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Divvy diary: Helmets for cyclists a no-brainer, usually

Updated: October 28, 2013 6:12AM

The luncheon at the Standard Club went well. My talk rocked. I walked out in maximum good spirits into a gorgeous early autumn afternoon, way the heck across the Loop from the newspaper. But right there is a Divvy stand, at Jackson, with a shiny chorus line of baby-blue Divvy dreadnoughts, lined up and waiting.

My Bell helmet is back in my office, perched atop the Selectric II. But the fob is in my pocket. A 20-minute walk versus a 5-minute ride. Hmm. I deploy the fob, yank out a bike and ride back, in my business suit, tie flapping over my shoulder like a flag.

Reckless? Many Divvy riders obviously don’t think so. Last week I counted five Divvy cyclists in a row, all without helmets. The Divvy folks caution you to always wear one, but you’re supposed to floss daily, too.

When you roll out of bed, you assume risks. The National Safety Council estimates the chances of dying from a fall is 1 in 163, twice as likely as dying from a handgun. Yet we get up, take showers, stroll around. People cross the street without helmets.

I believe in statistics, but trying to find a simple helmet/no helmet risk breakdown proved impossible, and what stats exist are subject to all sorts of political spin, as wind-in-our-hair bicyclists, frantic to avoid legal mandates, argue that helmets are optional, even dangerous (by inspiring false sense of invulnerability, which sounds nuts, but that’s what they say). In raw numbers, walking is far more deadly: 4,432 pedestrians killed in 2011, versus 670 bicyclists. But then, there are far more people walking than riding. If you’re going to use stats as your guide, you’ll avoid crosswalks, because that’s where most fatal pedestrian accidents occur.

Seeking clarity. I abandoned stats for a different approach: anecdotal evidence.

“As an emergency room physician, we are huge advocates for helmets because of what we see,” said Dr. Rahul Khare, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital for the past 10 years. “It’s lifesaving, there’s no question about it.”

No debate that if you hit your head on the sidewalk, you want a helmet. But is the risk of not wearing a helmet an acceptable hazard, like the risk of dying from salmonella when you lick chocolate-chip cookie dough off a wooden spoon? Or is it foolish?

“It’s in the literature, how much it saves lives,” said Khare, who admits to sometimes jumping on a Divvy without a helmet. He faulted the Divvy program for making the bikes available to novices without also stressing the need for helmet safety.

“It’s a problem,” he said. “Look around: People that don’t usually ride are on Divvy bikes, and they don’t have helmets on. It will become an issue, a public health concern.”

This is an area where peer pressure helps. While I don’t think yelling “Get a helmet, idiot,” is the way to go, the fact is, the more people wear helmets, the more others will follow. I’ll tell you what nudged me off the fence into the helmet camp. I was on the train Tuesday and noticed a helmet dangling off the backpack of Jerry Duan.

“My wife insisted,” said Duan, 43. “I came from China, and no one does this. Initially, I saw so many ride bikes without it, I figured, I can do this too.” But his wife persuaded the financial systems developer that a helmet is “a necessary safety measure.”

“I just got used to it,” Duan said.

That isn’t what persuaded me, though. I asked Duan where he rode to from Union Station — I assumed the helmet was for a Divvy bike downtown. No, he corrected me. His office is close; the helmet is for his ride between home and the Glenview train station. That gave me pause. If this guy finds a helmet necessary riding his bike across the echoless voids of the Northwest suburbs, with their wide roadways and generally less-crazy drivers, how could I not wear one in the sensory overload, peril-coming-at-you-from-all-directions, Popeye-cartoon-lunacy of the Loop?

A few days later, I had an appointment at Aqua Tower. I’d never consider showing up for an interview toting a helmet, but times change and we change with them. I carried my helmet. No one seemed to mind.

The next day, I left 17 N. State, helmetless, and hopped a bike at the Daley Center for the quick jaunt to the paper. Suddenly, my huge Mardis Gras parade character head felt exposed. Back at my office, I lifted my helmet off the Selectric II — imagine “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme music playing in the background — and had a moment similar to when the apemen realize a bone is a club. I zippered open a compartment in my big, expandable, soft-sided briefcase. I jammed the helmet in. I zipped the briefcase shut. I gave it an exploratory lift. You don’t even know the helmet is in there. Smart.


Twitter: @NeilSteinberg

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