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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.
An inventory of helmet excuses, in no particular order:
• Scrooge is a 58-year-old messenger. You’ve probably seen him riding his cargo bike around, a uniquely engineered contraption with a big round-bottomed rack in the front to carry packages.
Scrooge must be the only person ever to fall wearing a helmet and decide never to wear one again. “The helmet didn’t let me feel where I was in space as I was tumbling,” he says. “I didn’t know, when I landed, if I was OK because I didn’t know what had happened.” He says helmets keep you from fully experiencing the space you’re in, so they put you more at risk.
Besides, he says, he doesn’t need it. “I don’t get in accidents.”
Or at least not many. The accident that convinced him not to wear a helmet was what he calls a “normal” accident. City workers had torn up the street, and Scrooge’s bike tripped on a little “lip” of asphalt. “The corner of the street bounced off my head,” he says. He says he bled for a long time and he went to work the next day.
He says he wears helmets only in races—to reduce the drag created by his long dreadlocks.
• Kelly Johnson, 43, says he can’t wear a helmet because he wears headphones when he rides. Which means that not only does Johnson leave himself vulnerable in the case of an accident, but he’s also boosting the chance that such an accident will occur. He also admits that he thinks helmets look “corny.”
• Bob Twillger, 28, who has been known to hang out at Capitol Hill Bikes, blames good helmet technology for his failure to wear one. “The lighter the helmet,” he reasons, “the more you put it down, and the more you damage it. It gets kicked around and beat up.” This from a man who takes credit for totaling a Toyota Camry with his forehead. “Every time I get hit, I get wilder,” he says. “More bulletproof.”
• “Ninety-nine percent of the time I can control my environment, my workspace,” says Andy Zalan, who’s been working as a bike courier for 17 years and doesn’t wear a helmet. “I rode more crazy when I first started. But then I started thinking of it as my career.”
Zalan acknowledges that some accidents are beyond the biker’s control. Like the time he went over the hood of a U-turning taxi. He said there was “some blood.”
You’d think that people who spend eight hours a day gaming downtown traffic would want a little extra love padding their tender skulls, but messengers just don’t seem interested. In fact, the amount of time they spend in the saddle persuades them not to wear a helmet. Eight hours is just too long to feel uncomfortable. Or look corny.
Many of those who eschew helmets are faithful glove-wearers. Some wear pads on their knees and elbows. Scrooge says if there’s any protection he always wears, it’s gloves. “When you fall, your hands go out to protect the rest of you,” he says.
Kevin Keefe, another lifer still couriering at age 56, avoids helmets, which he says “suck.” But he does wear gloves to avoid road rash, a bigger concern, apparently, than head trauma. (Zalan won’t even wear gloves. “Road rash is temporary, but tan lines are for all summer!” he says.
Messengers are right about one thing: Helmets don’t prevent accidents. You still need to ride well. And, as any messenger will tell you, riding well isn’t all about following traffic laws. (Even D.C. bike cops admit this.)
It’s about knowing what’s going on around you. Messengers ride fast and furious, taking outrageous risks as they weave in and out of traffic, street to sidewalk, wrong way on a one-way street, backward and airborne, it sometimes seems. But doing so much hard time in the saddle, they do develop a certain sense for what’s happening on the road. They are good—not perfect—at predicting cars’ and pedestrians’ behavior.
And it’s true that their well-honed intuition does a fairly good job at preventing accidents. But helmets aren’t meant to prevent accidents. They’re there to prevent head trauma in case of an accident.
The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute says two-thirds of bicyclist deaths are from brain injuries. And while some riders worry that helmets will be useless in a high-speed collision, experts say that most brushes with the pavement do not happen at a very high speed. Helmets are designed to deal with the average impact exceptionally well.
Safety standards apply to all helmets, so you can actually get the cheapest model on the market and be just as safe as if you got the priciest. Good bike shop salespeople around the city will tell you the same thing: Buy a cheap helmet and save your money for a really good lock.
The foam inside bike helmets is designed to be softer than your skull, so it absorbs the impact of a crash. The surrounding plastic shell softens some of the impact as well, and the slick plastic slides over the pavement, keeping your neck from crunching when your head hits the ground. When a helmet works well, it’s in smithereens by the time you open your eyes.
