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The Sacrificial Helmet

Is riding without a helmet a triumph of individualism or proof you’re swimming in the shallow end of the gene pool?

I hear a group of six or seven motorcycles gaining on a remote stretch of beautiful New Hampshire back road. I inch my VW bus to the right and one-by-one they shoot past. Ahead is a tight curve on a steep incline, and despite their rag-tag appearance—adventure bikes, sport bikes, a pair of cruisers—they’re in close formation and travelling quickly.


None of the riders are wearing helmets.

As the final bike disappears around the bend, my body convulses as if I’d waded shoeless into a stream filled with broken glass. Once I, too, rode without a helmet. On a motorcycle trip to the Atlantic coast we’d stopped for the night in North Conway, New Hampshire. The distance to the restaurant from the motel was slightly beyond a comfortable walk, and helmet-less I hopped on my bike for the three mile ride to dinner. I wanted to see what it was like. It was terrifying.

The wind noise—at 30 mph—was alarming. Add to that the engine’s clattering and random environmental sounds (a slammed car door boomed like fireworks) and it was difficult to focus attention on the enveloping traffic. Earplugs would have helped, but far more alarming than the racket was the sense of vulnerability. Every tree, post, sign, curb—even the surface of the road itself—was threatening. 

When I parted ways with my Ducati (alas, if you race, these things happen) I landed on my head with the elegance of a Nazca booby chick punted from the nest to its death by a selfish sibling. (Siblicide, it’s called, as anyone with siblings knows.) My helmet was destroyed, and the force of the crash jammed the base of the helmet down on my collarbone, snapping it. But my head was fine. Is it necessary to converse further on the usefulness of helmets?

The anti-helmet lobby and its disciples have characteristics akin to those who support the National Rifle Association or who deny climate change—namely, that it’s more important to have the right to make lamentable decisions (or to repudiate science) than it is to have reasonable measures imposed upon you. That a gun in the house means you’re far more likely to shoot your daughter sneaking in late than any thief is secondary. Nor does it matter that aggressive emissions policies could cool the warming. What matters is that no politician—politician!—has the right to make decisions on your behalf. I understand the impulse. My mother’s unrelenting insistence upon oral hygiene made me a brusher after every meal, and, long after her death, I harbour mild resentment toward her for it. That my dentist praises the condition of my teeth and gums makes no difference. I’m still irked at my mother. But I brush. And I’m grateful for her insistence upon it.

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