Motorcycle Helmets: Benefit or Burden?

By David Tong

I will admit from the outset that, since beginning riding in 1980, I have always ridden with a full-face helmet. I did so partly because I come from a medical family, but mostly because I thought it was a good idea.

I did not need government to tell me what I had already figured out. If you engage in a hazardous activity or occupation, you wear protective gear. I wore safety glasses or face shields when I worked in a machine shop, because I did not want flying debris from grinders or buffers from hitting my eyes or face. Similarly, insects, road grit and rocks hitting one's face at speed are not much fun.

Early in my riding career I applied too much power to the rear tire while leaned over and managed to slide and lost it. My leather jacket got a small scratch on it and, because I was wearing sneakers, my left ankle caught a little raspberry. My Bell Star II (remember those, anyone?) picked-up a scratch on the left side of the chin bar, about where my upper lip would have been.

The other things I shrugged off and the helmet itself wasn't damaged in this low speed get-off at about 18 MPH. However, I looked at that small scratch and thought, "Hmmph, what would the expense of maxillofacial reconstruction have been had it not been there?"

The small spill taught me two things. First, to be gentle on the throttle with a relatively new tire. More importantly, it confirmed that wearing a full face helmet was a good idea.

After over a quarter-century, racking up 370,000 miles in all kinds of weather and terrain, I have been nailed by grasshoppers, mosquitos, pebbles, rocks, bees, hard rain, sleet and, of course, the wind both cold and hot. At no time did I not value having a full faced helmet.

The decibel reading within even a modern full faced helmet with its shield down is roughly 100 dBA. Those who think that a helmet cuts too much hearing ability when riding should perhaps re-evaluate that belief, because that level of sustained noise will cause diminished hearing. I can still hear horns, sirens, squealing tires and other traffic quite well.

OK, now I have established my history and rationale. What about the costs of not wearing a helmet of any kind?

It is pretty clear that insurance companies do not like motorcycles. They consider them a sub-standard risk. They are often stolen and are involved in accidents disproportionate to their total numbers versus cars, with a similar likelihood of injury to the rider and passenger.

We Americans are independent cusses. We want to do what we want, when we want, where we want and right now. Many of us do not like the heavy hand of government limiting our freedom with laws designed to protect us from ourselves. Most of us can name some of these, such as firearms registration, carry permits, seat belt laws, anti-smoking laws and so on. Helmet laws are another one that raise the hackles. (When considering any law ask yourself, "Is this a proper purpose of government?" -Editor.)

The insurance industry already considers us a bad risk and they lobby to limit horsepower, emissions and adopt tiered licensing, as in most of Europe and Japan. Their argument to require helmet wear has been ongoing since I first started riding.

Most motorcycle policies only offer the rider and passenger a pretty low limit to a medical claim, because they understand that a guy or gal that engages in this dangerous hobby of ours has to assume some of the risk. Pretty rare to see more than $15,000 covered per incident and it doesn't take much imagination to understand that one trip to the emergency room is going to quickly max this out.

Tonights episode of John Stossel's program on Fox News featured him debating with an orthopedic surgeon from Texas who claimed he is both a civil rights admirer as well as a proponent for mandatory helmet usage. Stossel, an avowed Libertarian, was quick to criticize the usual societal benefit argument the doctor put forth, but it was hard to argue with the numbers he talked about.

When a rider maxes out his insurance on an injury claim and he is not at fault, it is up to the policy of the other person to make up the sometimes large difference between the amount covered and the actual rehabilitative costs over months or years. If the rider either contributes to or is at fault in the accident, he can still claim his own amount of coverage benefit to the maximum amount, but after that he or she is out of pocket. This might be a figure in the hundreds of thousands, let alone if this is a catastrophic incident which permanently disables the rider.

No injury sustained by a rider matches head trauma when it comes to expense. I see riders all the time who believe that the helmet is a burden and only wear the minimum legally mandated gear, which is usually a so-called Beanie helmet that basically stops coverage above the ears. It might protect you from a minor front, side, or back impact on the upper third of your head, but would be useless for any facial, mandibular (lower jaw) or dental damage caused by the hit.

In addition, Federal DOT approved helmets do not offer the same level of protection as helmets that have the motorcycle specific Snell rating. A 2012 article on written by Spokane-based writer Karen Boyd stated:

"In 2009 the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) report 'Motorcycle Helmet Use and Head and Facial Injuries' revealed the statistics that twice as many non-helmet wearing riders suffer head, neck and facial injuries serious enough to require hospitalization as compared with riders wearing a helmet. The statistics also showed that when an injury occurred, the severity was greater for riders who did not wear a helmet."

"A beanie helmet that only covers the head above the ears protects the head from impact about 38.6% of the time. Adding a back on the helmet, thus making it an open-face three quarter helmet will protect against impact about 55.5% of the time. Since neither style has a face shield, you will have to wear separate eye protection to keep bugs, and assorted road grime out of your eyes. You will also need to be more cautious to protect your skin not only against sunburn, but also against windburn. Both modular and full-face helmets protect the entire head, but there is a lot of anecdotal debate as to whether a modular helmet can withstand the same level of impact on the chin bar as a regular full-face helmet. Keep in mind also that in general, a full-face helmet will protect against more wind noise than other styles. Given all that, you can make an informed decision as to what style helmet you want to wear."

I think Miss Boyd is correct. However, I am also troubled by the freedom issue, as discussed by Mr. Stossel. Americans simply do not like to be told that mandatory helmet laws are for our own good. (For good reason, as saving people from themselves is neither Constitutional nor a proper purpose of government. -Editor.)

I guess my take on this is, while I will continue to wear a full face helmet for the remainder of my riding career, I do so because I want to enjoy the protection from flying objects and potential minor impacts. A helmet is not a magical talisman, because obviously an impact with a car is going to be pretty dire, even if your head is not injured. In my mind, it is playing the odds.

I do not like the idea of a law made up by a bunch of non-riding legislators who operate solely on actuaries. However, we as riders must be prepared to accept what comes our way on the road, with supplemental injury insurance or catastrophic care insurance to cover the possible gap in necessary funds needed to make us whole again. The personal freedom issue cuts both ways and we had best consider personal responsibility, as well as personal freedom.

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Copyright 2015 by David Tong and/or All rights reserved.