When I read Juho Kalberg's piece about bicycle helmet laws and how they can't be an excuse for not providing better traffic culture and infrastructure, I found myself nodding along with the libertarian and urban planning aspects of his argument. But I also felt that his militancy - in the end, he derides helmets as "gadgets that increase discomfort" - might allow some junk science about safety to creep in, similar to arguing that seat belts are just a big nuisance.
Let's dispense with that right now, albeit with a very unscientific personal anecdote.
On September 14, 2012, a day before my birthday, I was riding a bicycle, without a helmet, back home from ETV studios in the Tallinn city center when a driver ploughed into me.
I was on the sidewalk on the left side of Liivalaia, which for most of its length has chaotic shared-use bike lanes, quite different from, say, Stockholm or Amsterdam city center. Like many Tallinn bicyclists I didn't dismount at the crossing (this is legal, incidentally, but the cyclist forfeits right of way).
The driver going the opposite direction on Liivalaia made a right turn on to Lastekodu street much too fast and hit me. My right shin, pinned between the frame and the car's bumper, absorbed some of the impact and transferred it to the bike, which ended up 25 meters away. I went flying, too, but took more of a vertical trajectory. My head hit the asphalt. Luckily some of the force was absorbed by my shoulder, but there was a gash. I didn't lose consciousness but the center of my field of vision was gone - like someone with macular degeneration - which scared me the most. I read the car's license plate with my peripheral vision and tried to commit it to memory.
Tallinn was quiet that late summer morning and there didn't seem to be anyone around. Feeling close to panic, I accepted the driver's offer - a friendly guy with Siberian features who spoke no languages I knew - to take me to the hospital a few blocks away. I kept on saying the license plate under my breath like a mantra, for the potential police report, but it slipped away. As we drove, he continued to chat with his wife in the front seat, not looking at the road, and take corners much too fast.
When I tell the story of that incident, I see it as a microcosm of life in Estonia. The at-times terrible driving. Emergency care was prompt and excellent, except for some reason radiology seemed understaffed. After I went into the CAT scanner once, I was left unattended, and I kept on going in and out of the machine for a while as the conveyor belt made a clicking noise. I assume the hospital wouldn't waste valuable radiation and the stream was off, but am not sure.
I was lucky. My vision came back. The scan found some "pieces" - never really explained in a way a patient could understand (what were they, superficial clots, skull fragments?), let alone the implications. I was released, walked home, and lived in fear for the next 6-36 hours that I would start getting sleepy, but no hematoma developed. It was an extremely boring birthday, I was in bed for a week, then returned to work but had some multitasking problems for about two weeks.
Could this happen to you? Of course it could. It would take a much softer tap from a car to send you flying. And it does happen. In fact two years earlier, also on Liivalaia, riding leisurely, I had ended up on my back, crushing a perfectly good laptop. What happened was that I saw a car on the sidewalk coming toward me (standard procedure in Tallinn before the new Traffic Act made parking on sidewalks illegal) and I overreacted and lost balance.
Falling 2 meters onto asphalt can easily kill a person, and you don't need to be going at a Schumacher-like horizontal speed. It's exactly these sorts of everyday fender benders where wearing a helmet makes all the difference. These are the most common types of injuries, not those cases where a car on a motorway hits someone at high speed from behind.
I have not been back on a bike in two years, helmet or no. Maybe helmet laws cause bicyclist numbers to drop - the part of Juho Kalberg's piece that I am most skeptical of - but in my case you could say that not wearing a helmet decreased the cyclist population by one in the long term. Whereas if you make wearing a helmet a habit right away, it probably isn't that onerous a burden.
Wear a helmet, people - and strongly urge anyone you care about not to tool around in Tallinn on a bike without one. Then let's talk about the laws and what Tallinn City can do, or is doing too slowly.