Your brain floats in fluid within your skull, and a major blow will slam it up against your skull. Depending on where you hit it, you’ll mess yourself up in different ways. The frontal lobes control higher functioning activity like judgment and concentration. The temporal lobes control memory, speech, and mobility. The occipital lobes control physical movement. Given the forward momentum of a bike, you’re likely to end up with damage to your frontal lobes in a bike crash.
Thom Parks works for Bell Sports, the company that makes most of the bike helmets out there (the company bought up Giro, its primary competitor, more than a decade ago). He says that the reasons people give for not wearing a helmet might not really be what’s stopping them.
For example, he says kids complain that helmets are dorky. “But we think part of that isn’t how it looks,” he says. “It’s what it conveys: that Mom and Dad are calling the shots.” He says helmet makers need to focus less on the look of helmets and work to make the concept of helmets more hip.
Some helmet manufacturers license images of SpongeBob or Barbie or X Games to appeal to children, and Parks says Bell also reaches out to athletes kids look up to.
The game changes somewhat when you turn to adults, but it’s a similar concept. Parks says that adults talk less about looks and more about helmets being too hot, heavy, or expensive. Parks says it’s important to shop for a helmet that fits your head shape and to adjust it properly. He says the perception of heat is an illusion.
“With any modern helmet, the difference is so minimal you can’t detect a difference in athletes’ core temperature,” he says. “Racers going a hundred, two hundred miles, putting out an incredible amount of energy—they wear helmets.” It’s important to keep athletes cool to keep them efficient, says Parks, so there have been studies that confirm helmets don’t increase body temperature.
(That said, higher-end helmets provide better ventilation. So there’s one reason to spend more money for a fancy one.)
To appeal to adult cyclists, helmets sometimes need to be made less hip, according to Parks. “At the end of the ’80s,” he says, “helmets started to get aerodynamic-looking. They had a long tail; they looked racy. But some people saw themselves as ‘cul-de-sac’ riders. They don’t want to look racy. They don’t want to wear Lycra. They don’t even want to look fast because when they aren’t fast, it doesn’t suit the mental image.”
The image problem of bike helmets is something that obsesses Lauren Mardirosian, who moved to D.C. from Detroit four years ago. In Detroit, says Mardirosian, no one wore a helmet, but once she got her first look at D.C. traffic, she decided she’d better wear one.
As a recent transplant, she liked flirting with people on bikes, figuring they shared at least that one interest. But she “felt dorky with a helmet on.” Instead of just chucking the helmet, though, she set out to change the reason she felt dorky, launching a “Safety is Sexy” campaign. Her trademark sticker, “You’d Look Hotter in a Helmet,” fits perfectly between the vents on helmets. She says she wanted people to look at someone riding with a helmet and say, “Hey that guy’s hot, he’s wearing a helmet—that’s smart.”
She started a blog for the Safety is Sexy campaign to spread the word. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) gave her the first $50 to print the stickers, but she’s spent more than $1,000 of her own money on it. Part of her motivation comes from experience: Her friend’s brother died in a bike accident, she says, and everyone who knew him now vows to never ride without a helmet again.
Mardirosian wouldn’t have to campaign so hard if the city enacted a helmet requirement. Currently, only bicyclists 16 and younger are legally bound to wear a helmet—a law that’s almost never enforced. Police must follow kids home and write the ticket out to their parents.
Nobody seems to want to touch the idea of an adult law, including Eric Gilliland, WABA’s executive director. “Helmets are great at preventing head injuries from crashes,” he says. “We’re in the business of preventing those crashes from happening in the first place.” He says whenever they ask their members what they think of mandatory helmet use, they ignite such wild controversy that WABA’s decided to just stay out of it.
It’s no surprise that the bike couriers agree that there shouldn’t be a law against helmetlessness. “There are problems with how bikes, cars, and pedestrians interact downtown,” says Zalan. “The solution is not a helmet law.” He follows it up with your classic “America’s a free country” line for good measure.
In D.C., everyone’s favorite nightmarish bike story is Rico, a former messenger. Nobody quite knows what happened to him. But if you ask most bikers in the D.C. area about the worst crash they’ve heard of, they’ll all tell you about the same guy.
