What We Are Talking About When We Are Talking About Helmets
This post by Max Dubler
Why does everyone freak out when a high-level rider or media outlet publishes a video of someone skating downhill without a helmet?
The answer has to do with cultural norms.
Skateboarding famously has no rules. Instead, we have cultural norms: informal understandings that govern our behavior. These norms ensure that everyone gets a turn at the ramp session, that only one person at a time skates the bowl, that you clap when you’re coming up on someone you’re about to pass on a hill, and so on.
Downhill has a very strong cultural norm around helmet use. If you skate downhill, you are expected to wear a helmet. People who don’t wear helmets are considered ignorant, reckless kooks. (Shout out to Coast and Loaded for reinforcing this norm in the early days.)
Maintaining the helmet norm in downhill is important because without it, kids die. This is not hyperbole. Downhill is uniquely dangerous compared to street and transition: almost every single skateboarder death recorded by Skaters For Public Skateparks happened in the roadway, when someone hit their head bombing hills, skitching, or hitting a car. I cannot stress this enough: slamming on street and transition will fuck your shit up, but a downhill crash will kill you, especially if you aren’t wearing a helmet.
The helmet norm is fragile and requires constant maintenance. While we can tolerate minor violations around the edges, when top pro riders and influential media outlets theatrically violate the helmet norm for clicks, shares, cool-guy points, or whatever else, the norm gets seriously eroded. If this happens repeatedly and is not met with a strong response the price of violating the norm goes down, it goes away, skating without a helmet becomes a way to get noticed for your gnarliness, and kids die. This is why I take helmet use among elite riders so seriously.
So here we are, having the Internet Helmet Police conversation again. The Cool Guy Badasses are telling us to relax, that there are other people doing worse stuff, that kids can make up their own minds, that they always wear a helmet when they’re really going for it (a confession to posing it out for the camera if I’ve ever heard one) and that they don’t care what the scolds in the comment section think. On the other side, those of us who recognize and respect our positions of influence over skateboarding understand that our actions have consequences and that telling kids to skate without helmets will lead to brain injuries and deaths.
Meanwhile, the horrifying, toxic, resigned, nothing-matters cynicism that pervades our culture labels those of us who actually care about this life-or-death issue as butthurt, triggered snowflakes who need to chill out.
Yes, I am angry. No, I will not chill out. This actually matters.
Skateboarding is never going to be completely safe. Slamming hard is inevitable, and getting back up and trying it again, even after an injury, is part of what makes it so rewarding. I am willing to accept road rash and the occasional orthopedic injury as the price of radness.
That said, I am not willing to die for skateboarding and I do not want to sell kids skateboards if they are going to imitate the riding they see in our videos and fucking die when they slam.
If you want to skate without a helmet and make yourself look like a rebellious badass, fine. I can’t stop you.
Personally, I am not willing to look a grieving parent in the eye and tell her that it’s ok that her child died of a head trauma suffered while riding my sponsors’ gear because “street skaters don’t wear helmets and he wasn’t really charging anyway;” so I wear my helmet, refuse to publish photos and videos of people riding bare-headed, push back against short-sighted people who put kids’ lives at risk in pursuit of edgy cool guy points, and sleep well at night knowing that I do all that I can to encourage safe skating.