OK, one last post on Dutch velocipedal culture, because another reader reminded me of what may its most remarkable convention: no helmets! This one is really perplexing. Obviously, the only people who should wear a bicycle helmet are those who (i) use their heads for thinking or (ii) wish to appear as though they do; many Dutch people meet one or both of those conditions, yet all ride bareheaded, with usually no helmet on the little kid in the bike basket either. Freedom-loving people don’t like to be told what to do by government, nor by well-meaning nags, but the risk reduction is real and considerable (I know at least three people who are almost certainly alive only because of their bike helmets), and even the most devil-may-care Dutch usually have children and other people who care whether they live longer.
One reason helmets may seem unimportant is that so little riding in the Netherlands is done among automobile traffic; there’s a dedicated bike path between almost any two points. And they never get going very fast. I think this is an erroneous judgment, because two of the three horrific accidents my friends had were at fairly low speed and out of traffic, but it certainly feels scarier out in the street among the cars, or flying down a hill at thirty miles an hour, than footling along the bike path. But instinct, convention, and common sense are often very bad guides to actual risk. When I was in summer camp, we were regularly hauled around on highways in the backs of open stake trucks as cargo with no restraints; lots of women think they will protect an infant in a car accident by holding it in their lap. And I remember, when seatbelts became common in cars, that wearing one made driving itself feel less safe for the first couple of years; perhaps the psychology of the helmet is that people just don’t want to think about cycling as risky and wearing one has that effect. Of course most people now feel distinctly uncomfortable driving without a belt, and I have the same sense on a bike without a helmet, but to be the only one wearing one must feel almost intolerably geeky no matter how sensible it really is.