I've always thought of former Vancouver city councillor Peter Ladner as the sensible, pragmatic type. So this week I was surprised to hear his proposed solution to the "cootie conundrum" that may stop the City of Vancouver's bike-share program in its tracks.
I can't take credit for the cootie conundrum, by the way. The phrase appears in a recent post on theatlanticcities.com that outlines the dilemma faced by cities such as Vancouver and Seattle, where laws making helmets mandatory are a clear impediment to bike-share programs. Sharing helmets does not appear to be an option. Helmets, it seems, are considered personal items, while pressing your buttocks to a still-warm seat, or holding on to handlebar grips freshly colonized by God-knows-what are just fine. I chalk up my own laissez-faire attitude toward cooties to the fact that I have two children in the Vancouver elementary school system, and therefore have an ample supply of Nix at the ready.
The first solution, proposed by Mr. Ladner, is to exempt people who use the bike-share program. "In the two cities in the world where the bike-share program isn't working, they have mandatory helmet laws," Mr. Ladner told me this week.
"If you are getting a bike from a bike-share system, chances are you're not going to have a helmet with you, so you're going to have to find one, or borrow one, or rent one, or clean one that someone else has used. In short, you're not going to rent the bike," he says.
But then he goes further. "Exempting the people in the bike-share system, that's one way around it. Or we could just say, 'Why are we forcing everyone to wear a helmet?'"
His argument goes like this: Helmets not only discourage people from participating in bike-share programs, but from riding bicycles at at all. "The same thing applies – a lot of people will not ride a bike because of the hassle of a helmet. If you're a woman, it messes up your hair, it gets in the way, you have to carry it around."
It's been said elsewhere that eliminating the mandatory helmet law would lead to an increase in the number of cyclists on the road, thereby making cyclists the rule, rather than the exception. Safety in numbers, I suppose.
But wait – what about the cost to our public health-care system related to all of the additional head injuries that may come from not wearing a helmet?
"I think studies show that if you eliminate the compulsory helmet law, a lot more people would ride their bikes and final cost to the public purse would be less because you would have way more healthy people," Mr. Ladner says. But then he acknowledges, "Granted, you would have some head injuries that you wouldn't otherwise have."
Does Mr. Ladner, an avid, long-time cyclist, wear a helmet? Yes he does.
"I wear it because I feel safer. But sometimes when I'm just doing a little jaunt to the grocery store, I wonder, why am I putting this helmet on? Civic responsibility, I suppose. I try in vain to get my kids to wear helmets. Some do, some don't."
He points out that when we were growing up, kids rode their bikes to school every day without helmets.
Yes, but we also roamed around the vast back seats of our parents' cars, unrestrained by child seats or even seat belts.
"Maybe we've overshot," he replies. "It's the nature of the trip rather than the distance you are travelling."
On the same day I spoke with Mr. Ladner, the husband of Vancouver School Board chairwoman Patti Bacchus was injured in a bike crash. I don't know the nature of his trip, but Lee Bacchus was riding around Stanley Park when, as best as anyone can tell, one of his front forks snapped. He went down hard, fracturing a vertebrae in his neck, breaking bones in his face and sustaining a concussion.
Ms. Bacchus doesn't want to enter the public debate about bike helmets, but she also says she doesn't want to think about what might have happened, had her husband not been wearing a helmet.
"My personal view is that in my family, I wouldn't let anybody go out without a bicycle helmet. It's just not worth the risk. Certainly after my husband's accident, it's not worth that chance."
Barring torrential rain, I'll be riding my bike to the farmers' market Saturday morning with my wife and youngest child. It's about five minutes from our house, mostly on a designated bike path. We'll all be wearing helmets.