Friday, June 11, 2010

Helmet Haters Versus The Facts: A Cycle Guide Magazine Editorial

If you think helmet laws suck, fine. But helmets don't, and anyone who wants proof only has to look for it.

If pinned down for an unequivocal yes or no on the issue, I'd have to say that if you don’t want to wear a helmet, you shouldn’t have to. I take that position for purely selfish reasons; a few of my hobbies are, shall we say, potentially hazardous to my continued health and well-being, and I don’t want them to be outlawed by politicians and/or insurance companies citing the social-burden argument, which says the societal costs of an inherently dangerous activity like motorcycling (or shooting, or rock climbing, or skiing) outweigh the right of people to indulge in them.

But anti-helmet-law advocates too often take their argument a crucial step beyond the rights issue, and insist that helmets don’t increase your chances of surviving a crash—in short, that they don’t work. And that's where it goes off the rails.

The statistic these guys are most fond of bleating about is one that even the staunchest helmet advocates don't dispute: a motorcycle helmet isn’t designed to protect you from an impact at speeds much above 13 mph. The problem with that argument is it assumes the 13 mph figure applies to the speed the bike is going when you fall off. It doesn’t.

Some years ago I spoke to Dave Thom, who worked alongside the late, great Harry Hurt on the Hurt Report, which is to date still the most comprehensive, credible, and scientifically valid peer-reviewed study of the causes of motorcycle accidents (summary of the Hurt Report here). Thom knows his stuff. He's been a motorcycle-accident research assistant and associate (1977-1981), a research associate and later the laboratory director of University of Southern California’s Head Protection Research Laboratory (1981-1998), and the general and senior program manager of the Head Protection Research Laboratory of Southern California (1998-2003). He’s currently a senior consultant specializing in protective headgear, safety, and research at Collision and Injury Dynamics, Inc.

In short, Thom knows a lot more about helmets and motorcycle accidents than some guy from ABATE named Road Dog or Spider or Poochy.

First, I asked Thom about the 13 mph figure.

“It’s an important and often misunderstood point,” he said. He explained that 13 mph—13.4 mph, to be precise—was the terminal velocity of an object dropped from six feet, or about the maximum height of the head of a rider seated on a motorcycle. “If you pick something up and drop it from six feet, it’ll hit the ground going 13.4 mph.”

But what about the speed the bike is traveling? I asked. What effect does that have on the speed at which the rider’s head hits the ground?

“The speed on your speedometer is very seldom any indication of how hard you’re going to hit your head,” Thom said. “The only situation where it is an indication is if you hit a vertical object, like a bridge abutment. Then your speedometer speed is very important.” But in most motorcycle accidents, the rider’s head falls straight down and hits the ground at 13.4 mph or less. “We found way back in the Hurt studies that the typical impact on a head at the 90th percentile was less than the DOT impact speed of 13.4 mph.”

If you need further proof that the bike’s forward, or horizontal, velocity is far less important than the vertical velocity of the rider’s head, said Thom, go to a motorcycle race. “If you’ve ever seen a guy fall off at 120, they almost always get up even though their forward speed was huge. They fall off, and they very likely hit their head at least once, but they have that six-foot fall, which is what we test helmets at.”

Once you understand the bike’s forward velocity is nowhere near as important as the speed at which the rider’s head hits the ground, the argument that helmets don’t work because they aren’t designed to protect you at speeds higher than 13 mph loses virtually all of its weight.

And yet you’ll see that argument put forward in most anti-helmet-law rants. The actual information is there for anyone to find, if they just look for it. But the anti-helmet faction doesn’t want to look for it, and they don’t want you hear about it, because it leaves them with one less bullet in their ammo belt in their fight against helmet laws.

As I said above, if you don’t want to wear a helmet, don’t. If you’re above the age of consent, it’s up to you. But there’s a difference between consent and informed consent. Some people don’t know the facts; others don’t want to know them. And that’s the difference between ignorance and stupidity.—Jerry Smith


  1. protecting our right to ride by killing more riders?

    fewer helmet laws = more dead motorcyclists.

    the anti-helmet law campaigns of the ama, abate and mrf are killing motorcycle riders. is it a self-loathing trip like gay republicans voting against gay rights?

