on my power tools.... I see people engage in behaviors every day that make me uncomfortable who would also be quick to judge my choice to bike without a helmet. I think that's fascinating.
I always wear a seat belt in the front of the car. That's the law, and it's what I'm used to and I don't mind it. Cars are dangerous, and seat belts are a good idea. But I remember once, years ago when I was in some odd situation where one of my kids was alone in the backseat of the car on a booster, and we were about six blocks from home and there was a seat belt problem and I said to sit tight and not worry about it. When we got home my kid said, "Whew! I didn't get hurt!" And I laughed and said, "Your seat belt has never done ANYTHING. It's there in case of a crash, but we haven't had a crash. We wear it just in case, and I hope it never has to do anything, but no, your seat belt has not actively all this time kept you from getting hurt."
Helmets also don't magically make you safe. There are even some studies that correlate increased helmet use with higher incidents of injury (for a variety of reasons). The best way to keep bikers safe is by increasing their numbers so that drivers become more aware of them. Enforced helmet use actually detracts from that goal.
Am I arguing that in an accident helmets don't protect you from head injury? No, of course they do. (Although they do nothing to prevent concussions.) When I do any long distance biking or have to share roads with drivers I don't trust I always wear my helmet. But on a typical bike trip to work where I may only cross one busy intersection and otherwise remain on calm and pleasant side streets, I leave my helmet at home.
For me, the fun of riding my bike is being free. It's one of the few times I feel exactly the way I did when I was a kid (back when I don't remember anyone ever wearing a helmet). I love that sensation of coasting on a beautiful day where it's like flying, with the wind in my face and hair. It's glorious. A helmet clamped to my head like some kind of salad bowl with straps around my chin diminishes that pleasure just enough that if I had to endure it every time in order to bike I might not bother. It's hard for me to lose awareness of a helmet when I'm wearing one. It's distracting, irritating and unpleasant. So for me, not wearing it is worth the risk.
I leave that choice to my children as well, which may seem outrageous to others, but we'll just have to agree to disagree. It's a nearly literal example of "bubble wrapping" our children, and there is enough of that in our culture. (We don't even own knee or elbow pads, people. My kids can survive an occasional scraped knee.)
In the meantime, I'm looking forward to the daily bike ride to school and back. It's still cold here, but I'm glad that my kids want to get up early and brave the chill in the air. It's worth it to have that extra time together, spotting different kinds of birds in the park as we go, and to get everyone moving for half an hour before they settle in at school. I'm glad they love to bike because I love it, too. (Just, you know, not with a helmet.)