Sunday, July 08, 2007

A cyclist's dreams (and a chaplain's reality) II

I climbed up my favorite hill on my bicycle after work today for the first time in a long time. When I started to approach the top -- some 800 feet above the valley below -- I felt an excitement start to course through my body. I was going to be going very fast, very soon. The air I was pushing through would become a roar as I lowered myself into the lowest crouch possible. Nothing would exist for me, but myself and the descent as I concentrated every bit of mental energy on safely guiding my bike down the curving road.

But when I actually got there I found myself lusting for even more speed than gravity could provide and I started pedaling furiously to try and go even faster. I topped out at 69 kilometers per hour (43mph), seven mph shy of my dream of hitting 50, but still -- believe me -- quite fast to be going on two narrow wheels!

I consider myself a pretty risk averse person overall, but something happens to me when I get on a bicycle. I become fearless. . . . Maybe that's what happens to people here in Pennsylvania who ride motorcycles. Maybe they're responsible people most of the time, but when they get on their motorbikes they don't care about their own safety anymore.

I just don't know any other way to explain the fact that so many motorcycle riders here don't wear helmets. It was not very long ago that I stood in a room at the hospital when a neurosurgeon told two teenage children that the father they had seen perfectly healthy only hours ago was almost surely going to die from his injuries. It was a bad accident. This guy was really hurt. But they stopped his bleeding. As I overheard one of the docs say later, "it would have been a great save if it wasn't for the head."

We see this all the time in our trauma center: Motorcycle riders who, if they had only been wearing a helmet, would have one day been able to leave the hospital and resume their normal lives, again. Instead, their families are left with the heartbreaking decision of whether to shut off life support because their loved one's brain is gone.

And it's so unnecessary. Pennsylvania had a helmet law. But it was repealed in 2003. And despite the tragic results of that repeal some motorcycle advocacy groups are still fighting restoration of a helmet law.

The groups make the kind of ludicrous argument that people are more careful when they ride without a helmet and so are less likely to get in an accident. Well, I wonder how that would have helped the guy who came into our trauma center this morning. He, like so many other motorcycle riders who get in accidents, was riding as safely as could be. He was stopped at a light when a truck and a car had their own mishap that sent the car flying into the rider. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He said he never even saw it coming. All he remembered was getting hit.

And there's only one reason he remembered it -- he was wearing a helmet! He's hurt. He'll be hurting for a while. But he'll be perfectly fine once he heals. Thanks to his helmet. That's what helped him. No amount of "greater awareness" if he hadn't had it on would have helped. He might be a vegetable, right now.

I think there really needs to be a grass roots movement to get this helmet law back. Surfing the web, I couldn't find any sign of a group fighting for its restoration, although State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny has introduced legislation.

If you live here in Pennsylvania, I urge you to write your representative and ask them to support restoration of the helmet law.


By the way, the Jewish tradition has no place for the kind of "who cares if I get myself killed, it's my right to decide" attitude behind the fight against helmet laws. Judaism sees our bodies as merely being on loan from God and we are commanded to take care of this gift. Making sure to preserve our own lives is very important in the tradition.

And, yes, I do wear a bicycle helmet!

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