Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Stop Yelling at Me - A letter to the "Concerned Citizen"

How can you get mad at a family like that, enjoying
life outside of a car and on bikes together?
It happens all too often. I'm out for a ride, enjoying the sheer joy of being out on my bicycle, taking in the world around me, when out of nowhere, someone yells, "Get a helmet!". Each time this happens I find myself dumbstruck and at a loss for words. Why is this person so angry that they felt the need to yell at me? My actions have not caused them harm or impeded their own travels, nor have we ever met before this moment. What on Earth made them think it was appropriate to yell random advice at me?

I am calling this the plague of the "Concerned Citizen"; the random stranger that feels it is completely acceptable to shout advice or opinions at other stranger minding their own business. They are the people who yell at cyclists for things like not wearing a helmet, drinking a coffee while riding slowly, as has happened to my husband, or for rightly taking the lane when they feel it is necessary, among other things. While I'm sure they think they have the best of intentions, the reality is that what they are doing is distracting, ignorant, and just plain rude. 

When I leave the house, I have never thought, "Gee, I really hope that a total stranger gives me unwarranted advice today by yelling at me while I'm riding." Nor would I even dream of doing that same thing to anyone else, be it the person smoking on the street or the heavy set person about to chow down on a Big Mac. There's a big part of me that would love to yell, "Eat a salad!", but I have the good sense to know that's just wrong.

The fact is, I'm an adult, as are the people yelling at me and those like me. We all make decision based on facts and our beliefs. For me, I've done my research, and have made an educated decision based on what I have found. I know that while a helmet could minimize the damage to my head and the precious brain inside of it should I fall off my bike and hit my head, the likelihood of that actually happening is slim due to the slow pace at which I ride and the calmed streets and separated lanes I use. I am also aware that my head is not made of rubber, as someone yelled at me once while pulling my son in his trailer to preschool one day.

For the concerned citizen, the helmet advice generally comes from an emotional place. I don't blame them for being concerned, but yelling at me, "Someone loves you! For their sake, wear a helmet", is not going to make me rethink my decision and wear one, and in fact could have a more serious effect. I could get tired of being yelled at and just put my bike away...permanently. A friend of mine from Sit Up Vancouver summed it up nicely:

[Cyclists] know full well that behavior is what counts, that riding a big slow comfortable bixi-style sit-up bicycle, slowing when they’re unsure, avoiding car-full streets, stopping at stop signs and all that good stuff will put them in no more danger than a pedestrian. And so, just as a pedestrian would, they feel ridiculous in a helmet. Calling them names, telling them “you never know!”, isn’t going to get them cycling with helmets. It’s going to get them not cycling.

I often wonder if those yelling at me are aware that statistically, we can expect a severe head injury once every 8,000 years of cycling (Source). Whereas other research has shown that for people that are involved in crashes in a car, whether drivers or passengers, they experience serious head injuries in 25-30% of the cases. When I looked up the statistics of the number of car crashes in the British Columbia, an ICBC report found that in 2011, there were 260,000 reported crashes. Of those, 52,000 resulted in casualty, 263 of which were fatal. When broken down further, in the incidents of fatal crashes, there were 291 victims, 225 (77%) of which were inside the car, be it driver or passenger, and 57 (20%) who were pedestrians. Only 7 (2%) of those victims were on bikes, which is pretty astounding, considering how unsafe riding a bike is portrayed.

I'm not advocating that there should be a ban on helmets. If it is important to you, then it is your choice and who am I to tell you differently. I am simply asking that instead of getting so enraged that it seems necessary to yell at me and my counterparts, stop and take a breathe. Consider the facts, and then make an informed decision, all the while respecting my decision as an adult and as a human being. All I really want is to be able to enjoy my two-wheeled travels throughout the beautiful city I am lucky enough to live in, an act that should be openly encouraged, and not condemned. So please, have a little respect, and stop yelling at me.


  1. Well said! I really enjoy the freedom of riding helmetless but I know that my style of riding is usually too fast, so I wear a helmet most of the time.

