One winter day in 2002, Carol Tyson had no idea how badly she’d need her bicycle helmet.
She had spent the day outside in the freezing cold at an antiwar vigil in front of the White House, then went to Asylum in Adams Morgan to warm up and share a beer with some friends. From there, they rode their bikes toward a supermarket on Georgia Avenue NW. They were going to get ingredients for Spanish rice to make at her home in Petworth and take over to a friend’s party that night.
As urban cyclists go, Tyson was geared up for safety. In addition to her helmet, she had a front light mounted to her handlebars and a rear light on her seat post, as well as reflectors. As she prepared to take a left off of New Hampshire Avenue and onto Quincy Street NW, she turned to look behind her and saw an empty 66 Metrobus. The bus had just turned off its route to return to the depot.
The driver of the Metrobus behind Tyson apparently didn’t catch sight of her lights or reflectors. And the driver didn’t even feel it when she ran Tyson over, bike and all. She also didn’t notice dragging Tyson 80 feet before Tyson’s friend finally caught her attention and got her to stop the bus.
Big vehicles swallowing up young women has a familiar ring to it. Last summer, 22-year-old Alice Swanson was killed by a garbage truck making a right turn along R Street NW, just shy of 20th Street. A white-painted ghost bike still commemorates Swanson at the corner.
Her death prompted debate on blogs and Web sites about bike safety, mostly by bikers and motorists trying to point fingers. No one wanted to blame Swanson for her own death, but many noted the myriad ways in which bikers put their lives in jeopardy, either by not riding in bike lanes, or by disobeying traffic lights, or by weaving between cars.
None of those scenarios appeared to apply to the case at hand: Swanson, by all accounts, was doing everything right, including wearing a helmet.
Just a few weeks after Swanson’s death, the Washington Post declared, “[t]his is the summer of women on bicycles riding around town free as anything, wearing long dresses or skirts, sandals or even high heels, hair flowing helmet-free, pedaling not-too-hard and sitting upright on their old-school bikes….They make you think you are in Paris or Rome.”
Whether it’s because the local daily is glorifying helmetless riding or because people don’t want to pay $40 to save their skulls, this most basic of safety precautions isn’t exactly catching on. A recent study by Hunter College students determined that in New York City, only 36 percent of cyclists wore helmets. More female riders (about half) wore helmets than male riders (about a third). They found lower rates of helmet use among messengers.
No such study has focused on usage in the District. Unscientific observations of D.C.’s riding patterns suggest that about half of riders wear helmets. Riders commuting downtown during rush hour, wearing loafers and nice pants, usually wear helmets. Cyclists wearing gear like clip-on bike shoes or Lycra jerseys or padded shorts generally do so as well. In low-income areas, among messengers, and during noncommuting hours, helmet use goes down.
In the last 10 years, there have been a reported 232 bicyclist deaths in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. Correctly worn, bike helmets are about 70 percent effective in preventing damage on impact. Mary Pat McKay, director of the Center for Injury Prevention and Control at the Ronald Reagan Institute of Emergency Medicine, says that with those odds, she doesn’t understand why so many people continue to ride without a helmet. “If I had a magic pill to prevent 70 percent of heart attacks among people with heart disease, they’d want me to put it in the water.”
OK, but drinking water is easy. It doesn’t mess up your hair. It doesn’t make you look like a fool. It doesn’t cost $40. And it doesn’t prevent you from feeling the euphoric caress of the wind running through your locks.
Of course, those are just the most oft-cited reasons for exposing your bare skull to collisions with asphalt and concrete. There are other, more creative ones too.