Meditations on the Helmet Wars

Related links: De's Bicycle Page and Alternative Transit Page,
Helmet Sound Bites
Helmet URLs
Do Helmets Work?
Conventional Helmet Beliefs
Better Strategies for Cyclist Safety

The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.

-- Iris Murdoch, The Red and the Green

I've got my helmet on
Nothing can do me wrong

-- The Bobs

Perhaps as a defense against automobile culture or in obedience to a more deep seated consumer culture, those of us who continue to ride no longer get on a bike just to go where we are going, or even just for the simple pleasure of taking a look at what's around the corner.

When I leave the house on my bike, I'm not just going for a spin, and I've usually spent 20 minutes setting up and getting myself appropriately attired for my training ride. I'm not a kid on a bike living out a protracted youth, but an aging weekend warrior, preparing myself for battle in an obsessive-compulsive ritual. Those who commute, don't simply get on a simple bicycle and ride to work in their "street" clothes (except for Jeff Davis), as countless people do in other countries . . .

[Editorial note: . . . but I still do! :-)]

-- Tony de Jong, Alberta Bicycle Ass'n, 1999

Among the bike community discussion groups and mailing lists, the Helmet Wars rage on. The issue is MHL (mandatory helmet laws) as enacted in Australia and in about 20 US states. Some mandate helmet wearing for all cyclists under a certain age (18 in CA), others mandate helmet wearing for all cyclists regardless of age. In the US, all-ages laws are so far only enforced in specific cities or in certain state parks. The state-wide laws are enforced for various definitions of "youth" or "children."

Basic situation: in an MHL town, county, province, park, or state, you can get a hefty ticket if the cops catch you riding a bike with your noggin bare, hatted, ski-masked, or anything but helmeted.

The URLs on this page and the main Bike Page will lead you to more statistics, counter-statistics, sermons, flames, etc. than you will have the patience to wade through. I've collected a few relevant soundbites if you prefer the condensed edition :-)

What follows is my personal take on the issue, or rather the related issues that it raises; this is not to be construed as an endorsement or condemnation of helmet wearing per se, but a meditation on what the Helmet Wars mean, what all this fuss tells me about the world I'm living in. In fact, this isn't even an essay, more like a series of related rambles, musings, and the occasional rant.

I'll admit right up front that I'm not in favour of MHL. So you pro-helmet fanatics can start gnashing your teeth already :-) I sincerely doubt that helmet wearing has harmed very many people, apart from a tiny handful of unfortunate schoolchildren whose legally mandated helmets have strangled them. In fact, helmeting may be the sensible choice for some riders (especially the more extreme downhill MTB-ers). However, I think the decision to helm or not to helm should be a personal one; "nanny laws" do bother me, and so does the general climate of US politics and popular opinion regarding bikes. I think the MHL syndrome is more indicative of social prejudices and spin control than of genuine attestable risk and prevention.

This essay is long and rambling, so I've tried to chop it into sections more or less by theme:

Our correspondent reports on the Helmet Wars

Let's see if I can sum up the arguments on each side, without being grossly unfair. The pro-helmet lobby in the US wants MHL for all cyclists. Their reasoning is as follows:

The opposition point of view is varied.

My own viewpoint is somewhat askew from either of the extreme camps; though I share the skepticism and the distaste for nanny-laws expressed by the MHL opposition, I wouldn't accuse MHL proponents as being outriders of the new Nazi State either. (The new Corporate HMO State maybe, but I doubt goose-stepping is on the agenda; you might sprain something doing that.) Some are quite sincere persons, who imho have an exaggerated perception of the riskiness of cycling. Those who assert that MHLs are some kind of conspiracy to pave the way for centralized thought control are also guilty of exaggeration.

I do think one can make a case for MHLs as a symptom or indicator of the consumer/corporate/car culture, a troubling sign of the normalization of the excessive and damaging use of cars and the marginalization and stigmatization of cycling and other non-automotive means of getting around. We might also see them as an indicator (not a conspiracy, please) that controlling individuals is an easier target than challenging privileged institutions

In fact, I'm more interested in MHL as a symptom than as an absolute phenomenon. So far, my own state of CA has not tried to impose all-age helmet law. I have heard it said that the city of San Francisco has one, but cannot confirm this; those who live there don't seem to know about it, anyway. Chico and Bidwell Park have all-ages MHL, but I am unlikely to bike through either of those places anyway. So it's still a philosophical issue for me.

And what a fascinating philosophical issue! Why is it that in some countries in Europe where cycling is far more universal a transport mode than in the US, hardly anyone wears a helmet yet bike accident casualties are remarkably low? Why is it that in the US, when one raises the subject of bicycle safety, there is only one popular answer: Bike Helmets? How has the bike safety issue in the US been turned away from Livable Cities, traffic calming, reduction of auto use, etc. -- and solely focussed on plastic hats? Why are bike injuries and fatalities so heavily publicized, whereas fatalities from other traffic-related causes are often hardly discussed at all? Why is bike riding being singled out as a Traffic Safety Issue?

And why, in allegedly liberty-loving America, where handguns are easily available, gun control is repeatedly defeated, universal healthcare is barely on the political radar, and Less Government is the motto of the day, is there such popular support for Big Brother helmet laws? It just don't seem Amurrican, nohow.

So who am I to talk about these things?

Well, for a start, I ride a bike every single day. And I have never worn a helmet except when a bike shop made me wear one to take a test ride on one of their bikes. I have ridden a bike, on a regular commute/shopping basis (not just for recreation) in the USA for over 20 years. In that time I have had not one serious accident, despite putting several thousand miles on various bikes. I also never had a serious accident in any car I ever drove. Therefore, my perspective is that of a person who either has good judgment or good luck (maybe both).

It's true that cars have tried to kill me :-) but I always assume that all people in cars are Mafia hit-persons hired to eradicate me, so I'm expecting it. Maybe that's why they failed. Or maybe my time as a motorcyclist sharpened my reflexes and sense of self-preservation; the stakes are higher when the bike weighs 500 lbs and travels at 60+ mph. Who knows? Perhaps it has something to do with obeying vehicle code, carrying lights at night, using a rear-view mirror, and similar competent riding techniques which are almost never mentioned by "bike safety" programs because they are so busy promoting helmets.