    We've learned to just give the peace sign and a smile to all the people who yell at us, which seems to throw them into confusion because they aren't expecting that.

    - Dmitriy - The Other Velo Family

    1. Thanks Dmitriy! It's so hard not to want to yell back, but I've gotten very practiced at either ignoring them or asking them to please mind their own business and moving on. Thanks for reading and happy riding :)

    2. Good article, Melissa. But I'm not sure all those yelling advice do so with the best of intentions. Sometimes I've experienced abusive comments (eg "Why don't you wear a f....ing helmet")right out of the blue. This is another reason why the mandatory helmet law should be repealed - it's used as a weapon. Certainly a smile and a peace sign is a great response!

  2. Good one but "... behavior is what counts.."? Based on the rest of your post, I guess you don't mean to endorse that view (i.e. the Vehicular Cyclist view about training, behavior, lane-placement, assertiveness being the most important things.)

  3. "Vehicular cycling" is just orwellian newspeak to hide the fact that bicycles and cars shouldn't mix. They keep designing bike lanes as part of roads when they should be designing them as part of sidewalks: separated grade, away from swinging car doors, away from the blind spots around buses and trucks.

    Lane placement doesn't change the fact that the "shared lanes" are torn up by heavy traffic often to a dangerous level. Assertiveness is no replacement for double checking if cars have actually seen you. Hand signals don't make it any more sane to veer into middle or left lanes between vehicles 10-20x your mass.

    Stop designing massive 4x4 lane intersections and start designing real traffic flow. One of the biggest dangers to me is cars swerving left or right around someone who is waiting to turn: cabbies and private vehicles do it in equal measure. And maybe start teaching drivers to see further than the bumper ahead of them.

  4. I loved this. Fortunately it rarely happens here in Montréal. The exceptionally rare exceptions are ALWAYS anglophones - I've never heard a French-speaking person shout out such a thing, not even sport racers in full kit.

    Unfortunately, what you say is untrue in terms of heavy-set people. I have a friend who is morbidly obese - no, she doesn't stuff herself all day, and alas she can't ride a bicycle any more. She gets yelled at and insulted all the time, even if she is at the market buying healthy food like fish and vegetables, or simply walking along the street. There is a lot of cruelty and nastiness out there disguised as "concern".

    You are right that the helmet law not only discourages everyday cycling in normal clothing, it encourages aggression, from ignorant drivers (and police!) and the macho type of cyclist as well.

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  6. While I can appreciate the spirit of the article, the difference between the overweight fast food eater and you is that there is no law against fat people eating Big Macs. A more apt analogy might be to compare your situation with someone who yells at a speeding car, telling them to slow down. The driver may very well have done the research and concluded that for the road he is on, he is safe to drive at that speed.

    Now, this doesn't change the fact that people yelling at others to stop doing whatever illegal action may very well be annoying to those breaking the law. But the fact that you are in fact breaking a law puts it in a different category than preaching to fat people about eating habits.

    1. Your proposed analogy is severely flawed. The essence of the author's analogy was the supposed risk imparted on oneself by his or her behavior, not the legality of the action. Speeding is a behavior that imparts risk on others more than oneself, giving one ample justification scolding such actions. Furthermore, while helmet use may be mandatory in BC, this is not generally the case, and especially not in places where cycling is more common.

  7. I completely agree! Helmets are only ever effective if the people involved in the accident are going less than 20km/hour. The speed limit in most cities is 50km/hour. Now tell me why I should wear a helmet that is uncomfortable and adds to my load when I am not cycling? Until we invent helmets that will actually avoid serious injury, helmets are mere tools to divert people from cycling (by giving the false impression that cycling is 'super' dangerous) (e.g. www.hovding.com - not yet on the market). I may be extreme, but I have cycled for almost 10 years in both London and Paris, which I hope gives me some right to have an opinion.
    By the way, great blog! I am going to stop by here from time to time from now on.