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Lethal or Life saving? - A 'Cause' or 'extremism'?

By: James R. Davis

So that there are no misunderstandings, here are a few of the things that I believe to be true relative to motorcycle helmets:

  • More lives have been saved than lost because of wearing helmets.

  • More injuries have been minimized than exaggerated because of wearing helmets.

  • More injuries have been totally avoided than caused because of wearing helmets.

  • Wearing helmets (as opposed to laws that require you to do so) is NOT a civil rights issue - it is a safety issue, period!

  • Motorcyclists that join lobbying efforts (adopting a 'cause') to ban helmet laws tend to smear the image of motorcyclists in general with the public, tend to preach from an extremist's pulpit, and tend never to have had a family member survive unhurt (or un-dead) from a motorcycle accident because of wearing a helmet.

  • Whether it is a law or not, you always have the ability to decide to ride without one. The consequences can include having a safe and uneventful ride, getting a ticket, getting a bump on the head, losing your jaw or nose or ear or eye, getting a neck injury, or death. If you ride with a helmet the consequences can range just as wide with the exception that your ODDS of getting a ticket, getting a bump on your head, losing part of your face, getting a neck injury, or dying are diminished. You have that choice, law or not.

  • There are valid concerns about helmets such as:

    • If you are injured while wearing one it is likely to be cervical in nature - meaning that there is the possibility that helmets tend to shift injuries away from the skull and towards the neck (or that the helmets are doing their jobs which does NOT include protecting the neck.).

    • They are not as effective in injury/death protection as they could be (but who would/could wear a deep-sea 'bucket' weighing 40 pounds?)

    • Some people believe they are so safe while wearing them that they take larger risks than without - thus inviting trouble.
So I'll bet you know my reaction to the latest newsletter I received from A.I.M. (Aid to Injured Motorcyclists) whose motto appears to be "Know Your Rights" and which featured an article entitled: "FEDERAL HELMET LAW REPEALED".

This is a group of attorneys that claim to be an international voice for all motorcyclists. (Though they use the word 'all', I can personally demonstrate that to be false.) The work they do on individual cases is NOT AT ISSUE HERE! I believe they do professional and often pro-bono work for injured motorcyclists on a regular basis. But when they ADVERTISE that they have won $12 million in a settlement of a defective helmet case, then use that as in some way supporting the argument that there should not be any helmet laws (for example, of non-defective helmets) I am more than suspicious of their objectives. (Let's see, a person is severely injured, in part, because he was wearing a defective helmet, and the attorney gets a $12 million settlement (meaning it did not get resolved by a judge or jury - ie, FAR LESS WORK FOR THE ATTORNEY) and then gets to keep probably $4 million (or more) of that settlement even though he suffered no injury himself - sounds like lots of motivation to get more cases just like it to me.)

Or how about ADVERTISING that they have filed a class action claim on behalf of harassed bikers for ONE-HUNDRED-MILLION-DOLLARS!!!!! Seems some law enforcement officers are alleged to have engaged in discriminatory law enforcement (paying more attention to Harley riders than those on any other brand, among other things). Sounds like just the thing to possibly earn (for themselves) another $33 MILLION. No pain and suffering, this time, for anyone.

Let them win that one and imagine what the non-motorcycling public will think of motorcyclists in general.

Well, this is not about A.I.M., but about helmets.

You will recall another group that has earned a reputation in this regards: ABATE. Here is a group that WAS so extreme that they confessed to not be interested in the issue of mandated helmet wearing at all - they, when first formed, were AGAINST WEARING HELMETS---PERIOD! I have recently had the pleasure of communicating with Tony Pan Sanfelipo, who is quoted below, and have no doubt that this extreme position has changed to one that is focused, instead, on motorcyclist's rights - they NO LONGER ARE AGAINST THE WEARING OF HELMETS, just any legal requirement to do so.

That this group WAS so extreme in their position has left a lasting legacy. I, for example, had a closed mind relative to anything I heard about the ABATE group for many years after first learning about their extremism. This only serves to explain the belief I posted above about extremism.

[Following is an extract from an article entitled 'END THE HELMET HOAX', by Tony Pan Sanfelipo dated March 1994:]

After 22 years of fighting against mandatory helmet laws, I have come to the realization that we may be our own worst enemy, given the fact that many of us readily buy into the hoax that helmets reduce injuries and save lives.

Since I am a founder of a state ABATE chapter, I want to embrace the issue from that perspective. To get the record straight, ABATE, at its inception, was anti-helmet. Not just anti-helmet law, not pro freedom of choice (concerning helmets); we were strictly anti-helmet. I can speak firsthand for Wisconsin is saying that we were totally against helmets, and argued against every claim that helmets were a "safety" device.

This group justified itself based on the premise that 'there is no justification whatever in being in support of a device that prevents some kinds of injuries at the expense of causing others. They claimed that if your helmet successfully prevents major damage to your skull it is likely to result in major damage to your neck - thus paralysis or death. Hardly a bargain, they claimed.

Such extreme and binary logic was so misleading that it is hard to repeat in front of an intelligent audience with a straight face. We have ALL seen or heard of avoided head injuries in accidents involving helmets that did not result in neck injuries. It takes far less trauma to damage the brain than it does to damage the neck. If you were sitting on your saddle with the bike at a dead stop and were to fall over and hit your head on the ground, your head would have traveled over four feet to get there. With a fall of four feet your brain could EASILY get torn away from your skull and the result would either be major loss of function or death. Such a fall is unlikely to damage the neck in any way whatever (though it certainly could.)

The fact that the foam-like material in your helmet compresses results in a spreading/slowing of pressure away from what would otherwise be a localized point of impact - thus, you greatly diminish the odds of brain tissue tearing if you use one.

That the solid surface of your helmet will protect you from most flying objects clearly does not also suggest that if a rock or piece of tire hits your helmet you are likely to have a spinal injury as a result of wearing it.

Full-face helmets save your jaw and teeth better than do 3/4- or 1/2-shells. You have a right to decide which type you want to wear, if any. Even 'beanies' are legal in most states. Surely ABATE would not have argued that a 'beanie' is dangerous because it causes neck injuries? (Yes, I believe they might have.)

In any event, would you allow your 8-year old to passenger with you without a helmet? You wouldn't? Because it's the law or because you know better than he/she does? Do you? Then how could your safety be different?

A matter of CHOICE? But not for your child, right?

Anyway, if anything I listed above as my own beliefs can be shown to be untrue by any of you please feel free to share your information with me. Honest, I'll listen and consider what you have to say. In the meanwhile, don't suggest that I join A.I.M. or AMA or any other organization that pretends to represent ALL motorcyclists relative to the banning of helmet laws. I'd rather smell the roses.

[Note that this article deals essentially with the issue of helmet safety, not civil rights. I am not here arguing that people should avoid participating in efforts to protect our rights from efforts to increase inappropriate government law making. That is another debate altogether. Further, organizations like ABATE and AMA, do and sponsor many other worthwhile activities. I merely mean to focus on why I will not join either based on their helmet positions.]

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(James R. Davis is a recognized expert witness in the fields of Motorcycle Safety/Dynamics.)

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