I am also a small-craft sailor (another activity which many landlubbers would describe as horrifyingly dangerous), and I appreciate and respect the need for safety equipment on boats. I comply with Coast Guard regulations. However, note that the USCG does not mandate that you wear a life vest. It does mandate that you carry aboard your boat sufficient PFDs (life vests) in good condition, to equip every person aboard. In other words, you must offer your crew and passengers the option of wearing a vest, and you must provide them in case of emergency. You must not prevent people from having access to safety gear. But the USCG will not pull you over and ticket you for not wearing yours. I consider this a very reasonable form of enforcement; thou shalt not be an irresponsible skipper, but thou shalt be considered an adult and entitled to make thine own assessments of conditions, risk, and so forth. The USCG is not your nanny, and that seems appropriate to me.

Small craft sailing (and recreational boating in general) are considered dangerous by most people; in a typical year there are between 800 and 900 fatalities in the US, about comparable to deaths by aeronautical mishap. Keep those numbers in mind as you read on.

Dangerous as compared to what??

A lot of my friends in college were sincere environmentalists and radicals of various stripes. Nowadays almost all of them own shiny new cars. I seem to be the last one carting the groceries home on a bike. In fact, my friends are driving their shiny new cars distances of 3 miles and less to get to their jobs, 2 miles and less to go to the store. They are not ignorant. They know this is the most polluting and least fuel-efficient use of an automobile. They know that traffic is spoiling the coastal town we all love. They feel the guilt!

But when I ask them why their bikes sit idle in the garage, almost every one of them will say, "It's just too scary. I don't feel safe on a bike. Bikes are dangerous."

Certainly the propaganda campaigns carried out by helmet law lobbyists have created a widespread public consensus that bikes are very dangerous. Actual mortality and accident statistics don't seem to bear this out (more below), but often the propagandists don't bother with numerical analysis: they go for the gut reaction.

The BHSI (Bike Helmet Safety Institute), a zealous but not demented helmet advocacy group, has compiled many first-person, heart-wrenching accounts of bike accidents in which the narrator inevitably concludes "when I looked at the damage to my helmet I just knew it had saved my life." The language of these first-person minatory tales is colourful and scary. You can see that even a few of these would make a big emotional impact on the naive reader.

Unfortunately, without analysis of the helmet damage by a very well-equipped forensic lab, these assertions are not substantiated. In fact, they are no more automatically credible than the equally sincere protestations of those who credit their lucky rabbit's foot, angelic intervention, prayer, psychic foreknowledge, or other unverifiable causes with their survival of some traumatic event. The anecdotal testimony of this extraordinarily accident-prone group of cyclists is no more conclusive than my own "charmed life" as related above. I therefore dismiss this type of "Jesus healed me" evidence and would prefer to stick strictly to the published literature and statistics.

Does the published literature, including actuarial and highway fatality statistics, support the idea that bicycles are very dangerous?

What am I looking for in the published literature and the statistics?

There are three essential questions here for me.
(1) Is bike head injury fatality a significant risk to me and to society, justifying governmental intervention and curtailment of my individual freedom? As a sub-issue, is it the government's appropriate business to dictate my risk-avoidance strategy to me? If so, under what circumstances? and what are the implications?
(2) what does it mean that here in the US, there is such a fuss and furore over bike helmets in general? Are there other things that we are not making a fuss about, that are scarier than bikes? The art of government is very often the art of prestidigitation; make the audience look where the real action is not happening.
(3) Do helmets actually do what they are said to do, i.e. protect one's noggin and consequently one's life in crash situations? Is the fad for helmets based on factual evidence of their correct design and engineering for the purpose, or not? If they don't actually insure the rider against fatal injury or lifetime debility, then why are we embroiled in this debate?

The first two questions, being philosophical and interwoven, lead me on a meander that lasts for several pages. The last, being more rooted in fact, gets a separate page all to itself.

Dangerous enough to be rude about?

Having just thumbed my nose at anecdotal evidence, I'm going to start out by providing some :-) . . . I have been accosted or admonished more than once in the last few years by well-meaning (I think) youngsters who feel it their duty to lecture me on my recklessness in riding unhelmed. Once or twice I have even had a nasty surprise when some officious (always male) person would bellow "get a helmet!" while blazing by me at high speed. The rudeness of this approach, needless to say, hasn't sweetened my attitude to MHLs. It's a good thing I'm a steady and confident rider, because the shock value of these sudden shoutings-at could easily have caused a novice to crash.

Given that Americans (except those in cars) are generally timid to the point of cowardice when it comes to public confrontations (we prefer to shoot at people, rather than argue with them), why are people prepared to be so rude and intrusive over a matter of personal risk management? Whence the zealotry? Whence the urgency? Tolerance is held high among American virtues -- even tolerance of hate speech. So what sense of mission, drama, and urgency inspires this uncharacteristic sermonizing?

According to the usually accepted statistics, there are 900 deaths from bicycle crashes in the US each year. That's about the same number as recreational boating deaths per year. According to the Helmet Advocates, we could eliminate as many as 85 percent of those by imposing hefty fines on anyone caught riding a bike unhelmeted. (This statistic has been challenged, by the way, and competing statistics range from 1 percent, to 15, 30 and 75 percent -- all over the map. The jury is still out.) The cost of police and court enforcement of those fines is usually not discussed, but let's assume it to be not quite negligible; maybe it would be covered by the fines themselves (sums of $80 and more have been levied on "offenders" in some states).

Now, the urgency of any risk situation depends on its statistical relationship to other present risks. Or, in simple English, if you're on the Titanic and about to jump into the sub-40-degree North Atlantic water as the stern section crashes, you're not too worried about having left your dental floss behind in your cabin. Does the urgency (as expressed by rudeness/officiousness) of bike helmet evangelists reflect a realistic assessment of present social risks?

How about a quick statistical tour? Each year in the US there are around 40,000 deaths caused by automobiles. In a typical year, say 1998 (from the US FARS and GES databases) the death toll on US roads looks like this:

A goodly chunk of all these deaths are usually from head trauma, just as a hefty share of mortality from falls, construction accidents, ski mishaps, etc. is from head trauma. Why? Well, when you want to kill a small mammal you break its neck, and when you want to kill a mid-size mammal you whomp it on the head. That's what a "knacker's mallet" is for, and it works pretty well. Absent an edged weapon or a gun, the good ol' knock on the head is the easiest way to usher a mid-size mammal out of this world. So it's not surprising that when we do silly things, or when others are careless in our vicinity with large dangerous toys, it's often the Major Head Bonk, or the whiplash, or the cervical torsion, that does us in.

