City Desk

Gear Prudence: Can We Talk About Bike Helmets?

gearprudence

Gear Prudence: I occasionally see people wearing headphones while bicycling, even on downtown arterial streets at crash-prone intersections. While that’s legal in D.C., it doesn’t appear to be safe. Should this behavior be condoned or condemned? —Sometimes, Music Usage Secures Hits

Dear SMUSH: The dangers of headphones are multitudinous and you’re right to be concerned. For starters, the bicyclist might be playing that newfangled rock ’n’ roll music, which can lead not only to moral depravity but also a nasty spill. Or he might be listening to conservative talk radio. Aren’t bicyclists outraged enough already? Then again, an Australian study found that earphones aren’t especially impairing, and that cyclists wearing them can generally hear traffic just as well, if not better, than someone in a car. (And if music at a reasonable volume is so dangerous, shouldn’t car radios be banned, too?)

Even so, there’s something to be said for limiting distractions while biking in an unpredictable urban environment. While I have ridden with headphones, I feel much safer without them. And there are plenty of other options for enjoying music while you ride. You can buy some portable speakers, or rent a pedicab to follow you while carting a mariachi band, or even cram a string quartet into the front of your bakfiets. Compromise. —GP

Gear Prudence: I ride upright bikes and most of my ride is on bike lanes. Sometimes I ride with a helmet and sometimes I don’t. Lately, family or friends will share their opinion that helmets are a necessity when riding a bicycle. Sometimes I explain that I don’t ride fast, I ride sitting up, and my ride is protected. Other times, I tell them to shut up and say that driving is more dangerous. Is there anything I can say that will quiet them without agreeing that I should wear a helmet at all times?Facing Lasting Annoying Kvetching

Dear FLAK: No. While D.C. law only mandates helmets for cyclists under 16, for some, helmets are the sine qua non of bicycling safety. Recognize you won’t necessarily be able to change minds, note you appreciate their concerns, but still declare your comfort with your choice. When the topic comes up, try to steer the conversation to another area in which they question your judgment. Why did you spend all that money on law school when you didn’t even want to become a lawyer? Why did you get that master’s in medieval Icelandic poetry when you could have gone to law school? Certainly you disappoint them in all kinds of ways, which should lead to greater variety in the running commentary on how your decisions fail to meet their expectations. —GP

Gear Prudence is Brian McEntee, who blogs at talesfromthesharrows.blogspot.com and tweets at @sharrowsdc. Got a question about bicycling? Email gearprudence@washingtoncitypaper.com.

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  • Ampersand

    I saw a brass band spread over three pedicabs on the Pennsylvania Ave cycletrack a few weeks ago. Does anyone know what was going on with that? It was the highlight of the month! And much more enjoyable than headphones.

  • Nick Casey

    I almost always ride with headphones. I have found that I can still hear traffic if I'm listening to podcasts. The sounds of traffic are very different than Kai Ryssdal's voice so it doesn't cause any problems for me. Music on the other hand has many different sounds mixed in and it can be confusing. Also, I only wear earbuds. I sometimes see people riding with noise canceling headphones, obviously without a helmet, and that's just stupid.

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