Thursday, May 17, 2007

Staying upwind, and bike helmets

In an essay in late '05, Paul Graham gives advice to high school students. He recommends, if you're not sure what you want to be doing eventually, do something now that'll position yourself for the most options in the future. That is, Stay Upwind:
Flying a glider is a good metaphor here. Because a glider doesn't have an engine, you can't fly into the wind without losing a lot of altitude. If you let yourself get far downwind of good places to land, your options narrow uncomfortably. As a rule you want to stay upwind.
It occurred to me that this is also the best way to navigate traffic on a bike. It's tempting to take the easiest path at any given decision gate. But it's a lot smarter to take the path that will give you the most 5 D's (that's Dodge, Duck, Dip, Dive, and Dodge) options down the road. I've had a few close calls on the bike, but I haven't had any actual problems yet. I tend to take the upwind approach, and I operate under the assumption that all drivers are insane and want me dead, and would be happiest if they could make it look like an accident. It helps me foresee potential problems and avoid them.

I always wear a helmet. Contrary to popular belief, they won't necessarily keep you alive, but they will reduce your likelihood of non-fatal head injuries. The Bike Helmet Safety Institute has a pile of statistics available, a lot of which don't really say anything meaningful. Do helmets keep you alive? Yes, but not by much. They say that 85% of cyclists killed aren't wearing helmets. But they also say that only 75% of cyclists, at most, wear their helmets. If you assume that the cyclists who are conscientious enough to wear helmets are slightly less likely to get in accidents overall, the chances of a helmet keeping you alive when you would've otherwise died is almost nil. On the other hand, one in eight cycle injuries is a head injury; that's around 67,000 head injuries. And they say that between 45% and 88% of head injuries ( I note that this is an awfully wide range) could be prevented by a helmet. I've got a vested interest in keeping my brain functioning as well as it can, so the helmet stays on.

The BHSI has another unnerving statistic: cyclists have a wreck, on average, every 4500 miles. That's a total statistic; it includes eight-year-olds and adult bike commuters and tri-athletes. This kind of statistic doesn't have any predictive value, but it does help to make cyclists nervous....

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