Probably about half of the folks who died inside trucks and cars died of cervical and intercranial trauma. Yet there is no serious proposal to make motorists and passengers wear helmets inside their cars. Even if we suppposed that a mere 1/50th of these deaths were from head trauma the same number of "lives per year" would be saved by making car drivers and passengers wear helmets. (See References on the URLs page for real numbers). But there is no urgency about forcing car drivers to wear helmets. In fact, most people will laugh like heck if you suggest it.

Now a tip of the hat to the animal rights activists: not only humans are killed by cars. Every year about 500,000 (half a million) animals are killed by cars on US roads and highways. There is no particular urgency on anyone's part to reduce this death toll, despite the undeniable social cost in human suffering (have you ever seen a kid whose pet dog has just been squished?) or road cleanup. Nor is there much urgency about the gradual (or accelerated) decline towards extinction of species whose numbers are decimated and whose territory is carved up and destroyed by highways and freeways.

I don't think I have ever seen nice young bike people earnestly lecturing passing motorists about the dangers posed to themselves and to society by car driving, much less anyone yelling "Murderer!" or "Animal Hater!" at passing cars. I did once see a young woman pound on a car's hood and then throw sticks and rocks at it; but the car driver had just almost run her down, so her outburst was personal rather than political in nature :-)

Each year in the US, over 30,000 people (some say as many as 60,000) die from lung disease and other impacts of air pollution, specifically the pollution (smog) produced by the private automobile. Yet EPA regulations are cut back and back, and more and more Americans happily drive around in gas-guzzling, highly polluting SUVs and mid-weight trucks. We don't seem to feel any national urgency about reducing this death toll. Very few cyclists have the huevos (or the suicidal impulse) to yell "Get out of your gas guzzling tank!" at passing drivers. Yet some seem to feel quite righteous about yelling at a middle-aged woman on a bike with no skid-lid (me), or taking me aside for a condescending lecture on my unsafe behaviour. Gee, could it be just plain ol' sexism?

While we're counting up Ways to Go, did you know that over 100,000 people per year die in the US as a result of medical errors and incompetence in hospitals and clinics? Seems like a hospital is even more dangerous than a bicycle.

Now, you want to get really depressed? The Center for Disease Control says that 400,000 -- yes, four hundred thousand Americans die each year from cigarette smoking, aka nicotine addiction. Proximate causes of death are usually cancer and/or hypertensive heart failure. (An additional 53 thousand people, they believe, die from second-hand smoke.) Some pro-smoking lobbyists have challenged this figure and claim it is "only" about 250,000. When the numbers get this large, such challenges sound a bit weak to me -- rather like wrangling over whether the Nazis killed 6 million Jews or "only" 3.5 million. A Honkin' Big Number is a HBN, no matter how you carp and quibble.

Back to the anecdotal level again: at least one of the Lycra-lovin' cool biker guys who has lectured me sternly on my "unsafe biking" is himself an habitual smoker. Yet when I ventured to comment on this, his response was "Don't even get started with that!" In other words, he's a grownup, he knows what he's doing, it's his decision, leave him alone. Well, I can certainly see his point of view :-)

Anyway, I have never seen any nice young person in a bike helmet yell "Quit puffing on that goddamn cancer stick" as they ride past a smoker, or even take a few minutes to deliver an earnest, caring lecture (with lots of eye contact) about the terrible risks the smoker is running. Smoking is very cool-n-groovy just now among the undergraduate and high school set -- there are opportunities galore for a little nannying out there. But no, nonsmokers are very shy, reluctant even to remind smokers not to puff in zones clearly marked "No Smoking" ... and most smokers are openly hostile, arrogant, even outraged when so reminded. It's just not nice to criticize other people's behaviour in public.

Except when they're not wearing a bike helmet, of course :-)

Who is at risk?

When you see the suicidal panache with which many teenagers and young men ride, you will not be surprised that they have more accidents than most; but putting helmets on them is not going to slow them down or make them obey traffic laws. Bike accident stats indicate that almost half of each year's US fatalities will be underage, and of all stats, significantly more than half are male. That puts me, as a middle-aged female primate, in the lowest risk category for bike death.

Now, for contrast, let's look at a situation where I really am in a high risk group. According to the CDC, we can expect over 47,000 new cases of skin cancer in the US this year (2000). They also predict almost 9,600 fatalities from pre-existing skin cancers. That's ten times the number from bike crashes, remember? Nevertheless, I see plenty of people (sailors and cyclists) out there sunbathing, "working on their tan" (or on their early demise). And I don't see other people, no matter how health-conscious, walking up to sunbathers and lecturing them on their social irresponsibility. I personally wear sunscreen and a hat. In Hawai'i I got laughs all round for snorkelling in a long sleeved shirt. Heck, I don't mind being laughed at if I can avoid cooking my epidermis. More on this below, but my point is that I would never laugh at a person wearing a bike helmet. If they feel their risk of Major Head Bonk is high, I say Amen to whatever steps they take to reduce it. I'm not going to sneer at them, or ask them whether they used the right kind of sunscreen today. They're grownups, they can figure it out. And so can I.

The only other area in which I've experienced or witnessed the kind of public rudeness I've received from pro-helmet evangelists, is the vexed one of diet and weight. Some people (especially dieters during a temporary period of success) do feel quite free to comment on their co-workers' choice of lunch; or to comment in meant-to-be-overheard tones about how so&so has really let him or her self go lately. The kind of bullying pseudo-morality levelled at fat folk (especially female fat folk) is unpleasantly similar to the Helmet Lecture.

So, back to the sinking Titanic for a moment: using the Lifeboat Ethics scale of risk assessment, I'd say the mortality statistics above show that clear and present dangers are claiming or threatening to claim far more American lives per year than bike accidents, by factors of way more than a hundred -- and yet most Americans are obsessed with the idea that cycling is terribly dangerous. Also and subsequently, they "know" that anyone who doesn't wear various kinds of body armour while cycling is some kind of suicidal sociopath, in need of immediate re-education. We really do seem to be running back to get the dental floss while the Titanic sinks.

Just for review, a ranked list of some different ways to die:

Cause of DeathFatalities Per Annum
Cigarettes, smoking400,000
Adverse reaction to prescription drugs110,000
Cigarettes, 2nd hand smoke53,000
Automobile accident40,000
Air pollution30,000
Accidental poisoning17,000
Falling down12,000
Skin cancer9,600
Stepping on a land mine (not USA)9,600
Murder, all assailants (women victims)5,000
Murder by domestic partner (women victims)1,500
Recreational Boating900
Statistics refer to the US only unless otherwise marked. Sorry about the women victims, guys -- I'm approaching this from the viewpoint of my own personal risk management :-) According to these stats, not shacking up with a guy is a far more productive risk avoidance strategy than wearing a bike helmet, for the average gal.

