Orla Chennaoui: A little tête-a-tête

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In which Orla Chennaoui asks: Why is wearing a helmet an action that’s worth taking to save a life, when others, that could save many more, are not?
Photographs: Zac Williams/MARK GREEN/SWpix.com/Offside Charlie Crowhurst

Come with me on a journey through my beloved streets of Amsterdam. I’m riding across the cobbles made for horse and cart, sunlight flashing on my face in the gaps between the gingerbread rooftops. The tall, impossibly wonky buildings rise from the banks on either side of the UNESCO-protected canals. Motor traffic keeps at a safe distance as I chatter into the ear of my toddler son, sitting in his favourite seat on the front of my mama bike. The wind rushes through my hair… hang on, have I lost you? Wind rushing through my hair? Is this the bit where the record scratches and we jump back to the real world, as you yell, “where’s your helmet, you mad woman?”

Every element of what I just described is as I live it most days in my adopted home city. I may have taken a liberty with the weather, but even when the rain is slicing sideways and the wind is willing us into the waters of the canals, the roads are filled with everyday cyclists. Except here, we don’t call them cyclists. We call them people. Or parents. Or kids. They’re simply folk who get around everywhere, every day on bikes, and I believe it’s a fundamental reason for this place being the most outward-facing, socially connected city I have lived in.

What is initially curious as an outsider is not only the prevalence of bikes, but the fact that for every one or two hundred people you see careering around on two wheels, perhaps one will be wearing a helmet. Yet Amsterdam, and our neighbour Utrecht, have fewer fatalities per 100,000 cyclists than London, Dublin or Paris, all cities where it would be practically unthinkable to get on your bike without a helmet. So, what gives?

The helmet debate is guaranteed to rile fellow riders and motorists alike. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been preached to on social media. “If a helmet saves just one life, then surely it’s worth it?” So why is it that it not only feels safer to ride here without a helmet, but is statistically proven?

We’ll talk about the laws and road infrastructure in a moment, because they matter, of course they do. In a road collision for example, the law here protects the most vulnerable road user by default, so drivers pay the price for reckless driving. I’m convinced that a significant factor in the ease and safety of riding your bike in the Netherlands however, is the lack of a helmet culture.

The very visibility of our collective vulnerability encourages everyone to take extra care. We are clearly not protected, so all road users must exercise caution. Nor are we made “other” by our defining headgear. It helps, of course, that most drivers also ride a bike. There is no “us” and “them”. But that, too, is a consequence of it feeling normal and safe to get around by bike. While helmets protect against certain dangers, they also serve to highlight them. Cycling in the Netherlands isn’t seen as a risky endeavour, rather the most natural, convenient way to use our shared space.

Even when riding alongside my wobbling five-year-old over the bridges of central Amsterdam, I have yet to be terrorised by so much as a beep of the horn. I don’t take unnecessary risks and we ride on relatively quiet streets, but to feel safe doing so is a privilege, and the confidence and skills my daughter is learning are invaluable.

In a society where riding without a helmet is the norm, I don’t want to be even one person among the thousands who contributes to changing a culture for my perceived individual protection.

If it is safer for us to collectively take extra care with each other than lecture on the need for helmets, I would rather take the risk. The joy and freedom of daily cycling, as well as the social connectedness it brings, are too precious to jeopardise. I should point out I am talking specifically about daily cycling, since the speed of a road bike and the other vehicles on non-speed restricted roads change the risk factor. It’s all about calculated risk.

Ultimately, helmets are only a side issue when it comes to bike safety. The way to make our roads safer is by changing the law, followed closely by the traffic infrastructure. By focusing on whether our peers are wearing helmets, we’re wasting energy that could be spent gathering petitions, building political momentum, demanding a change to how we are protected on the road.

Desire: POC’s Ventral Helmet

Dismiss that as fanciful if you will, but it is worth noting that people power is exactly how a bike culture came into being in the Netherlands. A group of parents in the 1970s campaigned to reclaim the streets after a rise in the number of road deaths involving children, and it worked. The laws were amended and subsequent road planning was designed to suit.

You may think we’re too far down that metaphorical road to change our commitment to the car, be it political or personal, but perhaps this is exactly the right time for change. Perhaps now, more than ever, our societies are ready for a dramatic shift in how they’re organised, in how we treat each other, and how we look after both ourselves and the environment. It would take collective, sustained effort, but surely that, at least, would be worth the headache.

This article was originally published in Rouleur 20.3


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