Jun 23, 2011

Asphalt Wars

This past weekend, one of the nicest people I've had in a motorcycle class took a hard spill near the end of the course. She entered a curve a little fast and decided to apply brakes while the bike was leaned over. The bike dropped into a lowside so fast that she didn't even have time to get her hands down to cushion the fall.

[This guy demonstrates the crashing "technique" pretty well.]

Unfortunately, our student was poorly protected by her gear. She really tore up her chin with a face-plant and her eye protection (sunglasses) caused significant bruising and abrasions to her right eye. Her 3/4 helmet provided about 3/4 protection, but since face plants account for 40-70% of injuries and impact points in crashes (depending on whose statistics you use) that description is misleading.

For me, her crash was harsh reminded of how unforgiving nature is. I haven't seen someone go down that hard for a few years. She was probably going about 15mph before braking, so her impact speed was no more than 10-12mph. The front tire slid out so quickly, she didn't even know she was in trouble until she was inches from the ground before reacting. She hit face-first, followed by a hard twist to her back, and a hard bounce across the asphalt where she lay still on her back for a few seconds. During that second bounce, her head was about 2' from the ground before coming back to earth hard. She tried to get up, failed, and lay back down with some muscle twitching before going still. The other coach and I signaled for the rest of the class to shut down and we ran for her. The other coach beat me to her by yards and he kept her still while I shut off her bike and moved it away from her. She was coherent but seriously in shock and bleeding. We patched her up, as best our medical kit allowed, and got her back to the trailer to take stock. She is a nurse and provided considerable assistance in her own care. She is tough and practical, so it really helped that there was absolutely no hysterics on her part. I was probably in less control than the actual victim. My co-coach was clearly the better care provider of the two of us.

A few years back, a couple of days before a long trip, I crashed my bicycle at about 2-5mph and shredded my right forearm. That incident was a reminder of how important a little gear can be, even at low speeds. Last weekend's crash was another wake-up call. The side and back of her helmet was rashed deeply. It is entirely possible that she would have been dead or seriously injured without that helmet, but it's also true that she would have been unhurt with a real helmet. Other than the head injuries, she had some minor scrapes on her arms and one shoulder. If she'd have wanted to continue the class, she could have without the head injuries.

Regardless of the pseudo-statistics the anti-helmet crowd blows around at us, the overwhelming majority of motorcycle deaths are due to head injuries. Not wearing a helmet is evidence of ignorance and foolishness and nature abhors a fool (the universe is full of vacuums, but fools don't live in a vacuum for more than a few seconds). Two of the three motorcycle deaths I have witnessed would have been prevented by a helmet. I suspect I just witnessed what would have been a fatal crash, but instead it was turned into painful but minor injuries by a helmet. A real helmet would have eliminated all but the slightest of those injuries. Motorcycle gear would have made the crash into a non-event. AGAT, folks. Wear it or pay the price.


  1. That sounds nasty--I hope she's OK and gets back in the saddle soon. One thing I have noticed about full-coverage helmets is that some folks seem to have a claustrophobia problem with them. It is easy to dismiss such phobias as silly, but they are very hard to overcome if you have one. So I would suggest trying a flip up and see if that helps, though I'm not sure I fully trust the chin bar mechanism. I have heard that somebody makes some full coverage helmets with more of a football-type of chin bar in the front that both flows air and doesn't seem as confining.

  2. I'm with you, both places. She was a great student who worked hard to capture her new skills and that's a rare person. We both, the other coach and I, encouraged her to come back and try again and asked the site coordinator to make it as painless as possible for her to do that.

    I've heard from a lot of people about the claustrophobia issue. Unfortunately for them, it's a basic thing they need to overcome to be a reasonably safe motorcyclist. Like throttle control, counter-steering, emergency braking, and strategic driving, wearing competent protective gear is a motorcycling necessity. I don't think it's unreasonable to say that if a potential rider is unable to control the panic of claustrophobia, that person is probably unlikely to be a safe motorcyclist. Some things are not negotiable and the laws of physics and human nature are among that list.

  3. So, do you consider a full-coverage helmet a necessity (I wear one)? I personally would take the risk if for some reason I couldn't wear one or only had the option of an open-face design. I believe I understand the risks and besides I haven't crashed in 40 years! I think of all the bicycle racing I did back in the days when you just put a leather strap job on your head and went hurtling down the road at 30-40 mph. Crashed many times and never hit my head. We used to joke that the leather strap helmets were there just to keep the pieces together so it wasn't such a mess to clean up. I'm not sure that the isolation and protection you feel with a full-coverage helmet lulls you into a false sense of security. Yes, a full-coverage helmet is safer when you crash, but are you more likely to crash?

  4. I don't think there is either a lulling or a false sense of security inside a full face helmet. The protection from non-crash hazards is well worth the minimal hassle. I've worn open face helmets, too, but I don't consider them serious protection. Bicycle helmets are a sad joke. I wear one, but that is the ultimate in a false sense of security. When I was young I never wore any kind of helmet on a bicycle, but my survival was just luck.

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  6. The reason I said "false sense of security" is all the sportbike riders I see weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds while wearing their usual ATGATT: wifebeater, shorts, flip flops, and a full-coverage Arai or Shoei helmet.

  7. You can't beat that combination for false something. I'm not sure I'd attach the word "sense" to it, though. People have no idea how much skin they are going to lose until they lose it. Years ago, I had a young guy in the BRC tell me he was looking forward to riding his new Ninja in exactly the outfit you described because he wanted to show off his "gym bod." I didn't make a dent in his motivation for riding and I suspect he has moved on to the next trendy hobby.


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