Seeing monsters under the bed?

Here I offer some serious and not-so-serious reasons for people's willingness to believe that bikes are terribly dangerous.

anything that's different is dangerous, anything that's familiar is safe
This is a car culture. To ride a bike in urban areas for practical reasons, as opposed to riding on trails for entertainment, is peculiar. And anything that's different is perceived as dangerous. For example, it was not many years ago that my mother was warning me that eating tofu must be bad for me, and citing some bogus study about medical disorders among Japanese folks (high soy consumers). Only a decade or so later, the US health and diet press is exuding enthusiasm over soy foods and their "miraculous" benefits, and no one thinks eating soy foods is dangerous. When only a few people were doing it, it was "weird" and therefore must be risky. In other words, the risks to which we are accustomed never seem grave no matter how many lives they claim, and the risks that are unfamiliar or foreign always seem extreme. People who have grown up in active war zones can confirm this: you can even get used to living around unexploded live ordnance, or walking through light artillery fire to get to a party.

it's OK to be prejudiced against people if you can prove they're antisocial
In a related rule, stigmatizing an unfamiliar or minority behaviour as "dangerous" or "crazy" makes one's prejudice less blatant and more palatable. Remember "Reefer Madness"? I'm not saying that drug use is a great idea, but early propaganda about marijuana use hid official racism (and political influence by the cotton and tobacco industries) under tones of dire, even hysterical, warning. One can recall similar attempts to accuse foreigners of harbouring plague, and contemporary attempts to demonize people of colour as the source of all crime. The Willie Horton commercial worked quite well. Shrieks of Danger Danger Will Robinson short-circuit the public's reasoning power and strike for the gut -- exactly they're meant to. But am I really suggesting that we are prejudiced against cyclists?

can I see your driver's license please?
You bet we are prejudiced. Biking is not just different, it's inferior. Biking in the US is still seen as "kid stuff," as a frivolous form of play or sport; or it's seen as "hippie stuff," an indicator of social maladaptation and nonconformity, a failure to "grow up" and "fit in to the system". Contrast a city like Amsterdam, where every conceivable type of human being will go by on a bike in the course of an hour or two -- young, old, laypersons, nuns, suited and briefcased lawyers and executives, doctors, school children, grandpa going shopping, police officers, the whole world. Now try this in any American city. The bike riding population will be large only if the town is a college town or there's a "sporty" bike ride that day. The student crowd will be in their twenties, with backpacks. The sporty crowd will be a bunch of male jocks with mean expressions and a lot of costly clothing that one would not wear in any other social context :-) They will be identifiable as "different". All the "normal" people like doctors, gardeners, shoppers, executives, construction workers, cooks, fisherfolk, messengers, priests, and police officers will be in cars.
In the USA, the only form of transportation recognized as necessary, adult, and normal is the automobile. Bike riders, of any age, are perceived as "kid-like' even if not literally young -- irresponsible, impractical, immature, not real adult citizens. After all, what's the primary form of legal ID in the US? Your driver's license. If we talk about traffic calming initiatives, gas taxes, reduced speed limits, and other desperate measures for slowing down the destruction of our country and our planet by universal automobile use -- people get really incensed. How dare we interfere with their driving habits? How dare we make it one penny more expensive or one second less convenient for them to drive? They paid a lot for those cars, and dammit they have a right to enjoy them fully. We are messing with the civil liberties of Adult Citizens here, folks -- watch out! The ready recourse to MHLs strikes me as the familiar tendency to impose surveillance and restriction on second-class citizens: in this case, cyclists. The surveillance and restriction may be justified by all manner of fancy language, but the effective social purpose is to formalize and emphasize the lower status of the target population.

it's he-man stuff
Biking is by and large a masculine sport, despite the praiseworthy minority of women bike athletes. I have a sneaking suspicion that the guys feel more macho, able to hold up their heads next to all those muscle car drivers, by exaggerating the dangers of their chosen form of (tran)sport. Biking is really dangerous, therefore I am a tough, serious dude. Let's face it, guys have this historical tendency to like armour and helmets and all that stuff. They tend to exaggerate the tremendous danger and pain of Heidelberg fencing, and then in the next breath assert that childbirth is no big thing. Right.

plastics are your friend -- buy some more!
The plastics industry has to figure out some way to clean up its image, after being rightly fingered as an irresponsible bad hat in the first wave of eco-awareness back in the late 70s. You can read all about the optimism with which the petro plastic guys view their new, greener, warm & fuzzy reputation. Bike helmets are one of the key products they used to redeem their public image. So, umm, when did you last hear of a recyclable bike helmet? When I search for "recycle" and "helmet" all I get is the occasional cross-reference to polystyrene. Where are all those helmets going? Remember, you're instructed to buy a new one every 5 years or after any accident involving a head bonk, no matter how slight -- that's a lotta landfill, folks. Doesn't it give you just a bit of a giggle to see the greener-than-thou crowd riding around in pure petrochemical hats?
No, but seriously, cyclists present a problem to the corporate state because bikes are so darned efficient; cyclists just plain need less and buy less. Now that's a social crime, if you like: to live frugally. So there's a massive drive to accessorize bikers, to turn cyclists into good little consumers just like car drivers. Thus, ridiculously expensive shoes, strange spaceman outfits, and fancy aero helmets. Nah, I don't think the BHSI is a tool of the helmet industry -- in fact, they soundly criticize the industry for representing those cool new aero helmets as good safety designs, when they aren't -- but certainly there are large profits to be realized if MHLs force millions of bikers to buy helmets. Whereas, stopping millions of people from smoking would not generate profits. Conclusion: in a capitalist state where corporate interests strongly influence government, we tend to accept legislation that causes consumer spending, but the big business guys immediately bar the door to any legislation that would curtail consumer spending.

can't have that Car Free idea getting out of hand
There isn't a politician today (with the possible exception of mavericks like Nader and Hightower) who hasn't taken large sums of money as "donations" and "contributions" from US industry. US industry revolves around the automobile and the petroleum trade. There's not a politician in this country with the guts to vote for a law that would restrict automobile use or impose any discomfort or inconvenience on car drivers. But there's nothing that would please the auto industry and petro industry more than to see the bike challenge buried. Just imagine the potential damage to their record profits if the "car free" movement actually became popular! But if the next generation of kids can be raised (a) to be terrified of bikes because of the scare campaign, and/or (b) to get sick of bikes because you gotta wear those blasted hot, uncomfortable, dorky helmets to ride, whereas when you grow up and get a car you can wear regular clothes and look (and feel) cool -- then no one will be more delighted than GM and Ford. By imposing inconveniences on cyclists and "dangerizing" cycling we guarantee that the majority of people will give in to laziness and fear, and leave their bikes in the garage. Am I crazy to feel a gut-level suspicion that these helmet laws are somehow supported by the auto industry? No, that's too paranoid . . . people who would do that would be real melodrama villains, the kind who would buy up public transportation lines just to destroy them. That kind of thing only happens in movies, right?

