Ruminations on the risks of no risk
By DICK DORWORTH
Express Staff Writer
One of my sons is a paramedic. He tells me that in his
profession people who ride motorcycles without wearing a helmet are
referred to as "organ donors." Such dark humor helps keep people
in his line of work sane. The common sense wisdom underlying the humor is
both practical and impossible to refute.
Who wants to be an organ donor before his time? Who needs
to take unnecessary risks? Why would anyone take risks that are easily
avoided? Since people do it all the time, and at least some of those who
take avoidable risks are not complete idiots, there must be defensible
reasons for risky behavior.
When I was 16 I rode a friendís motorcycle just enough
to realize that my particular personal qualities at the time were not
conducive to a long career (or life) as a motorcyclist. I put motorcycles
off limits to myself. In retrospect, that decision seems an astonishing
and rare act of good judgment on my part at that age. That area of my
being that differentiated between which risks were (for me) worth taking
and those that werenít was in good operating order. But one of the
things I liked about riding my friendís motorcycle (a monster Harley, as
I remember) was the wind in my hair at speed. We neither had nor thought
of helmets. My rare instance of 16-year-old sound judgment stemmed at
least in part from knowing I liked that wind far too much, and the wind
itself spoke to me of possible consequences far better than rationality.
It occurs to me that the lack of a helmet at 16 helped
form a decision that, in the long run, served me far better than a helmet
would have if I had gone down at the speeds I liked so much. That decision
helped me learn to set limits on my youthful impetuosity and love of the
cheap thrill, and when to take the risk and when not to. It was a
watershed event. I think of it often.
Nearly 20 years later the circumstances of life dictated
that I spent a month riding the first motorcycle since teenagehood to and
from work through the streets of San Francisco. A friend (the owner of the
bike) gave me a 15-minute lesson in a parking lot, concluding with this
advice, "Remember, Dick, every car out there is your mortal
enemy." For a month I lived in unhelmeted terror and exhilaration
twice a day for 20 minutes, surrounded by mortal enemies, all of us moving
at different velocities in different trajectories, the wind in my hair
providing constant information.
I still liked that wind, and I learned to like the game of
traffic, but I knew the motorcycle was not for me and that I would
probably never ride one again after that month. I consider that month of
motorcycling along the streets of San Francisco the riskiest thing Iíve
ever done. It went okay because by then I had a certain amount of
experience in deciding when to take the risk and when not to, and while on
that bike I gave myself a big, big margin.
Motorcycles are not for me, and neither are helmets,
whether for the road or the ski slope. There is no question that the use
of helmets in a variety of activities saves lives and lessens the extent
of injuries when an accident occurs. Helmets reduce the risk of risky
behavior. Helmets put a literal barrier between the person involved in a
moving activity and the possible consequences of their mistakes, the
mistakes of others, or the misfortunes of both. (Accidents happen to
people who pay attention and have made no definable mistakes.) But there
is a risk in the attempt to reduce or eliminate risk that, in my opinion,
is not sufficiently addressed, appreciated or acknowledged. There is a bit
of illusion, a sense of false security in devices like helmets, avalanche
transceivers, big and sturdy motor vehicles, gated communities, guns in
the top drawer and atomic weaponry. As there are no free lunches, there
are no risk-free worlds, and there are no free barriers or safety nets.
The motorcycle helmet was first used by competitors. The
nature of competition reduces the margin of error and raises the standard
(and velocity) of activity to a point where performance and result are
more important than experience and function. Falling is not only more
likely when competing, to some it becomes a viable, or at least
acceptable, option. As moving at speed with a helmet on oneís head is a
different experience from moving at speed without a helmet, the attitude
developed and the lessons learned will be different.
In recent years in skiing, the sport I understand best,
helmets have become popular with recreational skiers. Racers were the
first to use them in skiing, but I am not convinced that helmets offer the
protection their owners feel they do. (At this writing, two famous
ski racers are in comas after hard falls, though both were wearing
helmets. Also, a helmet did not prevent the only skiing death I ever
witnessed.) It seems to me that the lessons and attitudes developed with a
minimum of barriers between the risk itself and the person taking the risk
will, in the long run, serve that person better than a high-tech piece of
plastic wrapped around the skull.
Beware the barrier between person and experience, offering
a security it cannot deliver at a hidden cost in subtleties of experience
and lessons of judgment that may not be of comparable value.