Yet again, I got into a heated discussion with a biker-friend about helmets and safety gear. I'm for it, he's agin' it. In the middle of the battle, he made the statement that if he were forced to wear a helmet, he'd probably quit riding and take up hotrods. Pretty dramatic response, I thought.
My reaction to hearing that statement was to devalue his commitment to motorcycling. I said something politically sensitive like “the only reason you ride a bike is to be seen riding a bike, you don’t really have any kind of serious commitment to being on two wheels.” Having been a motorcyclist for 30 years of his 40-some years on the planet, he took offense to my oversimplification. In fact, he took it as an insult. And we got pretty far off track for a few days. After the shots over the bow died down, I began to think about the opposite situation; my situation. Would I ride if I were required to ride without my full-face helmet, boots, armored jacket and pants, and gloves? My first thought was about the same as my friend's.
I might quit riding.
I'd particularly miss the helmet. I really depend on my Shoei X-9. It, and my ear plugs, have protected my ears from permanent damage for 20-some years. My helmet and a little neckwear keep me cool, hydrated, and safe on hot summer days. With my wimpy-ass respiratory system I absolutely depend on my helmet to keep me warm, able to see, and safe on cold days. Riding with a helmet adds at least three months to my riding season. In comparison, my non-helmeted friend doesn't hit the road until mid-June and he's putting his bike into winter storage in mid-to-late September.
Because of my helmet, I ride with a level of confidence that has become integrated into to my riding style. I have my accident scenarios planned with the assumption that my skull won't be ground down to splinters of bone and blobs of gray goo. We’re talking about years of working out accident avoidance, crashes, and cornering angles with the helmet (and other gear) as critical parts of the plan. At this moment, I do not have a backup plan for what I’d do if I dropped the bike without a helmet. So, would I keep riding if the Feds told me I had to do it bareheaded?
I never ride without a helmet. I know, never say "never." I'll admit to taking short tuning rides in my neighborhood, unprotected and feeling naked as a Penthouse model on camera. But I've never gone any distance, at any speed, without my helmet on my head (not strapped to my luggage rack, hanging from my elbow or mirrors, or clipped to a helmet lock). Putting on the helmet is as automatic as turning the key. The older I get, the more stuff I wear, too. Thirty years ago, I rode in a jean jacket, western-style boots, jeans (usually with a couple of holes in the knees), spandex dirt bike gloves, and a fairly inexpensive open-face helmet. Now I own an Aerostich suit, a heavy armored nylon riding jacket and pants, two pairs of riding boots, an all-weather collection of motorcycle gloves, and a three full-face helmets. I'm more likely to spend spare cash on more protective gear than on accessories for my motorcycle.
At the least, if I had to give up all that safety gear, I'd probably downsize my bike by 400cc. My ride is already a relatively small 650cc, if that gives you an idea of how much I depend on my gear. I’d be a 200-pound, 50cc biker (or moped’er) wearing a bicycle helmet. At the far, most painful end of my options, I'd consider finding another mode of transportation.
But we all know I'm not going to have to make that decision. I happen to be on the politically correct side of this argument. For a change. Maybe, for the first time in my life. This tiny piece of my personal position is safe from bureaucratic interference.
Still, having considered my own commitment to motorcycling, sans headgear, I have a lot more sympathy for my friend's situation if he were forced to wear a helmet. I still think he's making a mistake when he rides unprotected, but I have a lot more respect for his right to be wrong and for his defense of that right. He’s willing to put his life where America’s mouth used to be; “live free or die.” I have a lot more respect for that position today, but we won’t get into that.
MMM May 2003