Rico, whose family did not want his last name printed, says that in 2005, he was riding his bike on the passenger side of a vehicle when the passenger reached out the car window and hit him hard on the back of the head with a blunt object.
Actually, he said he was on the “messenger” side of the car, because words like “messenger” and “passenger” get confused in his mind now. He also doesn’t remember most of his old friends by name, and he gets lost when he leaves his house. And it’s taken him two years to get as lucid as he is now.
Rico says that the injury that caused him lasting brain damage didn’t even make him fall off his bike, and he even finished his workday, delivering packages. Later in the evening he got together with friends; they were going to go play pool, but his headache was getting worse and worse. Finally he went home and laid down. His mom still feels guilty that she gave him an aspirin for his headache—the worst thing you can do for bleeding.
But she didn’t know he was bleeding. No one realized anything was wrong until the next evening when Rico’s mom came home from her job at the Capitol Hilton and his bike was still there—he hadn’t gone to work. By then he’d been hemorrhaging internally for more than a day. Asking to go to the hospital is the last thing he remembers. He entered a coma and didn’t come out for a month.
Some of the bleeding may have been from old injuries, and this is where the story gets complicated. Did someone really smack Rico in the back of the head on his bike? Was it something else, like the rearview mirror of a passing truck, as one of his friends has guessed? Or was this some cumulative result of a lifetime of accidents?
Rico spent almost five months at Washington Hospital Center and about as long in a nursing home afterward. The nurses kept telling his mom he wasn’t going to make it. He didn’t recognize her when he woke up, which the doctors took as a bad sign. When his friend Lola visited him in the hospital he said, “I don’t know your name but I know your bike.” He told her it was a green track bike with yellow rims, and that it cost $600. He was right on all counts.
Bill Underwood, Rico’s dispatcher at Apple Courier, says he tries to “encourage my guys to make sure they have helmets.” He also thinks track bikes with no brakes “make no sense at all,” and lots of his couriers use those. “Any time we start enforcing any kind of rules, we’re negating the independent contractor clause,” Underwood says. “We can’t have it both ways.” He says the company could mandate safety standards only if they hired couriers as full employees and paid them an hourly wage.
Rico, who’s in his 40s, is still healing—and not just from this injury but from past accidents that have broken his bones, paralyzed his right arm (requiring surgery), left him limping, cost him three teeth, and seen him through more than his share of concussions. He still has trouble walking up stairs and hasn’t worked since the accident.
He was desperate to get back on his bike and even has a new one in his collection. It was a long time before he could even try. He stopped doing his physical therapy long ago because it was boring. His friends found him rollers so he could practice riding inside, but he loaned them to a neighbor and never got them back. His mom bought him a stationary bike to use while he watches TV but he never uses it. He gets tired when he walks more than a couple blocks and he falls down sometimes. He gets tired talking. He apologizes for talking slowly, for forgetting words, for getting tired and just stopping.
His family is very intentional about talking to him a lot. Every morning his mom reminds him about his old friends or the things they did the last time they went back to her native Nicaragua, gently jogging his memory if he can’t recall. Meanwhile, she’s looking to enroll him at a gym with a pool, wondering if he might take to swimming more than the other forms of exercise she’s tried to interest him in.
He finally did get back on his bike. One of his first times out, he fell when someone on the street called out to him. He wasn’t wearing a helmet.
“The problem with a head injury is that we can’t fix it,” says head injury specialist Mary Pat McKay. “If you come in here with a severe brain injury, you’ll never be the same again. You may not go back to the same job you had before. You may need round-the-clock care.”
McKay says the hardest thing about her job is giving families bad news. It hit close to home when her friend’s son crashed on his bike without a helmet. His head hit a pole. He was about to graduate from an Ivy League law school. Now he paints houses.
Dan Dutko didn’t wear a helmet on his last ride because it was such an easy ride. There were little kids and grandmothers on those trails. Besides, he didn’t like helmets anyway, and his friend Garry wasn’t wearing one.
Dutko was a Democratic party icon in the ’90s, rubbing elbows with the Clintons and the Gores, raising money for the DNC, and running his private lobbying firm. He was the quintessential Washington political celebrity, famous to the famous but too “insider” to be familiar to the rest of us.