seeking safety in a scary world
Most people are (rightly) quite terrified of the way things are going Out There. They know, whether they deny it or not, that their environment is seriously degraded. And worse, they know that they share responsibility for the damage. They have lived for decades with the fear of nuclear disaster. They live daily with bad news of every kind in the papers: environmental decline, war, starvation, pestilence, violence, and a technological infrastructure increasingly beyond any one person's comprehension. Is it so surprising that large numbers of people are desperately seeking ways to make themselves feel safe? Picking on one small controllable population and bullying it into "safety" is some emotional compensation, I suppose, for a world totally out of our control. We could see the American craze for "fitness" and health in a similar light. But it doesn't appeal to me. I would rather tackle the big issues, even if the dent I make in them is infinitesimal.

Anyway, there you have some possible reasons for the otherwise incomprehensible public enthusiasm for enforced helmeting in the so-called Free World. One last, and I think more relevant, reason is simple faddishness and conformism.

It's hard to shake. It's the Pink Monkey phenomenon. All through history and all over the world, people have sought some excuse for stigmatising and punishing anyone who is different from the crowd. We'll make up a new fashion or behaviour rule or fad, and within a tiny time period, mere weeks, kids in high school or college will be mercilessly mocked and teased (or even beaten up) for not conforming to it. We'll decide that some toy or attitude is "old hat" and within a month or two, allegedly adult persons will be sneering at anyone who "still does/believes/owns that." Some politician will perceive a PR oppo, and next thing you know, "suspected Communists" will be losing their jobs and receiving death threats.

F'rinstance, after a handful of shooting incidents in US schools, various public responses were possible. We could have had a go at gun control. We could have examined the bullying and sadism, the tormenting of "different" kids that go on in our schools unremarked or even encouraged by the staff. We could have taken a look at violence in the US in general -- after all, kids behave as they have learnt to behave, so where did they learn this? But no, the actual fallout of these incidents is (among other things) a corporate hotline 800 number that kids can call to rat on any of their classmates who seem "weird" or "different". We opt for the simple strategy of imposing superficial conformity, as if that would fix any of the problems festering underneath.

What I perceive beneath the righteousness of the helmet evangelists is that good ol' human taste for enforcing conformity. It is so much easier to feel good about bullying a nonconformist if you can convince yourself that you only have their best interest at heart -- or the interest of society. Everyone does X, they say, or everyone should do X, and so must you. And don't argue about it. Only a really stupid person would not do X.

Well, er, umm, I thought one of the points about civilization and democracy and all that was that we agree to respect each other's stupidity (or what looks like your stupidity to me and mine to you), as long as we are not actively harmed by it. This leads us inevitably into a digression on the social contract, and the nature of harm and responsibility.

Sub-clauses of the social contract

A quick review of basic social contract theory: it seems fairly obvious that if you crank your stereo up to top volume at midnight and wake the neighbourhood, you're being pretty stupid. But more importantly, you've infringed upon the social contract, upset and disturbed the people around you and caused them a measure of harm -- and so it's reasonable for the police to come and persuade you to be quiet so your neighbours can sleep. No matter how you may whine about it, common sense says you've broken a basic rule of community living.

The reason I don't want my neighbour to play mega-loud music at midnight is not ideological. I don't think music is bad, or stereos are a bourgeois indulgence. It's not aesthetic, either, it's not that I despise his CD collection (it's rather good actually). Nor is it because I'm terribly concerned that it's bad for him not to be sleeping; I just want to sleep, and if he prevents me from sleeping I get mad. That's a legitimate reason for wanting to constrain another person's behaviour. (By the way, there's no fine for disturbing the peace in my town; I only wish that the police would hand out $80 tickets on such occasions.)

It's similarly obvious (to me anyway) that puffing smoke in other people's faces is a violation of the social contract; but committing slow suicide privately by nicotine strikes me as tragic, not criminal. If there is criminality involved it lies with the drug dealer, not the addict.

It's not obvious to me that not wearing a bike helmet constitutes anything like a violation of the social contract. Who is harmed, supposing for a moment that any harm at all will ensue? Only the helmetless rider. Since when is it reasonable for me to advocate a law preventing you from doing something that I feel is bad for you? Well, OK, here in the US we have the DEA. But most rational people think the War on Drugs is ridiculous. Same rational people, however, without even pausing to think will tell you that it's "stupid" to ride a bike without a helmet and "should be prohibited."

Arguments like "anyone who rides without a helmet is exposing other cyclists to the disgusting and traumatic experience of having to scoop that stupid person's brains off the track," as expressed in the online helmet wars, strike me as pure bombast. How many people have ever actually been present at a major injury accident, let alone personally intervened by dabbling in blood and body parts? And yet there are thousands upon thousands of fatal and major injury accidents happening every day in all walks of life -- particularly on highways.

Claims that unhelmeted riding is a socially actionable offense against others don't cut it with me, any more than claims that gay couples holding hands in public are doing some kind of harm to conservative passersby. The only rational claims that have been made involve public safety and social costs, and as we've seen above, bike accidents are the tiniest drop in a huge bucket, most of which we are ignoring with both hands.

How could MHL possibly hurt me?

If you've stuck with me thus far, you've started to get some intimation that I don't think MHLs are well justified :-) So I think they're a waste of public time and money. But a lot of things are a waste of public time and money, and I don't bother writing lengthy essays about every one of them. Would I go so far as to say MHLs do harm?

Well, I agree with those physicians who concluded that the overall health benefits of cycling, not to mention the benefits to others that accrue when we get out of our cars, far outweigh the risks. If MHLs discourage ridership (and there is evidence to that effect), then that would be a form of harm.

I also agree in principle with those who say that laws should prevent us from hurting each other, not restrain us from doing anything that someone somewhere considers risky. Heck, people like risk. It's part of our nature. We like to test ourselves -- our reflexes, our smarts, our guts. It's stupid to think that a world with all the voluntary risks carefully removed will be a happy world. And it's annoying to have other people presuming to decide for us how we should assess and manage our own risks. To restrict citizens' freedom and keep us in a state of childish tutelage seems to me a form of harm.

