Don’t be safety-normative with me


I don’t wear a bike helmet. Ever. I don’t even own one.

You may react with disapproval, and you’ll be in good company: police and grown-ups disapprove, and so too do other 20-somethings, people much cooler than I. “Dude,” they say. “You really should wear a helmet. What if you hit your head?”

If I hit my head, it would be bad, yes.

I do many ostensibly risky things. I seldom wear a lifejacket. “What if you fall into the water?” people ask. I reply that I would swim; and if I could not swim, then I would drown.

You may feel that I am irresponsible. I disagree.

Oh, I agree that I take risks, risks I could mitigate by following safety conventions. But these risks are not the only ones that exist. They are merely the only ones we talk about. People generally follow the prescribed precautions, the ones most discussed, and then feel secure, believing they’ve eliminated enough risks to be safe.

But I argue that this is an illusion; that the perception of irresponsibility is based on social convention, more a reaction against nonconformity than a logical evaluation of danger. There are cultural aspects to what we perceive as dangerous or safe, and the dividing line is much more arbitrary than we suppose.

People say, “You never plan to have an accident.” Of course you don’t. So what? Does that mean we should never do anything? I never plan to be attacked by random passersby. Does that mean I should avoid people, or always wear body armour? I never plan to choke on my food. Does that mean I shouldn’t eat, or should eat only soup?

You may be thinking, “Aren’t the consequences of a head injury so serious that they demand extra precaution?” Well, they are serious. But so, for example, are neck injuries. Why not protect against them? If I fall off my bike and land on my neck, will a bike helmet protect me? What about my face? I mean, if we’re serious about protection, why half-ass it? Why not a motorcycle helmet, at least? And a neck brace. Most bikes lack rearview mirrors. How unsafe is that?

If you try to analyze safety conventions objectively, you risk sputtering in exasperation. We rightly view smashing one’s head against concrete as life-shattering, but illogically treat this risk as equal every time we are on a bike. Is the skateboarder, with no helmet, skating down a hill, less irresponsible than the helmetless cyclist cycling at the same speed? What if I can run at the same speed as a cyclist? Do fast runners need to wear helmets?

Consider a canoeist, sans lifejacket, paddling across a lake. Irresponsible? Reflect that swimmers are not required to wear lifejackets. Is a swimmer swimming across the same lake also irresponsible? Should swimmers be required to wear lifejackets at all times, by law?

Blanket rules become a logical nightmare. Why is the canoeist more at risk than the swimmer who is already in the water? How sophisticated does a floating object need to be before it’s dangerous unless you have a lifejacket? Why do I need a lifejacket on a Zodiac but not on an air mattress? If I climb onto a floating log, am I in grave danger of drowning until someone hands me a lifejacket? If I am on a raft made out of many logs, do I need a lifejacket then? What if I am on a raft made out of lifejackets?

Safety is an illusion. We are always at risk. The precautions we take mitigate the select few risks we’ve celebrated, but we remain exposed to those we’re aware of but brush off as unimportant: risks like driving fast vehicles filled with gasoline; like climbing on monkey bars; like jumping over things; like sharing someone’s drink; like doing flips off diving boards (without a helmet); in short, all the risky things we do but are okay with because society deems them acceptable. We also remain exposed to the risks we’ve never thought of. And when someone points these out to us, our typical reaction is to dismiss them. “Oh, come on, that’s not a real issue.”

Some of us, in contrast, worry about each newly suggested risk, immediately changing our lifestyles to mitigate it. But this, too, is a fallacious goal, because it can never be achieved. There will always be unaddressed risks, even when we’re buried in a concrete bunker a mile underground, cryogenically frozen and hermetically sealed against air, water and light.

At what point do we draw the line? At what point do we say that the mitigation of risks has too much inhibited our freedom of living? I think it’s a personal decision. For my part, I draw it before bike helmets and lifejackets. If you choose to wear these, more power to you. Just don’t say that I’m irresponsible. People who live in glass houses never plan to have an accident involving stones.