  2. Fewer helmet laws = more dead motorcyclists ? Really? That's as relevant as the argument that porn = violent crime. Just because there is correlation between finding it in the homes of violent criminals. I bet they had milk in their fridges too. Therefore milk = violent crime.

    Actually, in the real world helmet laws = riders wearing props. Ever go to a rally or bike shop and see those big boxes full of "tupperware" with fake DOT stickers on them and a big sign that says "for amusement only".

    Humans will always push back against laws that they see as infringing on their freedoms. Take the prohibition of alcohol or the current laws against drugs for example.

    Just because there is a law doesn't change the behavior. However laws usually lead to more laws and regulation. Helmet laws are seen as, and could be the first step down the slope that ends with heavy regulation of, or even laws against activities seen as dangerous. No more rock climbing, skiing, or motorcycles...

    I'll keep my freedom to choose to wear that helmet, thank you.

  3. Yes, really.

  4. First of all thank you for posting references for your argument. A practice that I don't see very often.

    Second, I want to be clear that I am a huge proponent for helmet use and personally wear one on 99% of my rides. (I do admit to the occasional lapse.)

    Your references good as they are, point to studies basing their conclusions to a statistical correlation to either a rise in deaths following a repeal, or a general correlation to deaths with and without helmets.

    I will concede the latter point. That has been proven in controlled environments and I agree with that point without reservation.

    The former point (deaths increasing on repeal of helmet laws) I cannot. There are also studies that show the exact opposite correlation. Studies on laws in Maryland and Texas jump immediately to mind for example.

    In short. Basing a conclusion on a simple statistical correlation is overtly flawed but often used - most especially in politics. Hence my comment above about the correlation of milk to violent crime.

    My opinion is based on unfortunate personal experience with helmet use and non-use by myself and individuals I have known and on good science done in controlled environments and statistically valid samples. Such as the Hurt report. Helmets work. I will always advocate for their use.

    My other experience is living in two states with the exact opposite as far as laws are concerned. My personal observation is that in the state with no requirement about 50% wear helmets. Real DOT certified protective helmets. In the state with a law - about 50% wear helmets. Real DOT certified protective helmets. The other 50% wear "tupperware".

    Thank you for a good conversation and I hope that everyone that reads our words will take away that we are two individuals that think everyone should wear a helmet. Please!

    However as strongly as I believe in protective gear - I believe much more strongly in the freedom our country (assuming US readership in this case) provides.

    I will always advocate and fight for the freedom to not wear a helmet or in any case where freedom is threatened.

    Thanks again - lets both put on our brain buckets and go for a ride!

  5. Let's look at this from a caregivers viewpoint. My husband hated helmet laws and would only wear one if he rode in a state he was forced to. Today, after an accident 3 1/2 years ago he has a traumatic brain injury and is learning to walk all over again. I care for him 24/7. This is not what I signed up for. You riders that dislike helmet laws are more selfish than anything!

  6. I don't care much if folks choose to skip the helmet. It's kind of a pain for their loved ones to care for them for years as they try to make a recovery and all. That's the brakes. If we were rational, we would all be in a safe in a cage and skip the bike.
    I chose to wear a helmet and the better it is the more I like it.
    One little picture says it best for me, and that is on page 28 of Proficient Motorcycling by DL Hough, where it shows a diagram of a helmet with impact by Dietmar Otte.

    Bottom line is that better than 19% of impacts come on the right chin bar and better than 15% of impacts on the left chin bar.
    The next highest area is just above the visor.

    In other words, you are likely to land flat on yer kisser.

    My response? I use a full face helmet all the time. I don't want no steenkin' modular either. Give me a real helmet. I don't care if it's hot. I wear a wool cap underneath to absorb the sweat from my bald head, if that's not too graphic.

    I also consider the sunglasses I wear and imagine how they will cut my face to ribbons in a get-off. I have had the pleasure of some expert needlework on my mug and have given the matter some thought.

    I'll wear my RayBan aviators when I'm driving the convertible, but not on the bike.

    Safe ride to you.