But all this is pretty darned abstract. Let's get out of the ether and into the realm of the physically specific again: let's talk concretely about these hifalutin concepts like risk assessment, risk grouping, and personal freedom of choice. Let's consider one particular case. How could MHLs hurt me, personally, by restricting my individual civil life?

I am not biologically suited for the region I now inhabit. Neither are a lot of us North American invaders, but let's not go there right now.

As a pale North European type, I'm in the second highest risk category in the world for skin cancer and sun damage in general (second only to albinos). When I ride my bike, I wear a hat; just like my dermatologist told me to. I told my dermatologist that I didn't want to die from skin cancer; that, to me, was an unacceptable risk. She said, "Wear sunscreen and wear a hat with a big floppy wide brim. And I mean on every sunny day, and any overcast one when you're out for more than an hour." So I thought about that. I don't like hats that much, but on the other hand, I don't like painful sunburns or the feeling that I'm doing something for which I'm in a particularly risky category. And cancer's a bad way to go. So I wear the damn hat. Mostly. And I loathe slimy, disgusting sunscreen, but I wear it. Mostly.

If I wear a bike helmet, I lose that wide hat brim that my doctor told me very seriously to wear. Now, in my humble opinion it is my business, and no one else's, to figure out which risk is more urgent for me. Weighing the odds, the figures, and my own unique exposure, I figure the skin cancer is scarier and more immediate than the face plant. I already have skin abnormalities, but I have a flawless safety record. So I ignore the helmet and wear the hat. And thus I get yelled at :-)

I don't mind so much being yelled at (after all, if you're a woman who routinely cycles everywhere, you do eventually build up a kind of immunity to having various things yelled at you -- and sometimes even thrown). But it's really going to piss me off if police officers start ticketing me for my own adult and informed strategy of risk avoidance. No one should be able to force me to risk skin cancer because of their own unfounded fear of bikes, any more than I should be able to prohibit you legally from eating a steak just because BSE makes me a tad nervous. I would consider that harm. It might even be enough to make me move to the Netherlands -- or any other place where the government is willing to treat me like a grown-up.

What price "irresponsibility"?

Back to the big picture. There are larger social trends in motion here. I worry about the trend represented by HMOs and nanny laws. Will there come a time when the HMO will refuse to pay for services if the customer refuses to adopt a diet dictated by the HMO, or refuses to attend mandatory exercise classes, or declines mandatory office procedures? ("I'm sorry sir, if you don't report for your scheduled sigmoidoscopy we're going to cancel your coverage altogether.")

Will my HMO cancel my coverage if I go out without a hat? Will my HMO cancel my coverage if I ride a bike? Will my HMO refuse to cover my medical expenses if I have a bike accident without a helmet on? What if it isn't my head that was injured? Will my HMO cancel my insurance because I sail a small craft? Will some non-sailor decide that sailboats are very dangerous (all those moving parts) and therefore all sailors must wear helmets? You never can tell where these trends will lead.

Seems like the insurance companies have changed their nature a lot in the last hundred years. Like a lot of rich folk who made their packet in gambling, they've gone off the whole risk thing a bit and are now seeking a sure bet :-)

Nowadays it seems like the commonest answer to "how come this dance isn't happening this year," or "what happened to the field trip," is "we couldn't get insurance." Litigiousness, encouraged in greedy people by greedy lawyers, plays into the same sad trend: people's lives are starting to be strangely constrained and boxed in by the insurance companies and the lawsuits. Rather than gamble on your health and safety, they're starting to want to control your health and safety (according to their own standards) so as to protect their cash. [There are rumours as of this writing (Spring 2000) that an insurance company is about to sponsor an all-ages MHL for the entire state of CA.]

Or so it seems to me. It starts with the HMOs dropping the "high risk" patients (even though the whole theory of insurance is that the healthy people in the center of the bell curve help pay for the frail people at the edges), and edging out the older subscribers. And where does it go after that?

Is it possible that at some point we will all be out in front of our corporate workplaces in the morning, being directed in mandatory mass exercise sessions? Will we grant health care only to the "well behaved," and who will determine the standards?

I'm not saying there's no problem with autopathy. Deliberate actions of individuals do cost us a lot to remedy. You can make a pretty strong case that cigarette smoking is a costly autopathic behaviour (cancer treatment is ungodly expensive).

But if we start down that slippery path, where do we end up? At what point should some vaguely computed "social cost" take precedence over individual freedom of choice and independent exercise of judgment? Who gets to compute that cost? How rigorously are the numbers checked, and what special interests are standing by, salting the soup? We know that risks and statistics are grossly misrepresented in the media and by corporate interests and ruling elites worldwide. Why should we trust these same proven liars any further? We know that governments, no less than corporations, hate to admit they've made a mistake :-) We know that governments, especially in the US, are saturated with massive bribery from business interests; and we know that the books get cooked.

To what extent dare we hand over our individual powers of judgment, decision, and choice to these people?

Punishing the innocent?

What the heck does corporate America want anyway? At heart they seem to want everyone to sit "safely" at home and watch advertising on TV, or web surf (to shop, naturally, heaven forbid we should surf for real information)...

If it turns out that this sessile lifestyle impairs our health, then by all means we should get in our cars and drive a few miles to a health club, where at great expense we can get the same amount of exercise that a walk to the grocery store and back would have provided for free. But we won't walk to the grocery store if we think walking is dangerous. No, we'll continue to spend 20 percent of our income on the family car, and another hefty chunk of change on the spa membership. It's all good for business.

So I worry about the range of activities which, between the HMOs and their corporate brethren running the media, will come to be defined as "risky." A group in Tokyo is already suggesting that school children would be safer if they were made to wear helmets while walking to and from school. So now walking is dangerous? And you thought I was exaggerating, right?

If you'll forgive a sour dystopian moment here, at what point will we not be legally permitted to do anything at all unless we buy, buy, buy a heap of plastic accessories first? And how many people would be out of their cars by now, if the insistence on helmets, helmets, helmets hadn't convinced them that cycling is terribly dangerous?

No, I am not happy with an America, or any country, in which simple, basic, and healthy activities like walking and cycling are perceived as dangerous, aberrant, and in need of tight regulation, protective gear, and police surveillance.

