[messengers] Cycling Without a Helmet

Date: 15 Jan 2010 04:40:20 +0100
From: Michael Dodd <mikeydodds@xxxxxxxxx>

*I* think the sydney morning herald are turning into the good guys....


*"Cathy Duder, the New Zealand police officer who stopped two naked cyclists
at the flashy beach resort of Whangamata just before Christmas, let them off
with a warning - not about the nudity but about the lack of protective
clothing on their heads.*

*On the nudity front she was blase. "They were more shocked than I," she
mused, though that's a little hard to swallow. The chaps were sober, after
all, and must have known they were laying bare their privates for scrutiny.
Yet the senior constable dismissed the nakedness as an innocent bid for
''total freedom''. The absence of headwear, though, that was serious.*

*The incident shows how eccentric NZ really is. I mean yes, it adds piquancy
to the field of bike-seat erotica, from Alexander Waugh's observation that
his great-grandfather Alfred was obsessed by "pretty girls on bicycles" to
Paul Keating's preferred pejorative for investigative journalists as
"bicycle-seat sniffers". Globally, though, it must principally be seen as a
good fashion opportunity squandered, since cycling, you may have noticed, is
suddenly chic.*

*This isn't just about the purist fixies (those uber-primitive bikes without
gears or brakes derived from New York's West Indian courier tribes) versus
sedate '60s ladies' bikes that now, renovated, outsell new ones. Suddenly
there is a whole new world of cycle fashionistas - clothes, bags,
accessories for self and bike including handlebar cup holders.*

*Helmets, however, are decidedly uncool. Many argue helmets save lives. But
the opposing arguments are equally numerous and, actually, pretty plausible.
Not only are proper randomised studies hard to come by - like, where are the
volunteers? There are also unanswered questions about how helmets modify
cyclists' behaviour, making them less likely (some say more) to take risks.
Or how helmet-wearing relates to personality type and gender (the causality
here being reversed).*

*But the point really is this. Countries with highest bike use and no helmet
laws also have fewest bike fatalities - Denmark and the Netherlands being
the most obvious. Copenhagen initiated the Slow Bicycle Movement, the
non-lycra approach to cycling. There, 37 per cent of commutes and a
staggering 55 per cent of all trips are by bike. In Sydney, where cyclists
are routinely spat on and abused, it's more like 1 per cent, but rising.*

*In London I used to cycle everywhere, not at first from choice - though it
did prove addictive - but because driving was like pushing slugs through
mud, and the alternatives even more disgusting. I'm saddened to report I
never cycled nude, or for that matter helmeted, but I did do it in peach
suede stilettos, long diamante earrings, houndstooth miniskirt, fur-lined
mittens and ankle-deep snow, sometimes all at once. Only for the snow was I
stopped by police.*

*No such nonsense in Sydney. Arriving here we were advised to quit cycling,
much as they tell you to move to the burbs to procreate. (Why children have
this special claim to mind-numbing boredom I've never understood although
perhaps, again, the causality is inverted; it's the tedium that aids

*"Nup," they shook their heads sagely. "No one cycles here. London, sure,
people have manners. Not here. Much too dangerous." And for a while - OK, a
decade - I caved in. Sold the bike, played safe. As a mother you feel
obliged to stay more or less alive.*

*Now I've thought again. Not about survival, about cycling. And not just as
exercise - twice round the park with the lycra legions then fossil-fuel-it
home for breakfast - but as transport. I like streets, real world, feeling
purposeful. I also like those little bike-logos, strewn round the streets
like welcome mats. They change nothing, legally, except how it feels on that
fragile, whizzy machine. And, it finally dawned, only if people do it, will
people do it.*

*Plus - and this is key - it's fun. Exhilarating, even, to arrive at the
opera or the formal meeting with raised pulse, no parking worries and zero
emissions. It has a rakish, adventurous quality - not nude, but close.*

*Imagine my surprise then to be recently stopped by police. Not for being
nude (which I wasn't) or even for riding on a footpath without appropriate
signage (which I was). "We're cracking down on cyclists without helmets,"
said the coppers, writing my details into their notebooks.*

*A true road warrior would have checked their credentials. How did I know
they even were cops, not petrol-head thugs on a road-rage revenge binge? But
I was fully occupied not coming back with some kind of kamikaze quip.
"Cracking down, officer? On cycling without helmets? You kidding me? What
about cracking down on our third-generation neighbourhood smack dealers over
there? Or the local housebreaking fraternity?"*
*The best way to encourage cycling is enhancing safety, but the best way to
do that is to increase numbers. Circular argument. Fining cyclists won't
help. Cycle lanes will (instead of promises); stopping the gas-and-telco
guys leaving long, tyre-grabbing road scars; smoothing kerb crossings that
are routinely the size of the Tamarama escarpment; giving priority at
lights. Then maybe your standard cyclists will behave more like homo sapiens
and less like, well, Tony Abbott. But next time you're tempted to nude
highway cycling, remember, the roads are to share. Like the sign says. Cover
your load. Fines apply. Mine eyes dazzle"*