8 Ball In The Wind

Sunday, April 6, 2014


There has been renewed discussion lately about a subject that seems to divide the motorcycling community quite severely.  It is, simply put; the question of do we have the right to choose for ourselves, how to take care of our own bodies.  As responsible (or at least reasonably so) adults, do we have the RIGHT to decide what is reasonable in our own minds in regards to our own personal safety?  It really is a passionate debate.  

I have seen people join online groups only to realize the group they have joined promotes a choice they don't wish to make.  Thats's all fine and good.  Just leave the group and go with your own choice.  But what strikes me is that many times, as the person leaves the group or forum, they post their reasons for leaving.  And strangely enough, many times it seems to degerate into a negative degrading comment about the groups objective.  Is it so difficult to agree that adults should be able to make a few basic choices for themselves?  Or is it that some people cannot deal with the concept that others do not share their choice.  Which somehow makes those 'others'  less intelligent, less reasonable, or outright irresponsible.

What is this choice I keep referring to?  Simple;  does a person have the RIGHT TO CHOOSE if they wish to wear a helmet or not?  

Currently, a majority of the states in the US are to some extent, 'Pro-Choice' states.  I say that because as I write this, more than 30 allow a motorcyclist to CHOOSE whether to wear a helmet or not.  Although all but two of those have some form of age restriction connected to the choice.  Even in the two states that have no restriction on helmet use, there is a choice.  You can wear your helmet if you wish, if not, then don't.

Sadly, Washington state is in the minority of states that still MANDATES the use of helmets.  It just puzzles me when the subject comes up of repealing the mandatory helmet law, why some people have such a strong reaction to even the idea of not wearing a helmet.  As if wearing a helmet gives them some form of superiority intellectually.  But there's the rub, they won't even see that repealing the helmet law doesn't affect their helmet use one iota.  

If there isn't a MANDATORY helmet use law, that does not mean you won't be allowed to wear a helmet.  It simply means you have a CHOICE whether to do so or not.

There is always a big discussion about several things when it comes to helmet use that seems to not quite fit reality.  But it does seem to fit common sense; at least until you look a bit closer at some of the facts.  For instance, did you know there is no such thing as a "DOT APPROVED" helmet?  The US Department of Transportation set standards for helmets to meet in regards to impacts.  It is up to the manufacturers to ensure the helmets meet the standard.  By applying the DOT sticker on the helmet, the manufacturer is stating the helmet meets the required standard.  The D.O.T. does do random tests on helmets the manufacturers claim meet the standards.  But, the D.O.T. doesn't approve helmets...as much for liability reasons as anything else.

Guess what, between 1980 and 2008, the helmet failure rate rose from 31% to 45%.  So, basically one third to nearly one half of the helmets tested didnt meet the impact requirements the D.O.T. set.  What speed are these test impacts you ask?  It is an impact of, get ready for this, 13.4mph.  The Snell standard is a bit higher, requiring two impacts in the same place.

Here is a quote from an email response from an executive at Snell about this very question:
"Our standards call for impacts with a velocity of about 17.3 mph followed by a second impact at the same point on the helmet at about 14.8 mph. A helmet that can take one of our headforms through these two impacts unscathed could probably handle a single impact somewhat greater than 17.3 mph but certainly no more than 23 MPH.

DOT tests apply two impacts as well, both at around 13.4 MPH implying a single impact capacity greater than 13.4 mph but certainly no more than 19 mph. These numbers all seem pretty dismal compared with even normal traffic speeds but, fortunately, few motorcyclists ever go head-on into a wall.

Most head strikes are glancing blows. The most common accident is the biker is thrown from the bike, falls to the road surface and scrubs off his cruising speed sliding along the roadway. The impact velocity is not his cruising speed but just the downward component picked up in his fall. A fall of two meters (we're metric here) will result in a DOT level impact. If the biker is thrown higher, say up to three meters, it will be a Snell level impact. Of course, with no helmet, a fall of one or two feet can produce death or permanent disability.

What's important is that almost any level of head protection will produce benefits. There are accidents in which even a thick toupee might save someone's life. However, a motorcyclist could not lift, let alone wear, all the helmet he might reasonably be expected to need to survive any reasonably foreseeable accident. For that reason, our standards look to identify all the helmet a rider could reasonably be expected to wear."

Ever wonder why a new helmet comes with a little tag saying the helmet needs to be replaced if it falls from waist height?  That's why.  It is the level of impact, or close to it, that a helmet is designed to protect against.  Not much of an impact, is it. 

I admit, sliding down the road, that helmet is probably going to reduce the amount of road rash you have on your head.  But it isn't going to do much of anything for the rest of your body.  Which brings me to the next reason I think we should be FREE TO CHOOSE; safety.

It has been shown over the years in numerous studies that helmets are more likely to protect against head (skull) injuries.  But your brain is still getting bounced around INSIDE your skull.  MAYBE not as much, but it IS bouncing around.  Plus, several of those studies have shown that while helmets MAY REDUCE THE RISK of head (skull) injuries, they CAN actually INCREASE THE RISK of neck injuries.

So you may be alive, but you could end up a brain damaged quadraplegic?  An extreme result, to be sure, but not beyond the realm of statistical probability.  It sure would be nice to have the FREEDOM TO CHOOSE if I found those risks acceptable.

The last thing I'll touch upon, is the "Public Burden" myth.  You've probably heard it before.  Some poor biker gets busted up badly in an accident, and ends up on disability and welfare to cover the costs.  Let's take a look at that idea.  It does happen, but to what extent, and how does that compare to the rest of the motoring community?

OK, here goes; first off, the statistics from the University of North Carolina says that the percentage of motorcyclist and all other accident victims are pretty close.  With 49.5% of motorcyclists having their medical expenses covered by insurance, compare to 50.4% of all other highway trauma victims.  Sounds pretty even, doesn't it.  That is, until you factor in the actuall amounts of motorcyclists vs the other highway trauma victims.  In 2012; in Washington State, 198 motorcyclists weren't covered by insurance.  That is the same year that 95% of the motorcycle fatalities in Washington State were wearing helmets.  So, while I don't have the actual figures at hand, it is a good bet that most of those injured were wearing helmets.  Still, 198 motorcyclists having the government pay their bills and costs for recovery does seem like a major burden on society.  That is, until you factor in the 905 non-motorcyclists (that 50.4% of other Highway trauma victims) into the equation.  To my figures, that means that motorcyclists are roughly 78% less likely to be a "public burden" than a non-motorcyclist.  So the whole "public burden" issue is a moot point.  So don't let someone get you distracted by it.

To finish, before I get off this rickety old soap box, adults should have the RIGHT to make free choices about their own health and well being.  Don't you agree?  That is all that repealing the helmet law in Washington State really does.  If you want to keep wearing your helmet, that's perfectly fine and dandy.  If you don't, that's your choice too.  Either way, you are responsible for your own choices.  It is simply a question of having the FREEDOM TO CHOOSE, and not be told how to take care of ourselves and our loved ones by some vague government bureaucrat to who we are nothing more than numbers and percentages in a set of columns somewhere.

Speaking of that, I have one last thing for you to think about.  If mandating helmets makes us safer, than why is it that the CDC stated in a letter to Congressman Thomas E. Petri that only "41%" of motorcycle operators who died nationwide in 2010 were not wearing a helmet.  That means that 59% of them were.  And only a minority of states mandate helmet usage.  Those facts alone should give you a good food for thought.

Catch you on the road sometime... 

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