Really, what is dangerous and aberrant is driving everywhere in 2-ton steel cages (almost all cyclists who die on the road, by the way, are killed by cars). Even the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute says that

We kill more car passengers on our highways every year than the number of Americans killed in the ten years and more of our involvement in Vietnam. But the public outcry that would accompany such a rate of carnage associated with any other activity in our society is strangely absent. We have a national blind eye for the costs of car ownership, and for the damage done by the individual passenger car to our health and our environment. Since the passenger car is The Problem in cyclists' deaths, and a big factor in major cycling injuries, some of that attitude will inevitably affect the bicycle rider. Rage against it if you will, but meantime wear your helmet. We believe that you would need a helmet even in the best of all possible car worlds.

[Editor's note: This statistic is not quite right. It would be more accurate to say that we kill more car passengers every two years on our highways than the total number of Americans killed as a result of our 10-year involvement in Viet Nam. But it is still a sobering number.]

This to me is a counsel of despair. One would think that the appropriate response would be for the BHSI to mount at least as aggressive a public campaign against automobile use as they do for helmets; yet this very telling text is hidden many layers deep among their pages, far from the home page. We are advised to "rage against it" but not to try to do anything about it, other than go out and buy a helmet, make an individual accommodation to an intolerable social problem. Cocooning comes to the bike culture?

Passing laws to constrain the behaviour of cyclists as a way of increasing cyclist safety, to me, is too much like enforcing curfews on women to reduce attacks upon women. It's for each woman to decide how safe or dangerous she is on that walk across town or that camping trip in the desert -- else we become prisoners in our homes, wards of the state. Many Islamic nations claim that the imposition of the veil upon women is for women's safety, because it asserts their respectableness and hides their "provocatively beautiful" faces from untrustworthy men. The average American woman of any spirit says Bulls**t! If the men are doing the assaulting and harassing, we need to deal with their behaviour, not put sacks over all the women's heads.

When we think about gun violence in schools, do we start by passing laws mandating the purchase and daily wear of Kevlar vests for all school kids? No, we try to stop the shooting (even if we go about it wrong-headedly). When we think about cyclists getting killed by cars, we need to get closer to the cause: we need to stop the killing, and it is being done by the cars. No amount of helmet is enough to stop a charging SUV. Even an elephant gun wouldn't do it. The only thing that's going to stop that SUV is (sorry, all you libertarians) laws limiting its aggressive behaviour; laws banning it from residential areas and city centres; speed bumps; normalized gas prices; and such like things that only an outraged and activist citizenry can achieve. We don't need to "rage against" the empire of the automobile, we need to organize against it.

A citizenry deluded into believing that cycling is dangerous, not cars, that helmets are the only practical or possible response to the danger posed by cars, and so forth, will never become activist. The consumer-oriented "buy a helmet and be safe" solution defuses social action, offers a weak individual solution with no challenge to the status quo, rather than the bold national change of direction we really need.

In Holland and some other European countries, the solution has been to slow down the cars, restrict auto access to city centers, and provide first-rate bikeways. The result has been the world's best bike safety record -- despite an almost zero helmet-wearing population! -- and a tremendously positive health and environmental benefit from so many people riding bikes daily instead of driving. Here in the US we regard the dangerous and irresponsible use of automobiles as given, as an immutable fact. We need to get over that; it's as silly as assuming that "boys will be boys and bring their Uzis to class with them" -- and handing out the Kevlar.

This is where I get frustrated with the BHSI -- they know this very important fact, that cars are, as they say, The Problem; but they will not say it out loud -- only quietly, on a back page, in the closet. It should be said loudly and repeatedly and on the front page. We should hire skywriters.

Otherwise there is no chance of social change, just an endless and fruitless attempt to adapt to ever-degrading conditions. When we have dozens of schools and police forces and cities promoting and enforcing helmets, and not one agitating for limits on automobile access and use, there's something terribly wrong -- and the BHSI is, no matter how good their intentions, contributing to this wrong by "picking the easy target". Do we have a traffic safety problem? You bet we do -- there's a safety issue for bikes, pedestrians, kids at play, animals, or anyone who breathes. And an even bigger one for the car drivers themselves!

What is the source of the problem? Very simple: massive overuse of a very attractive luxury item (the automobile). What's the solution? To put cyclists and pedestrians into full body armour, issue respirators to all the citizenry, and lock up all the animals in zoos? That's the way we're headed. But we've got the wrong end of the bull by the horns here :-) To solve a problem, you have to look at the root of the problem, not try to paper over the symptoms. If you want your beloved spouse to get over the alcohol problem, you don't do it by adapting and enabling and patching it over -- or by frantically casting around for something and someone else to blame.

Cycling is not dangerous or aberrant behaviour. Cycling is not the problem. In fact, it's socially responsible, constructive, good behaviour that ought to be encouraged with both hands. What is dangerous and aberrant is guzzling down the world's irreplaceable petroleum reserves for frivolous purposes. What is dangerous and aberrant is releasing endless quantities of toxins into the world's atmosphere and waterways, with no clear understanding of the consequences and no care for tomorrow. Not to mention using taxpayer dollars for all of the above, thus robbing the citizenry twice: once for the encouragement and subsidy of negative behaviours, and then again later for the cleanup costs. Now that's sociopathic. That's the behaviour we need to modify.

So this is just another architect's note about the scale of this drawing. Our cars are killing as many people every two years as our US troop body count from the whole decade we were in 'Nam. Where are the protesters? The fact that we aren't upset about this is deeply revealing. The fact that we're focussed on how "dangerous" bicycles are is even more revealing. Can we spell "denial"?

. . . and some have risk forced upon them

Aside from Big Risks and Little Risks (and the difficulty of distinguishing them through a blitz of propaganda and negative but accepted social customs) there's another division of risks into two species. There's a big difference between a risk we are exposed to by free choice, and a risk to which we are exposed all unwitting.

If you buy a house in a landslide area, and you know all about the area and all about the house, and you are an able carpenter, you will not be distressed when a little earth movement cracks a wall or bends a pipe. You knew what you were getting into. But if you buy a house in a supposedly clean and upper-crusty neighbourhood and then, a few years later, find out that you're living on top of a toxic land fill and your kids are not likely to grow up healthy, then you are, I would expect, righteously angry.

Though I may seem at previous points in this diatribe to be flirting with logical positivism or Libertarianism, I'm not really -- so relax. I do believe that the homeowner in Case B is quite right to be righteously angry. Yes, we could say that it was her responsibility to research every detail of the last 50 years of history in the area where she's buying a home. But that's not reasonable in a highly organized society, any more than you expect to catch, kill, gut, skin, and roast your own cow for dinner. You expect to be able to trust the specialized functionaries with whom you do business. You expect not to be grossly deceived in business dealings, whether by outright lies or by secrecy. This is what is meant by "full disclosure" in real estate and other dealings; it's dishonest to conceal from a business partner or customer important information that would radically alter their perception of the deal.

