Feb 17, 2008

Helmet Logic

A while back, some logic-inhibited wacko wrote MMM about how dangerous helmets are because he/she had a friend whose helmet got so smashed up in a wreak that the docs had to pick pieces of fiberglass out of his skull. Think about that. The helmet, which has about a zillion times the impact resistance of a bandana-protected skull, was shattered while still protecting the rider. It protected him well enough that there was a medical argument for surgically picking out the chunks. That sounds like an endorsement for helmets, not an argument against. That's the kind of "logic" I'm used to hearing from helmet-phobes.

Don't get me wrong, I'm happy that there are large numbers of riders who don't wear helmets. There are too damn many people on this planet and the more who want to volunteer to leave, the more empty highway space there is for the rest of us. Thanks for asking.

On the other hand, I hate losing friends to stupidity (or anything), so I don't use this argument on anyone I care about. Not wanting to add to the depletion of the world’s resources, I'm not one of those do-gooders who loves humanity and hates individual people. I'm the reverse, couldn't care less about humanity but hate the idea of my life without certain people in it. The rest of you can do what you want: helmet/no-helmet, seatbelt/no-seatbelt, do-drugs/don't-do-'em, drink, smoke, get fat, chew gum and try to walk, whatever. As long as you have the whole story, you can do what ever you want and I'm on your side.

The first time I spiked a pointy rock with the top of a brand new Bell -- and walked away with nothing more than a ruined $120 investment and a fat lip -- I made up my own mind for life. That was thirty years ago. Since then, I've learned that I'm not man enough to ride helmetless. I've splatted thousands of wasps and bees with my faceshield, slid along dirt trails with my head leading the way through the shrubbery, and tumbled ass over teakettle through barbwire fences and cactus and I'm still here to write about it. That’s me and you are you. I'm still riding, after almost 40 years of falling off of motorcycles, and my protective gear gets a good bit of the credit for that. Jujitsu training and learning how to fall gets the rest of the credit.

This isn't a matter of me wanting to make your lives safer. I don't care about the "cost" of a helmet-less society. Even the medical insurance argument is a wash, in my mind. Sure, you'll cost me a few bucks on the front end, in emergency services and when the ER docs chew up time and resources trying to paste your busted head together, but you won't be there to suck up the Social Security account reserves. Except for those of us who die of boredom in our cubicles, everybody's going to be a drain on society at some time in their life. It ought to be a free country and you should be able to write yourself off anytime you feel the need. The problem with the "story," told to newbies by the “a helmet restricts my freedom” crowd, is that most of that story is a fantasy.

“Helmets prevent you from hearing hazards.” Actually, just being on a moving motorcycle does that job almost perfectly. Between the wind and motor noise, you can't hear a 747 until it's a second away from your good ear. Unless you are stopped, and sitting on a Honda step-through-90, the only noises a helmet keeps you from hearing are too quiet to be dangerous. On the other hand, a good helmet (and earplugs) will protect you from premature hearing loss. Weirdly, many of us think we can better hear important things with both a helmet and earplugs. I can’t explain that, but I’m not the only one who is mystified by that psycho-acoustic phenomenon.

“Helmets obstruct your peripheral vision.” Not wearing a helmet with a face shield often obstructs your vision in all directions. (There's the reason the chopper crowd plods along at 45mph, hanging up traffic for miles behind them and irritating little old ladies on their way home from church: they can't see if they go any faster.) Between the bugs, dust and pollution, birds, flying rocks and gravel, and your own flapping eyelashes, serious wind protection goes a long way toward maintaining visibility.

“Riders sometimes die (or worse) from neck injuries received in helmeted accidents.” Without the helmet the stuff from the first vertebrae up may be all that is left intact, the skull is goo. Using your brain as bubble packing to protect your neck is seriously weird. The first motorcycling death I witnessed happened when a kid hit a stopped car at less than 10mph, rolled over the hood, and cracked his skull on the curb. His neck was in perfect shape when they buried him. A lawn sprinkler washed a gob of his brains down the gutter before the EMTs arrived.

All this said, I don't want new laws passed. Helmet laws do exactly the wrong thing. The only result I've seen from helmet laws is that a lot of helmets get sold because a lot of helmets got stolen. Rider safety probably isn't impacted nearly as much as the lawmakers might have expected because half of the helmets on the road were stolen. The stolen helmets got lifted by cutting the buckle from the helmet lock. A great helmet without a strap and buckle is next-to-worthless. After getting a couple of $400 helmets stolen, even the guys who love helmets end up buying a cheap hat. The end result is pretty pointless.

I’m sure some of you will write MMM (heck, go direct and write me at twday@usa.com) and tell us how you believe we’re criticizing your "personal choice." I'm sure you know better than the AMA and four generations of motorcycle racers who wouldn't cross the street without a helmet securely strapped to their heads. I just want to be sure you know what you're risking. I want you to be as free as you can be. Free to live or die, because it's no skin off of my skull.

September 2001

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