In the United States the notion that bike helmets promote health and safety by preventing head injuries is taken as pretty near God’s truth.
-- Elisabeth Rosenthal, "To Encourage Biking, Cities Lose the Helmets"*
In the United States, it's a tenet of the national faith that there is a solution for every problem. We have no tragic sense whatsoever. What we have instead is The Church of American Exceptionalism. No bad things should ever happen. If something bad happens, it's because somebody didn't work hard enough, or did the wrong thing. The person who didn't do (whatever) right must be identified and punished. Or educated. And if he was not taught what was right, we must blame his teachers, find the person who knows what's right and put them in charge. And if no one knows what's right, we must have a crash research program to find out. And when the answer is found we will apply a new technology that will fix things forever. This American characteristic sometimes makes us very smart and brave, and inspires us to do things that no one else can do. It also makes us very stupid, inspiring us to do things that no one else is dumb enough to do.
One of our National Idols is Perfect Safety. Today as I read the Times I learn that, in order to prevent rare injuries to bicyclists, American cities require the use of helmets with their bike-sharing programs, thus dramatically increasing resistance to the use of bicycles, and preventing the many health effects of bike travel (for cyclists and their fellow citizens) from taking hold. The world's most successful bike-sharing programs have no such mandate. Bikes are safe, particularly when there are many cyclists in a dense and slow-traveling urban environment. But somebody somewhere knew somebody who had a serious injury, and therefore technology is required, in the form of a helmet. And so the easy and normal activity of biking takes on the appearance of an extreme sport, a contest with death for trained daredevils, not to be undertaken by regular people on their way to customary activities like work and shopping. And people who might have used a bike stay in their cars, losing the exercise, getting fat and diabetic, and making life more dangerous for the few remaining cyclists. Not a safe life style for anyone.
"If we wear helmets for cycling, perhaps we should wear helmets when we climb ladders or get into a bath," says a professor of actuarial studies.** Perhaps I shall live to see the perfection of the Walking Helmet; after all, I might encounter a crack in the sidewalk, or stumble down the subway steps. Or the Sitting-at-My-Desk helmet: I might nod off and hit the keyboard with my head. (I needed one of those in a meeting I recently attended.) In recent days I've seen kids stuffed into helmets in order to ride little scooters that might take them to the mind-rending speed of eight miles an hour. How many days must I wait for the unveiling of the American Child Helmet, that will encase the noggins of our progeny throughout all activities and inactivities from birth to majority?
This afternoon my TV is showing the national sport, a game much adapted in America from one of the world's simpler Ur-games. We have improved rugby into what we call football (although it has almost nothing to do with the relationship of feet and balls). Rugby is a rough game, with a lot of crashing and bashing, and a century's worth of American exceptionalistic thinking has been applied to make the crashing and bashing of American football safer. There are, as far as I know, no specialized items of equipment for rugby players: they wear what soccer players wear. But the unmediated risks of flesh-on-flesh collisions were not tolerable for Americans. Over decades, specialized items of equipment were invented: pads for the shoulders and shins, the chest and the ribs; sophisticated helmets with face protection and shock absorption. Today's football player looks pretty much like the robot in a mid-century sci-fi flick, or -- even better -- he looks like a Transformer in one of those movies named after a toy for boys with accelerated testosterone.
And how has that been working for us? Well, football is in a crisis. The injuries are as frequent, and more horrific, than ever. It's suddenly common knowledge (how could we not have known?) that football players frequently get concussions, and that repeated concussions bring on early dementia and death. The national game, whose very object is to knock people down and "hit them hard," is seriously embarrassed. But how is this possible? We're Americans, and we've spent research, ingenuity, and serious money to protect our assets.
If we had a national sense of tragedy, we'd bring to mind more easily the Law of Unintended Consequences. We'd know that solutions can become new problems, and that measures intended to keep us safe can pose new dangers. The helmet, so cushioned, so hard and unbreakable, becomes a weapon. The sense of invulnerability spurs greater speed, recklessness and violence. The sport seeks out the gaps in our planning, and penetrates the limits that new equipment cannot contain. Like Pogo and Oedipus, we have met the enemy and he is us.
No, you can't be perfect; and you can't be perfectly safe, even if you're American. All you can do is trade some risks for others, running from one danger into the grasp of another, the greatest of which is never to have chosen the risk on which you wager your life. And thus does the Idol of Perfect Safety seduce us us to surrogate living.
"You're on earth. There's no cure for that," says one of Beckett's characters. If you're still alive, you're in danger. I might have choked to death on my eggs this morning.
After all, it happened to somebody, somewhere, sometime; or to their neighbor; or to somebody their neighbor knew; or to somebody their neighbor's friend saw on television. Somewhere. Sometime. Or other.
"Shall I dare to eat a peach?" asks Prufrock. I like my eggs. They help me to feel alive. Shall I wear an Egg Helmet?
*New York Times (September 30, 2012)
**"There are lots more injuries during those activities:" Piet de Jong, Dept. of Applied Finance and Actuarial Studies, Macquairie University, Sydney, Australia (see Rosenthal above)