Regulation, snitching and bike helmets

However much I understand the need for us all to respect public-health regulations in these COVID times, like many I am getting fed up with them.

They are sometimes inconsistent, they are constraining, and – notwithstanding the good reasons for them – they encourage a totalitarian mindset. Government, police and institutions now have the right to meddle with what we wear (masks), where we stand (2m distance), whether we can travel (Covid tests, travel conditions, vaccine passports…) and so on. This is beginning to wear me down.

What is more, snitching is now common: from the murderous stares that people cast at non-mask-wearing ‘others’, to straight-up reporting of non-compliance, this avid need-to-tell-on-others is not healthy.

Yesterday I was standing in line at a pharmacy, with a mask, of course, and about 1m50 from the man in front (not the regulation 2m, it turned out). He looked at me, and told me – not asked – to step back. It so happened that the queue had moved forward, so I suggested that another solution would be for him to follow the queue….

Anyway, however useful these measures may be, they are tiresome and may be difficult to unlearn after we (and our governments) have got used to regulation, enforcement and snitching.

I think some people enjoy the moral superiority and power that all these rules have facilitated…

Bike helmets: another moral rule

Today I cycled off to work without my helmet: I always wear one, but this morning I forgot – which is highly unusual. About 500m down the road I realised.

But instead of turning home, I thought: “What the f***?” – and rode on.

It was wonderful to not allow myself to be sucked in by yet another norm that has become irrational.

Irrational? It is irrational to enquire whether a cyclist was wearing a helmet when they have been run over by a truck. Yet this detail is always added in news reports: as if it’s OK for trucks to run over cyclists who are not wearing helmets!

When my daughter went to the hospital with a broken wrist (from falling off a small bike), she was asked whether she had a helmet on by the doctor…. for what reason? Her head was fine: it was the wrist that was broken. I was asked the same question when I also broke my wrist (after a pedestrian had stepped out into a bike path without looking): again, my head was fine.

Wearing a helmet has become a sign of virtue – and it’s blame-the-victim whatever the accident if a helmet is not worn. The fact that whole populations of cyclists in places like the netherlands do not wear helmets does not give pause to helmet extremists… it should: there are good reasons to think that whilst helmets obviously protect one if one’s head hits the road, one’s head very rarely hits the road in a society that respects cyclists.

Anyway, it was great to contravene this particular moralistic convention this morning: in an age when obedience is virtue and snitching a civic duty, a weight lifted off my shoulders (and not just the 300g of the helmet) when I ignored it.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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