Martha’s Vineyard is suffering from a critical shortage of bike helmets, a situation that is nothing short of life-threatening. According to my own painstaking research, approximately 47.6 percent of on-Island bike riders have not been able to buy, rent, or otherwise obtain bike helmets, and thus are forced to ride with their heads unprotected. In hard numbers, Martha’s Vineyard needs as many as 5,000 bike helmets for adults and children, because that’s how many bikers are riding around with their heads unprotected.
How can I be sure that people riding without a helmet aren’t just being cavalier? No one willingly rides without a helmet. After all, riding without a bike helmet is something only willfully ignorant or desperately poor people do, and because Martha’s Vineyard attracts well-educated, financially secure people, it’s reasonable to assume that everyone would be wearing helmets if only they were available.
It’s heart-wrenching to see entire families riding without helmets. Sure, they are smiling bravely, putting on a good show of enjoying themselves, but it’s clear to me that they know they’re risking serious head injuries. I am pretty sure that I’ve seen helmetless riders cycling with their fingers crossed, and I can easily imagine the adults lying awake at night worrying about the next day’s bike ride.
It’s particularly poignant to see cycling families where the children are wearing helmets while the parents are not. How Mom and Dad must have anguished about that decision. Imagine their conversation after the children have gone to sleep:
Dad: “Dear, we can afford only two helmets. If the kids wear them and we have an accident, who will take care of them while we recover from our brain injuries — if in fact we recover at all?”
Mom: “But if we wear helmets and the kids get badly injured, we’ll never forgive ourselves.”
Dad: “We can’t cancel biking, because we promised the kids.”
Mom: “We have to protect our children, so let’s just smile and pretend nothing is wrong.”
This crisis can and must be solved. I suggest a three-pronged approach: new legislation, fiscal action, and cooperation:
- Cooperation: An island-wide voluntary policy of helmet-sharing in which the “haves” willingly loan their helmets to the helmet-poor on alternating days of the week. We can create a Facebook page, and those who have helmets to share can list their names and town of residence. And shame on any helmet-rich individuals who refuse to share!
- Fiscal action. This two-part strategy is designed to make a bike helmet the equivalent of a free pass: Part One: During every ferry trip, Steamship Authority personnel will approach anyone with a bicycle, even if the bikes are on car racks. If the individuals can produce a helmet for each bike, no charge. Those without a helmet, however, pay $10 per bike. The 45-minute trip is sufficient time for assessment and collection. Part Two: Uniformed personnel will be empowered to stop every person riding a bike, whether on our bike paths or on the road. Those riding without a helmet must pay $10; those wearing helmets are waved on.
- Legislative action: We need the equivalent of the Affordable Care Act, also known as “ObamaCare.” Perhaps Sen. Bernie Sanders, an avid cyclist, will propose the Affordable Helmet Act, a single-payer plan that will guarantee every American a bicycle helmet, regardless of income, gender, race, or political leaning. (Please call the law the AHA, not “MerrowCare.”) The logic is straightforward: Because healthcare is a human right and because bicycle helmets are preventive healthcare, having access to a bike helmet is a fundamental human right. If the AHA cannot pass at the national level, Massachusetts should pass the MAHA. If the state fails to act, then Dukes County must step up to the plate and enact the DCAHA.
Step one will provide a temporary solution, while step two should raise enough money to have helmets shipped from helmet-rich countries like Portugal and Ecuador. The AHA/MAHA/DCAHA will provide a long-term solution.
One piece of contradictory evidence is troubling me: All the bike shops on the Vineyard say they have plenty of bike helmets in all shapes, colors, and sizes. This disturbing finding suggests that perhaps the riders going helmetless are not desperate. Perhaps they are either willfully ignorant or desperately poor.
And they all seem to be pretty well-dressed. Hmm …
John Merrow, a retired journalist and author of “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education,” lives in Edgartown.