Thursday, September 26, 2013

Divvy Diary -- If you have a brain, put a helmet over it.

Update: Looks like Divvy peddled in the right direction after all.

    A story on the Atlantic magazine website about the toll that vandalism and theft has taken on the Paris bike sharing system—nearly half the fleet is out of commission— seems to validate how the Chicago program was set up. When Chicago first rolled out Divvy over the summer, the city was roundly criticized for focusing on the downtown and upscale areas, while generally ignoring the poorer regions of the city. But this comparison of Paris to London bike programs suggests that Chicago was smart—the Brits were able to avoid the problems plaguing the French because their system also kept the bikes mostly in the well-monitored core downtown areas. So as much as the do-gooders wish Divvy were all over the metro area, that approach isn't working out in the City of Light.

Thursday's Divvy Diary:

     This column didn't turn out quite the way I intended.  As I rode the Divvy bike around town, sometimes it was convenient not to use a helmet. So I figured it would be good to have the exact risks I was taking before me. That way I could keep riding, bareheaded but informed. Sort of the way that my wife, mixing chocolate chip cookies, will caution me about salmonella poisoning, warnings I then wave off with a "The chances of a raw egg having salmonella are 50,000 to 1," before taking a big wooden spoonful of cookie dough. Knowledge is power.  But I couldn't get my hands on the proper helmet risk numbers, and I ended up committing myself to carrying my helmet around as a facile way to end the column. The pitfalls of opinion journalism.

     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.


  1. Another option: try a folding helmet - I have a Pango folding helmet (bought it off ebay because at the time they only sold them in Europe). It looks and feels like a "normal" helmet and folds to about 1/2 the size of a regular. That said, I've heard bikers quote stats like Lee C. at the Sun-Times comments section and say what you really want are gloves. Still, I think I'd prefer lowering my risk of a cracked skull to cuts on my hands!

  2. Gloves and helmet both. If you take a fall, you'll break the fall with your hands and scrape the skin right off 'em.

    As for the "helmet makes you take risks because you feel safer" bullshit, it's bullshit. People who ride bikes stupidly--without lights at night, when dressed totally in black, people on brakeless fixies, people who swerve recklessly through traffic--are just idiots who think they are invulnerable. Me, I think of them as Future Hood Ornaments and Organ Donors to be Memorialized with Ghost Bikes. I ride 3,500-4,000 miles a year, won't get on a bike without a helmet and gloves, wear visible clothing and use lights at night. The Divvy bikes have built-in front and back lights, at least.

  3. You should have a radio segment as well.

  4. OT-The wheat Chex , I recall that you liked, can be found at WalMart. Probably not in your immediate area but not too far.


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