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Opinion Column
For the week of April 4 through April 10, 2001

Ruminations on the risks of no risk

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.


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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.