She had spent the day outside in the freezing cold at an antiwar vigil in front of the White House, then went to Asylum in Adams Morgan to warm up and share a beer with some friends. From there, they rode their bikes toward a supermarket on Georgia Avenue NW. They were going to get ingredients for Spanish rice to make at her home in Petworth and take over to a friend’s party that night.
As urban cyclists go, Tyson was geared up for safety. In addition to her helmet, she had a front light mounted to her handlebars and a rear light on her seat post, as well as reflectors. As she prepared to take a left off of New Hampshire Avenue and onto Quincy Street NW, she turned to look behind her and saw an empty 66 Metrobus. The bus had just turned off its route to return to the depot.
The driver of the Metrobus behind Tyson apparently didn’t catch sight of her lights or reflectors. And the driver didn’t even feel it when she ran Tyson over, bike and all. She also didn’t notice dragging Tyson 80 feet before Tyson’s friend finally caught her attention and got her to stop the bus.
Big vehicles swallowing up young women has a familiar ring to it. Last summer, 22 year old Alice Swanson was killed by a garbage truck making a right turn along R Street NW, just shy of 20th Street. A white painted ghost bike still commemorates Swanson at the corner.
Her death prompted debate on blogs and Web sites about bike safety, mostly by bikers and motorists trying to point fingers. No one wanted to blame Swanson for her own death, but many noted the myriad ways in which bikers put their lives in jeopardy, either by not riding in bike lanes, or by disobeying traffic lights, or by weaving between cars.
None of those scenarios appeared to apply to the case at hand: Swanson, by all accounts, was doing everything right, including wearing a helmet. A recent study by Hunter College students determined that in New York City, only 36 percent of cyclists wore helmets. More female riders (about half) wore helmets than male riders (about a third). They found lower rates of helmet use among messengers.
No such study has focused on usage in the District. Riders commuting downtown during rush hour, wearing loafers and nice pants, usually wear helmets. Cyclists wearing gear like clip on bike shoes or Lycra jerseys or padded shorts generally do so as well. In low income areas, among messengers, and during noncommuting hours, helmet use goes down. Correctly worn, bike helmets are about 70 percent effective in preventing damage on impact. Mary Pat McKay, director of the Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Ronald Reagan Institute of Emergency Medicine, says that with those odds, she doesn’t understand why so many people continue to ride without a helmet. “If I had a magic pill to prevent 70 percent of heart attacks among people with heart disease, they’d want me to put it in the water.”
OK, but drinking water is easy. It doesn’t mess up your hair. It doesn’t make you look like a fool. It doesn’t cost $40. And it doesn’t prevent you from feeling the euphoric caress of the wind running through your locks.
Of course, those are just the most oft cited reasons for exposing your bare skull to collisions with asphalt and concrete. There are other, more creative ones too.
An inventory of helmet excuses, in no particular order:
Scrooge is a 58 year old messenger. You’ve probably seen him riding his cargo bike around, a uniquely engineered contraption with a big round bottomed rack in the front to carry packages.
Scrooge must be the only person ever to fall wearing a helmet and decide never to wear one again. “The helmet didn’t let me feel where I was in space as I was tumbling,” he says. “I didn’t know, when I landed, if I was OK because I didn’t know what had happened.” He says helmets keep you from fully experiencing the space you’re in, so they put you more at risk.
Besides, he says, he doesn’t need it. “I don’t get in accidents.”
Or at least not many. The accident that convinced him not to wear a helmet was what he calls a “normal” accident. City workers had torn up the street, and Scrooge’s bike tripped on a little “lip” of asphalt. “The corner of the street bounced off my head,” he says. He says he bled for a long time and he went to work the next day.
He says he wears helmets only in races to reduce the drag created by his long dreadlocks. bike messenger (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)
Kelly Johnson, 43, says he can’t wear a helmet because he wears headphones when he rides. Which means that not only does Johnson leave himself vulnerable in the case of an accident, but he’s also boosting the chance that such an accident will occur. He also admits that he thinks helmets look “corny.”
Bob Twillger, 28, who has been known to hang out at Capitol Hill Bikes, blames good helmet technology for his failure to wear one. “The lighter the helmet,” he reasons, “the more you put it down, and the more you damage it. It gets kicked around and beat up.” This from a man who takes credit for totaling a Toyota Camry with his forehead. “Every time I get hit, I get wilder,” he says. “More bulletproof.”
“Ninety nine percent of the time I can control my environment, my workspace,” says Andy Zalan, who’s been working as a bike courier for 17 years and doesn’t wear a helmet. “I rode more crazy when I first started. But then I started thinking of it as my career.”
Zalan acknowledges that some accidents are beyond the biker’s control. Like the time he went over the hood of a U turning taxi. He said there was “some blood.”
You’d think that people who spend eight hours a day gaming downtown traffic would want a little extra love padding their tender skulls, but messengers just don’t seem interested. In fact, the amount of time they spend in the saddle persuades them not to wear a helmet. Eight hours is just too long to feel uncomfortable. Or look corny.
## ## Many of those who eschew helmets are faithful glove wearers. Some wear pads on their knees and elbows. Scrooge says if there’s any protection he always wears, it’s gloves. “When you fall, your hands go out to protect the rest of you,” he says.
Kevin Keefe, another lifer still couriering at age 56, avoids helmets, which he says “suck.” But he does wear gloves to avoid road rash, a bigger concern, apparently, than head trauma. (Zalan won’t even wear gloves. “Road rash is temporary, but tan lines are for all summer!” he says.
It’s about knowing what’s going on around you. Messengers ride fast and furious, taking outrageous risks as they weave in and out of traffic, street to sidewalk, wrong way on a one way street, backward and airborne, it sometimes seems. But doing so much hard time in the saddle, they do develop a certain sense for what’s happening on the road. They are good not perfect at predicting cars’ and pedestrians’ behavior.