An admitted shoe geek waxes philosophical about running, triathlon, and life in general.
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Monday, July 8, 2013

Safety vs. Damage Control

I got a chuckle this morning on my way to work -- the driver of a car that stopped at a red light beside me was trying to engage me in some conversation. I had trouble hearing him over the engine noise and the traffic crossing the other direction, so I scooted closer.

"Pretty economical way to go, eh?" I finally heard him say.

"Sure, but I mostly just like to ride," I replied.

"How many miles per gallon?" Okay, now I knew he was just trying to make some fun, being the smart-guy in front of the two passengers in his car.

"About two-thousand," I said.

"Hey, I'll give you ten bucks to run this red light."

"I'll pass."

"What? You're wearing a helmet! You're safe. Yeah, I thought you'd be scared..."

At that point the light turned green and we were off. But it reminded me of something that is prevalent in motorcycling and bicycling -- the mixed up idea that we wear "gear" to be safe.

In motorcycling, there's armored jackets, armored gloves, boots with ankle support and sliders, full-face helmets... ATGATT (All The Gear, All The Time) is the mantra drilled into us by our "safety" instructors from before we even throw a leg over the seat.

In the US of A, if you race a bicycle, you wear a helmet. Period. And since about 1985, many states, counties, and municipalities require cyclists on the road to wear helmets. It's the "safe" thing to do, right?

Well, I submit that all this gear, the helmets, have NOTHING to do with safety. Nada. Bupkiss. Zilch. 

Don't get me wrong -- I wear a helmet every time I ride any of my bikes. In fact, the only time I ever DON'T wear a helmet when astraddle a bike is when I'm giving a worked-on bike at the shop a shake-down in the parking lot to either hunt down that elusive tick/creak/squeal/thunk or afterwards to make sure it's quieted and shifting right. On the motorcycle, I've got a full head-to-toe get up that I wear (with variations for temperature) every time I ride. So what's the deal?

I'm not fooled into thinking that any of this gear makes me "safe". Why?

Safety is all about what happens BEFORE the unscheduled get-off. It's how aware you are of what's going on around you and how you react to it. That bubble of awareness where you are keeping tabs on every potential threat and friendly. It's about respecting what's around you and under you, knowing what to do on an instinctual level so that there isn't any time wasted thinking about it. It's about being predictable and visible. It's about knowing the limits of your machine and NEVER going over them. It's about not doing Stupid Things to put yourself into danger.

Gear is all about damage control -- limiting how broken up you are once Safety fails. There are situations where you can train some amount of physical reactions to limit damage, like how to roll when the bicycle is no linger under you (and how NOT to roll when the same thing happens with a motorcycle). The lid is about keeping the pulp inside the melon. It doesn't make you safe, but it may keep you alive, with fewer broken bones.

Why is this important? Because I see so many people admonish their kids to put on their helmet before they ride, and then send them out the door with NO instruction on how to ride on the street -- it's the motorists responsibility to avoid them now... That's not safety. That's just trusting in an increasingly untrustworthy population, and thinking that an inverted beer cooler makes them safer riders.

Don't be that kind of rider. Don't be that kind of parent. TEACH safety. If you need to, get some instruction on riding safely. Pass that knowledge along.

Be safe out there.

And wear a helmet. It not the "safe" thing to do, but it is smart.


Christopher Morelock said...

Great post and well said, the safety equipment is for when being safe fails!

Chris Bonner said...

You couldn't be more right. I wish everyone in America would hear this message, because most of them have safety completely backwards. I sum it up like this: Safety is what you do, not what you wear.

The best way to avoid being hurt in a crash is to not crash, and HELMETS DO NOT PREVENT CRASHES.

But that's the American way; trying to solve our problems with technology instead of behavior.