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What the Hell?

By Dan Pugatch

We have all been there, sprinting across downtown trying to make a delivery on time or catch last call at our favorite dive when—WHAM!—the next moment we are laying face down on the cold pavement wondering what just happened. Luckily, the damage is likely just a few bruises and scrapes to our bodies, bicycle, and perhaps even ego. However, far too often these accidents can result in brain damage so severe the victim is paralyzed or worse yet, dead. Regardless if the cause is a pothole, black ice, a car door, taxi, or any other road hazard, wearing a helmet can prevent many serious head injuries. Sick and tired of the excuses we all have for not wearing one, Zack Smith in Boston, MA started HELL—Helping Everyone Live Longer—a not for profit operation which gives free bicycle helmets out to anyone who asks.

Smith started HELL after his close friend Kelly Wallace was fatally struck by a car back in May of 2007. This tragedy, coupled with the numerous other serious injuries and increasingly common cyclist deaths in the Boston area, sparked the beginning of HELL. Unfortunately, in the hip bike messenger world we all ride in, wearing a helmet is just as unfashionable as wearing a pair of spandex shorts. But this does not need to be the case: custom paint jobs and battle scars can transform the helmet into a status symbol. Smith tells us, “I think the bike community should be spending less time throwing u-locks through taxi windshields and more time protecting their heads and USING their heads to make this world more biker-friendly.” Just like he told me the day I emailed HELL about getting my own helmet, “If you don’t do it for yourself, do it for those who care about you.” Thinking about how your death might impact others makes a compelling argument for helmet use.

Maybe it was getting hit one too many times by a car that convinced me to start wearing a helmet; or, maybe, the promise to my grandmother after a messenger friend died on the job without one. We shouldn’t need excuses of why we don’t need a bike helmet. Wearing one will keep you living longer so that you can ride that precious track frame through the city instead of living off IVs in the hospital or sitting in an urn on your mother’s mantle. As Philip Barbosa from Canada often says in the iam.bicycles internet forum, “Wear a helmet and give your mother an open casket funeral.”

HELL helmet wearers have posted stories on HELL’s MySpace page of their accidents and how a HELLmet has saved them, including Ariele Hertzoff who was “rocked like a hurricane” when struck by the Scorpions’ tour bus in downtown Boston. That morning she forgot her helmet and didn’t go back because she was already late for work. Luckily for her, she arrived to work safely. After work, Hertzoff stopped at the Alternative Transportation and Energy Festival held at Government Center in downtown Boston. Of course her caring friends from HELL, who happened to have a table at the festival, gave her a loaner HELLmet so she would be safe on the streets homeward bound. Little did they know she’d be struck by a bus momentarily after. Hertzoff tells about the incident, “I was heading down Boylston Street and hear a bellowing honk that sounded too close for comfort as I turned the corner. I turn around and see this huge fucking coach bus riding my ass. I was as far over to the right as I could be and had nowhere to go, there wasn’t a shoulder. It honks again right before it side-swipes me and knocks me down.” Having to walk to the hospital to get treated for a busted bloody hand, Hertzoff would have been worse off if she didn’t wear the HELLmet—there was a giant scrape across it from the tour bus. Although the comedic value of the incident is high, no one has yet made her an “I got rocked like a hurricane by the Scorpions’ tour bus and all I got was this lousy shirt” t-shirt.

So just how does this free helmet program work? Smith, with the help of his friends, has put donation jars all across Boston, as well as setup ways for people to donate via the web and mail. Benefit hardcore and punk shows have been held to raise money, as well as clothing, and bake sales, with a pinup bicycling calendar in the works for 2009. Once Smith raises enough money to place an order (usually 50+ helmets) they arrive awaiting to be stenciled with the HELL logo and mailed out to whomever requests them. “When it comes down to it, it’s just me running this whole operation out of my bedroom. It’s usually stacked to the ceiling with helmets in here” tells Smith. Fortunately for Smith and the rest of us, he does receive a lot of help from his friend Alex Pepper, collecting donation jars and organizing benefits. “Alex is my main man and he helps me out so much with what is often an overwhelming workload.”