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   Page 2 of 2 from The Wild One
Dick Teresi, 05.03.99

What is a "reasonably foreseeable" impact? Any impact around 14 miles per hour or greater. Motorcycle helmets are tested by being dropped on an anvil from a height of six feet, the equivalent of a 13.66-mph impact. If you ride at speeds less than 14 mph and are involved only in accidents involving stationary objects, you're golden. A typical motorcycle accident, however, would be a biker traveling at, say, 30 mph, and being struck by a car making a left turn at, maybe, 15 mph. That's an effective cumulative impact of 45 mph. Assume the biker is helmet-clad, and that he is struck directly on the head. The helmet reduces the blow to an impact of 31.34 mph. Still enough to kill him. The collisions that helmets cushion effectively--say, seven-mph motorcycles with seven-mph cars--are not only rare but eminently avoidable.

Another reason helmets don't work: An object breaks at its weakest point. Some helmet advocates argue that while helmets may not reduce the overall death rate, they prevent death due to head trauma. Jonathan Goldstein, a professor of economics at Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Maine, wondered how this could be. If fatal head traumas were decreasing, then some other kind of fatal injury must be rising to make up the difference. Applying his expertise in econometrics to those aforementioned CDC statistics, Goldstein discovered what was happening. In helmet-law states, there exists a reciprocal relationship between death due to head trauma and death due to neck injury. That is, a four-pound helmet might save the head, but the force is then transferred to the neck. Goldstein found that helmets begin to increase one's chances of a fatal neck injury at speeds exceeding 13-mph, about the same impact at which helmets can no longer soak up kinetic energy. For this reason, Dr. Charles Campbell, a Chicago heart surgeon who performs more than 300 operations per year and rides his dark-violet, chopped Harley Softail to work at Michael Reese Hospital, refuses to wear a helmet. "Your head may be saved," says Dr. Campbell, "but your neck will be broken."

John G.U. Adams, of University College, London, cites another reason not to wear a helmet. He found that helmet-wearing can lead to excessive risk-taking due to the unrealistic sense of invulnerability that a motorcyclist feels when he dons a helmet. False confidence and cheap horsepower are a lethal combination. I called a local (Massachusetts) Suzuki dealer, and told the salesman I was a first-time buyer looking for something cheaper than the standard $15,000 Harley. He said I could buy the GSXR 1300 for only $10,500, a bike that could hit speeds in excess of 160 miles per hour. He recommended that I wear a helmet, even in non-helmet-law states. Imagine: a novice on a 160-mph bike wearing a plastic hat that will reduce any impact by 14 mph. It's like having sex with King Kong, but bringing a condom for safety's sake.

Why the enthusiasm for helmets? Mike Osborn, chairman of the political action committee of California ABATE, says insurance companies are big supporters of helmet laws, citing the "public burden" argument. That is, reckless bikers sans helmets are raising everyone's car insurance rates by running headlong into plate-glass windows and the like, sustaining expensive head injuries.

Actually, it's true that bikers indirectly jack up the rates of car drivers, but not for the reason you might think. Car drivers plow over bikers at an alarming rate. According to the Second International Congress on Automobile Safety, the car driver is at fault in more than 70% of all car/motorcycle collisions. A typical accident occurs when a motorist illegally makes a left turn into the path of an oncoming motorcycle, turning the biker into an unwitting hood ornament. In such cases, juries tend to award substantial damages to the injured biker. Car insurance premiums go up.

Osborn sees a hidden agenda. "They [the insurance companies] want to get us off the road." Fewer bikes means fewer claims against car drivers. Helmet laws do accomplish that goal, as evidenced by falling motorcycle registrations in helmet-law states. It is interesting to note that carriers of motorcycle insurance do not complain about their clients. Motorcycle liability insurance remains cheap. Osborn pays only $125 per year for property damage and personal injury liability because motorcycles cause little damage to others.

Keith R. Ball was one of the pioneers of ABATE, its first manager in 1971 and later its national director. What annoys him most is the anecdotal approach taken by journalists who have a penchant for reporting whenever the victim of a fatal motorcycle accident was not wearing a helmet. When was the last time you saw a news item mentioning that a dead biker was wearing a helmet?

Which is not to say that Ball opposes helmets. He thinks anyone who rides in a car should wear one. After all, he points out, head injuries make up only 20% of serious injuries to motorcyclists, but they account for 90% of all car injuries. If Ball's idea catches hold, one day I suspect you'll see angry men stepping out of Volvos with odd T-shirts beneath their tweed jackets. The T-shirts will read: HELMET LAWS SUCK.

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