DELMAR — Squirrels and rabbits aren’t the only creatures scampering about, reveling in the Capital District’s magnificent springtime. Bicyclists are out in full force in our parks and on our bike paths, streets and even major roads, enjoying the sunshine and the feel of the gentle wind on their faces. Sounds idyllic, but a danger lurks that all too many cyclists ignore – the necessity of wearing bike helmets to protect their brains if an accident occurs and they fall on their heads.
A 45-year-old male engineer named Walter, who did not want to use his last name, was soon to move permanently to Albany County in 1991. He was a skilled and careful biker, often joyfully riding 30 or 40 miles on weekend afternoons.
One Saturday morning, Walter biked to Westchester, where witnesses say he hit a pothole in the road, sailed through the air, and landed on his face.
Walter immediately lost consciousness and was taken by ambulance to the nearest hospital, having permanently lost half his teeth. Luckily, he was wearing a properly fitting helmet, which split into two pieces.
He regained consciousness in the hospital, but experienced a complete personality change, greeting all his relatives who raced to the hospital loudly and effusively, as if he were a political candidate running for office. Walter had no idea where he was.
He didn’t regain his senses for eight hours and suffered from headaches and pain for weeks afterward. Walter said his dental work took nearly a year, and doctors told his wife that had he not been wearing a helmet, he would have either died or suffered a traumatic brain injury, with likely lifelong consequences.
Another bike helmet story had a much more tragic ending. An Albany County resident named Joseph signed up for the Tour De Cure race benefiting diabetes seven years ago. His wife said that on the day of the race, her husband was exhausted, failed to eat nourishing food that would sustain him on the long ride, and worst of all, wore a helmet with an anchoring strap that was too loose.
As Joseph was going down a steep hill at rapid speed, the tube of the rear wheel blew, exited between the rim of the wheel and the tire, wrapped around the gear mechanism, and instantly stopped the bike. The force threw him to the pavement, splitting the back of his head.
A helicopter took him to Albany Medical Center Hospital, where he was put on life support. After 16 days, the decision was made to stop treatment. Joseph died 20 minutes later.
Suffering post traumatic stress, Joseph’s wife did not ride her bike for years.
Although the passage of time helps, she still grieves for her husband, whom she dearly loved. She cringes when she sees people riding without helmets.
“I believe they should be universally required,” she said.
New York state, however, only requires children 13 or younger to do so.
Research, as well as interviews with about 30 Delmar residents of all ages, indicates that helmet use is spotty and is strongly age related. Sex plays a role as well, with men much more likely to shun helmets than women.
Elementary school age students, often required by their parents to wear a helmet, nearly always do so. FIfth grader Madeleine Walthall was particularly emphatic in her support.
“I don’t want a head injury,” she said. “It can ruin the rest of your life. It’s common sense. I wear a seat belt, so of course I wear a helmet.”
Eleven-year-old Scarlett Snow agreed, claiming that she never climbs on her bike without first donning her helmet.
Middle and especially high school students tended to be less enthused about helmets than younger schoolchildren.
High schooler Zack Shekhler said he is always helmetless going to and from school.
“It’s uncomfortable and it’s just more stuff you have to carry,” he said.
A group of high school boys, all friends, said they only wore helmets on major highways, but almost never on small streets in their neighborhood. They refused to state their names, worrying that their parents would be angry and possibly punish them. Other teenagers strongly disagree.
“I’ve worn a helmet ever since I learned to ride a bike. I’m an intelligent person, and I can’t imagine having a cognitive disability for the rest of my life,” high school student Owen Karmel said.
Similar views were expressed by teenager David Bethman.
“I’m convinced that many drivers don’t like sharing the road with bikers and like to ride fast,” he said. “The reasons people have for failing to wear a helmet are stupid. I’d rather wear one than have my brains scattered all over Delaware Avenue.”
Other excuses to not wear a helmet mentioned by students, social scientists, and several local social workers: not wanting to sweat or mess up their hair, denying the possibility of crashing or of the dire consequences than can follow, discomfort, annoyance, believing themselves too old and too “cool” to wear a helmet, or rebelling against parental instructions or rules.
Peer pressure undoubtedly plays a role. Perhaps the most important reason for teen helmet refusal is the common feeling of invincibility at this age. “Sure there might be a few risks, but it certainly won’t happen to me,” was a frequent answer to “Why not?”
Few riders were aware of the dangers they could not control on the road, even if they were experienced riders. Possible reasons for a crash are numerous, with cars hitting them high on the list.
Additional hazards: other bikers knocking them off their bikes, bike defects, a sudden burst of blinding sunlight on a cloudy day, animals such as squirrels or rabbits racing across the road, rocks or bumps in the road, traffic cones or other obstructions, or children suddenly running in front of the them, requiring an emergency stop.
All can result in serious head injuries or death if a cyclist’s head hits unforgiving concrete.
According to attorney Michael Kaplen, a renowned specialist in the field of brain injuries, and chair of the New York State Brain Association, traumatic brain injury is an all too common result of a bicycle crash, especially when the rider fails to wear a helmet.
Besides death, cognitive decline is manifested in an inability to think clearly, which sometimes lasts for a lifetime. Emotional and behavioral changes often occur, as do depression, speech, reading, writing and communication difficulties. Worst of all, there is a high risk of suicide. Wearing a helmet is a small price to pay to lessen the chance of experiencing these terrifying aftereffects of a bicycle accident.