Reflections on helkurs

I give up. What’s a helkur?

First of all, it’s pronounced HELK-er.  It’s something that helks.  That’s not particularly helpful, is it?

One might say it’s a magic token that protects the bearer who roams abroad in the long winter darkness.

It’s made from plastic.

It usually comes with a couple of inches of string and a tiny safety pin.

People in Estonia must wear helkurs, as prescribed by law, when walking along the roads on foggy nights and during the dark part of the year. As of January 2011, those caught without them at night risk getting ticketed and fined.

In other words, a helkur is a small piece of reflective plastic that reflects light on both sides. Estonians pin them to the sides of their coats, pants or jackets in such a way that they can be seen from both front and back. They must hang at about the height of an adult’s knees, the better to be seen in the glare of automotive headlights. It is recommended that they wear several helkurs to ensure that at least one of them reflects back to the oncoming driver’s vision.

Helkurs must be visible to drivers from at least 130 to 150 meters distance, according to European Union safety standards.

Oh, and the Estonian work helk means glimmer.

Since winter nights are long and dark this far north, helkurs are considered life saving devices by various government and law enforcement officials. But try telling that to some stubborn Estonians who accept change at about the same pace that the glaciers moved when they retreated northward.

Our close ethnic relatives, the Finns, have been promoting use of reflective safety tags since the 1960s, but currently only a third of the population wears helkurs in urbanized areas, with about 66 per cent compliance in rural areas. Since they were introduced, these reflectors have been improved greatly through the development and use of lightweight prismatic film.

When use of pedestrian reflectors started in Finland, there were about 300 pedestrian fatalities a year. In 2002 there were  only 40 pedestrians  killed on Finnish roads.

In European nations that require use of safety reflectors for pedestrians, the number of nighttime accidents involving pedestrians has decreased by 60 to 70 per cent. That’s a heartening statistic. I couldn’t find any good statistics for Estonia’s pedestrian accidents and fatalities.

I found out about helkurs in 2010, when I visited my cousin Anne in Estonia. She explained that they were developed as a pedestrian safety measure, particularly for people walking along unlit country roads where the roadsides consist of perhaps eight to ten feet of snowbanks. Estonians walk a lot more than Americans do, and authorities were concerned that too many pedestrians were getting injured or killed by motorists.

There have been annual  give-away and promotion campaigns to encourage the use of these safety devices. One manufacturer calls them inexpensive life insurance.

Helkurs come in a vast number of shapes and designs, and can be ordered with company logos or symbols of various organizations. My own helkur bears the image of Marge Simpson from the cartoon Simpsons family.  D’oh.

Sometimes the Estonian media  gleefully announce that so-and-so was killed by a car while wearing three or four helkurs, which just gives the recalcitrants more excuses not to bother with them.

As someone who often has to drive my husband to the Metro station at 6 a.m., I’d love to see these reflectors worn by our neighborhood dog walkers, joggers and folks heading to the bus stop.

It would be nice if the local deer would also consent to wearing them.  The area where I live is called Derwood, but once it was called Deerwood, and not without reason. We have hundreds of them roaming the upper reaches of Rock Creek Park and surrounding neighborhoods. They eat our tulips, azaleas, pansies and hostas. They rub their antlers against the trunks of young trees, sometimes killing them. I am not fond of deer.

And they have this unpleasant tendency to stroll across the road in front of you when you least expect them. When I was driving my daughter to 4 a.m. swim team practices along unlit, heavily wooded roads coated with invisible black ice, there was nothing I dreaded more than encounters with  roving deer. So far I’ve avoided colliding with them, but you never know. One collided with my neighbor’s fence last night and broke two of the fence posts.

And so it goes.




2 comments on “Reflections on helkurs

  1. The deer in Wayne have crossings marked where they have walked for thousands of years. They are amazing to view as they proceed according to their own priorities, sadly oblivious to cars which kill them. When I near them in the woods, I hiking, I always pause to absolute stillness and partake in my privilege of sharing with them that I am not a hunter. We can watch each other in peace for ages! I usually confess to the mother that I would eventually let my cousin take just one – now and then – if my family were hungry.

    • Did you spend time in the woods as a kid, Richard? There were woods between our house and Pines Lake E.S., and I practically lived there. Also the hill where American Cyanamid built its HQ. A mossy spot next to the creek was my secret hideout. This was the creek that flowed from Lionshead Lake to Pines Lake.

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