In July 1999, he was in Aspen, Colo., for a party meeting, which President Clinton attended. He was supposed to get a ride home on a colleague’s private jet, but the plans changed, and he suddenly had an extra day to spend in Aspen. He called up his friend Garry Mauro, a Texas Democratic honcho. Mauro was into biking and suggested they go for a ride.
The ascent didn’t take more than an hour, but on the way back downhill, the weather turned cold and rainy. Dutko started to get nervous. He was afraid of heights and must have started to panic, going so fast on the slick mountain road.
“Everybody knows you’re not supposed to hit your front brake,” says Mauro. “When we rented the bikes, they made a point of telling us not to hit the front brake.”
“It was raining, it was cold, he was going downhill, which would have made him nervous,” says Dutko’s widow, Deb Jospin. “So he wasn’t at his best. But that’s why you wear a helmet, for when you’re not quite your best. Anyone can stay upright when everything’s going well.”
Dutko catapulted off the bike and hit his head on the road. Mauro says it didn’t look like a bad accident. “I thought he just fell and scratched himself up,” he says. “I expected to see Dan jump up and be OK.”
But Dutko was unconscious. He was taken to the Aspen Valley Hospital and then flown to the Grand Junction Trauma Center. The doctors told his wife to come quickly and pack for a long stay and that Dan would be in rehabilitation for at least a month. But they said they wouldn’t know anything for a couple of days until the swelling went down.
By the time she arrived the next morning, Dutko had taken a turn for the worse. They’d operated in an attempt to repair the damage on the right and left sides of his brain, but he then developed spontaneous blood clots, and the brain was irremediably swollen. They kept him alive long enough for his wife to arrive. Tuesday morning, they took him off the respirator. He died immediately. He had no ability to keep himself alive.
Anecdotes of helmetless carnage—like Dutko’s—tend to end with a common storyline of extensive, if sometimes brief, medical care. When uninsured bikers break their heads open, it’s often taxpayers who foot the bill. The public spent more than $1 million on Rico’s recovery. His family would never have been able to afford it.
According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, the “direct costs of cyclists’ injuries due to not using helmets are estimated at $81 million each year” while the “indirect costs of cyclists’ injuries due to not using helmets are estimated at $2.3 billion each year.”
Chuck Harney co-owns the Bike Rack, a fancy bike shop off 14th Street. He’s had some personal experiences show him the value of a helmet. He cracked one open last year in a bad fall. But the worst story wasn’t his. It happened to a person he was counseling.
Before opening the Bike Rack, Harney was a social worker. His client came to him with substance abuse problems. But he also had lasting brain damage caused by a bike accident. He hadn’t been wearing a helmet when his bike tire got stuck in the small groove in the street where the asphalt meets the brick gutter. “He couldn’t really speak,” Harney says. “His thought process was slowed down.” The depression and helplessness that resulted from the bike wreck led to his substance abuse.
It took a hydraulic system to lift the bus off of Carol Tyson. Her right leg and arm were stuck under the wheels. Her left leg was “twisted in the guts of the bus.”
She says a passerby squeezed under the bus and talked to her nonstop to keep her conscious. He accomplished his goal, but he became more annoying to her than the bus on top of her. “There’s only so much pain the mind can process,” she says.
She has undergone about 30 surgeries, mostly trying to fix her leg, which will never be back to what it was. When listing Tyson’s injuries, it helps to start at one end of the body and work your way up or down, so as not to get lost or forget anything. She fractured her knee, leg, and pelvis. She lost the skin on her right forearm, hand, and leg (an “awesome” tattoo was a casualty as well). They couldn’t save her crushed hand, and after several surgical attempts, they amputated it and grafted skin from her legs and stomach onto the stump. A “good chunk” of her leg has grafted skin as well.
Tyson’s skull was fractured, along with both eye sockets, but she credits her helmet (which was pulverized after smashing for 80 feet between the surface of the asphalt and the undercarriage of the bus) with saving her life. She just moved back to D.C. after living a few years in Australia and is doing the same kind of work as a union researcher that she was doing before her accident.