So, unlike logical positivists, Republicans, and corporate legal counsel, I don't assert that consumer lawsuits are a bunch of malarkey, or that we are just plain crazy to try to eliminate lead and PVC from kid toys (or from industry at large), or to take some kind of action against owners of highly unsafe workplaces, or to demand that our food is honestly labelled and that toxic substances are controlled. We should not be exposed to risks without our informed consent. Consent alone is not sufficient, if it's not informed. Or in other words, if you're gonna put GMO products in my food, darn it, I want a label that tells me so. It doesn't matter whether I'm right or wrong to be concerned about GMO foods, what matters is that I have a right to know, and a right to make my own decisions about what I eat.

Hell, if I get arrested in this country I have more right to information about the terms of my arrest than I do about the foods I'm being sold. There's no Miranda law for GMO.

All the ecological crises of our time are splendid, terrifying examples of people being exposed to risk without their consent or understanding. A low-income person unable to prevent waste incinerators or dumping sites from being established in her neighbourhood; an entire native people displaced by deforestation and massive hydro projects; the apparently wealthy and prosperous woman condemned to early death by her mother's use of DES: our world is full of environmental victims, people who have had a dreadful cost imposed on them in exchange for some alleged benefit. Usually the benefit is not experienced by them directly, and if anyone had asked them, "would you like to trade an early death for the benefits of PVC garden furniture and plumbing?" or "we will pay you a good salary, but is it OK with you if you die painfully of cancer about 20 years before your time?" they would have firmly declined.

But the way of our world today is that the deals we make with the Devil are secret. No one offers us the parchment and pricks our thumbs. Our consent is assumed, and we suffer the consequences without ever having agreed to the trade. And these risks, the risks of living in the world of synthetic estrogens, a damaged atmosphere, polluted air and water, uncontrollable climate change, BSE, DDT, elevated background radiation, the threat of nuclear war (whether limited or global), the threat of another Chernobyl; these risks no one seems to be doing much about, legislatively speaking. If anything, the WTO and its sibling organizations are asserting loudly that we're a damned ungrateful bunch of Luddite ignorami if we presume to criticize this deal we never got to sign.

These risks we are all exposed to, through no choice of our own, these seem to me a suitable and very urgent target for legislation and prosecution. If there's bullying to be done and submission to standards to be enforced, it's overdue for our corporate friends in high places. Compared to their suicidal and murderous practises, and the suicidal and murderous practises they encourage and create among all of us, the fatality rate and the social cost imposed by bike accidents are "way down in the noise" as we say in signal processing. It troubles me deeply that so much public focus, so many laws, so much municipal time and energy, so much zealotry and officiousness and righteousness are all devoted to policing and controlling an inherently harmless behaviour, effectively distracting us from so many far more terrible dangers.

The mote in our neighbour's eye, and . . .

Are there any conclusions to be drawn here? Aside from the conclusion that I've been going on rather too long?

I was brought up by parents who lived through World War II, and one lesson I learned from them is very simple: there is no such thing as Safe. Anything can happen to anyone at any time. The only thing you have, from moment to moment is the freedom to experience your own life and make your own decisions. It is a freedom you can lose at any moment, a fragile thing, but the central ingredient that makes any life enjoyable and satisfying. To be forced to do things takes the fun out of them; ask any worker whose management penalizes folks who skip the company picnic :-)

There's a reason why people dislike slavery and seek to escape it, why we don't like being bullied. Even if the master is kind and the food plentiful and the work not too arduous, the slave wants to run away; we thirst for autonomy, for self-determination, for not being ordered around by bosses and masters and Big Men. Or even by faceless bureaucrats or smothering nannies. It doesn't have to be complete autonomy; most of us can deal with prohibitions on harming others, if we are just allowed to make the ordinary decisions for ourselves, the simple ones like what to wear and what to eat and what to do for fun and whether to go out for a walk... and the big ones as well, like whether to permit ourselves to be kept alive on life support machines after we're unviable, or whether to go through the hell of surgery and chemo and radiation if the odds of survival don't seem worth the misery.

In any society that claims not to be fascist or dictatorial, we should have a right to make those kinds of choices. We should not be forced or bullied into anything for our own good, only out of harming others. I do, on reflection, firmly believe this. I have wept over women who could and would not free themselves from abusive husbands and lovers, but on no account would I have those women arrested and imprisoned to "save" them from the danger they were too foolish or too besotted to walk away from.

In my lifetime I have seen more and more fences go up, more and more warning signs, more and more absurd product instructions written for suicidal idiots ("Caution: do not attempt to carve meat while rotisserie is in operation."). I have seen my world become more and more like a kindergarten for backward children. Yet at the same time I have seen more and more dreadful risks undertaken in secretive and colossal arrogance. I have witnessed an endless, mindless search for ultimate personal safety, in bewildering parallel with the grossest stupidity and the most obviously dangerous and destructive social behaviours.

It makes no sense to me; and the MHLs seem to me just one more symptom of this very grave social problem; our unwillingness to look squarely at the real risks and dangers, the outright madness of our time -- and the accompanying tendency to bully and blame and enforce conformity on others, using fabricated or grossly exaggerated dangers as our righteous excuse.

We beat our kids, and criticize our neighbour for his unpainted fence. We agonize over a half pound of weight gain, and are sure that global warming can't really be such a big deal. We make sure to be terrified of people of colour, certain that they are all dangerous criminals; and we trust the inside traders and S&L sharks who steal our life savings. We scrub our toilet bowls and sinks until they shine like hospital equipment, to preserve ourselves from germs and disease; and the cleaners we use are toxic. We're so terrified of Communism that we stockpile enough nuclear weapons to kill every person on earth ten times over; and the stockpiles start to leak. We're so terrified of disease that we demand (and prescribe) antibiotics for every little sniffle, thus steadily weakening the effectiveness of antibiotics and blithely inviting the next truly serious epidemic. We recycle every scrap of paper in the house, then drive our SUV to the park with our bikes on top of it. We engineer a "Green Revolution" to feed the masses, and in so doing destroy the farmland and the biodiversity humanity needs to survive. We fear body fat more than starvation. We smoke cigarettes, and we call the helmetless bike rider reckless. We drive cars, and we call bicycles dangerous.

People! You go figure.
De Clarke