Three kids — ages 12 or 13, two boys and a girl — recently rode bikes by our house, laughing and talking. It’s a scene repeated in this city in countless neighbourhoods among boys and girls of a strata of ages every day through the summer, then on weekends in the fall.
The joyous crew got my attention on this particular day, though, for one particular reason that stopped my coffee fix in mid-sip. Just one of them was wearing a helmet.
The journalist in me would’ve liked to chase after them. In the era of the bubble-wrapped, hyper-regulated child, how can this be? Are the parents not aware that their youngsters are not cycling safely? Or worse, illegally?
Were the two delinquents not moved by the friend who did have a helmet, and realize the horror of their unbridled, unsafe activity?
I’m being cynical, of course. The old parent in me rejoiced. One more sign, in my neighbourhood at least, that fun can’t, and shouldn’t, be insulated and stamped with a CSA sticker.
The provincial government sure does. By law in Ontario, every cyclist under 18 has to wear an approved helmet and for riders under 16, a parent or guardian becomes legally responsible to ensure that. Had Ottawa’s Finest booked the two I saw, the grownups in their lives would’ve been subject to a $75 fine.
Because they let their kids get on a bike without a helmet.
There’s a phrase I hear way too much of these days: “safety first.” I happen to agree with it — when it comes to operating heavy machinery, changing out high voltage transformers and window washing on the 30th floor of an office tower.
Oh, and maybe, I suppose, the backup straps for bungee jumping.
But when it comes to a leisurely neighbourhood tour on a flat stretch of pavement, I say look the other way and let them fly free. Our cops appear to get that, as I do not see any sign of enforcement of the letter of the law being applied anywhere in this fair city. Score one for the libertarians.
But then, the next logical question becomes: was such a law even necessary in the first place? No doubt it was, because so many of us helmetless buffoons were splitting our noggins open with reckless abandon in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, when safety paranoia began to take hold. Why, the streets must’ve looked like an abattoir floor, to lead to whole laws being written to save us from ourselves.
But I certainly don’t remember it that way. My trusty blue 10-speed got me everywhere between the ages of 12 and 17. That bike and I rode back and forth to high school, to my busboy job at a local restaurant, the sub shop and to the theatre downtown.
I never wore a helmet. Nobody did.
And when I finally did cartwheel over the bars after suddenly hitting the front brakes on a fairly steep decline beside the playing field at my high school, I didn’t crack my skull, but my collar bone.
That, and my dignity.
After the 16-year-old version of myself got up off the pavement in front of the entire girls’ field hockey team, it was overwhelming embarrassment — not pain — that was coursing through my veins. (Pain came later when dad was driving me to the hospital).
As if that was not enough, I had to wear a collar sling to school for six weeks, though that did capture the sympathy of one or two of those same girls who saw my crash happen.
“Oh you poor thing!”
Call it a side benefit of reckless cycling.
Maybe I was lucky I wasn’t killed. But if luck was the key factor that kept us boomers from invalidity, luck must’ve been in oversupply in the 1970s. Skill certainly had nothing to do with it.
We hear a lot about the virtues of risk-taking from business gurus these days, but if children are conditioned to be paranoid about every little one that confronts their instinct for joy, it’s small wonder they seek the insular world of the gaming and texting screen.