Friday, July 28, 2006

Three wrecks and a funeral

Commentary by Doug Greene

Ketchum resident Doug Greene, who is recovering from a motorcycle collision with a deer while on his way to Stanley, poses with the heavy-duty gear he believes saved his life. Greene maintains that all motorcycle riders should wear a full helmet and protective clothing. Photo by David N. Seelig


How could one not wear a full helmet when riding a motorcycle? There are many riders that—for whatever reason—just don't see the light when it comes to putting a bucket over their brain.

What difference can they make? Well, "three wrecks and a funeral" might hint at the outcome.

I know of three wrecks that occurred in the second week of July.

Accident No. 1: Harley rider with a beanie helmet

A friend at a party told me about this accident. Two days prior to our conversation, she met a guy at a popular motorcycle hangout in Northern California. She and a friend enjoyed his company, had their photos taken with him, and 45 minutes later he was dead.

He lost control around a sharp turn, crashed, and died from head and body injuries. He was wearing one of those beanie "skull cap" helmets—more a cosmetic gesture to satisfy California's required helmet law than as any sort of protection. He was also wearing a light leather vest and pants—but with no built-in armor. He died from head and body injuries.

Bottom line: He's dead. A full helmet and protective clothing could have saved his life.

Accident No. 2: Friend goes down with a full-face helmet

The very next day, an e-mail circulated through a men's group I'm involved with. "One of our men is recovering from a motorcycle accident," read the header. I opened it. "Steven Cervine was in a motorcycle accident yesterday and has some injuries."

I visited him a few days later. He didn't even remember the accident.

He showed me his helmet. A deep, wide scrape started by the chin, went up and over the top, and ended on the back side by the neck. This is the third helmet from a crash where I've seen that pattern. To me, it's strong evidence that those "beanie helmets" are pretty worthless in a crash. Consider this: One highly respected motorcycle accident study found that the chin is one of the most likely places to first hit your head in an accident.

Steven was also wearing a leather jacket and blue jeans in the crash. The leather jacket protected him from scrapes, but the lack of elbow pads meant his right elbow hit hard enough to break it. He's in a sling for at least two months—not a good situation for a carpenter and aikido instructor. And his jeans were obliterated. He had road rash, but fortunately not too significant because he thinks he crashed at a relatively mild 35 to 40 miles per hour on smooth asphalt. Had the asphalt been more heavily textured, his leg would have been ground like a tomato being stuffed into a high-speed grinder.

Bottom line: The helmet saved his life. With padded riding gear, he probably would have walked away.

Accident No. 3: I hit a deer at 65-plus mph

Next, it was my turn. I hit a deer at around 65 mph on my Kawasaki KLR650 while on a ride to Stanley. I was driving north near Fourth of July Creek. I looked into my right mirror to see where my friends were.

Kaaah-Booomph. I never saw it coming.

From that moment on, everything became a blur. There was a sharp pain in my left foot. The bike lifted, pulled left and wobbled. Then it skidded, wanting to go down on its left side. I darted my eyes down and saw an animal underneath. A couple seconds later, the throttle got stuck on high and the bike accelerated.

I could feel my brain recede into the background to get out of its own way; there was only time to react, not think. But a monologue of instructions came reeling out:

"Straighten out bike. Good. Throttle stuck on high, doesn't work. Turn off engine. No, don't use keys; go for kill switch. Engine is off. Good. Keep going straight. Yep, like that. Do not brake no matter what; let bike do what it needs to do. Get to side of road."

In the end, I was able to keep the bike up and glide it to the road shoulder. I sat there stunned for a moment, put down the kickstand and got off. And then I just stood there in a daze.

My brain re-engaged. "What the heck just happened?"

Janit and Karen pulled up. They asked if I was OK. I said I seemed to be, then asked what happened. They said they had watched a deer leap from the left side of the road all the way across the left lane and come down directly in front of me. "We never saw your brake lights." I confirmed that I never even saw the deer.

The third rider in our team, Chase, pulled over where I hit the deer, pulled it off the highway, and rode up. "You creamed it. It died instantly."

I looked at my bike and started to realize how hard I'd hit it. The radiator was stuffed with blood, guts, and deer hair. It looked like a red shag carpet. It was also pushed back several inches. The left side of the bike was covered with deer guts, including in the engine area. The whole thing smelled like a bad barbecue. There was blood on my boots, pants, jacket and helmet. Then we started to look more closely.

The nerf bars (installed by Happy Trail in Boise) had taken the brunt of the blow, collapsed (absorbing energy in the process), bent to the left and pushed the deer down and underneath the motorcycle. The skid plate allowed me to ride over it. I'm convinced that the combination of a higher dual-sport suspension, raked-down crash bars, and the skid plate saved me from dropping the bike and, perhaps, my life. The helmet kept blood, guts, and deer hair from blasting into my eyes and face.

A few days later, I drove back to reconstruct the accident. When I hit the deer head on, it went underneath the motorcycle and got caught up in the frame. It, the bike, and I skidded together for 150 feet before the deer's body released from the frame. Immediately after impact the bike angled downward, wanting to crash hard on its left side. Fortunately, through a combination of luck and bike handling, I was able to avoid going down.

Had that happened, it would have been ugly. But, as usual when I ride, I was dressed for it. I wore a full-face helmet and "armored" clothing including a jacket and pants with thick padding in the elbows, shoulders, spine, hips and knees.

The only injury I sustained was a hard whack to my left foot. I may have torn or detached a tendon on my left big toe where the deer's body hit it. And I wouldn't even have that injury if I'd worn my heavier-duty plastic boots instead of softer, leather ones.

Bottom line: A full-face helmet kept the blood and guts from splattering into my face and helped me from going down at fairly high speed. If I had flipped the bike, my odds for survival would have jumped from zero percent to a number I could live with. And, with heavier-duty boots, I could have "rode away" without any injuries whatsoever.

To me, these three incidents speak clearly about wearing not only a motorcycle helmet, but also clothing with elbow, shoulder, spine, hip and knee pads. Wearing a marginal helmet and no armor was a death sentence for the first rider. Steven is alive only because he wore a helmet but has a broken elbow because he didn't have armor on.

I was so close to going down on a bike at 65 mph. I'm still processing it in my sleep. If just one thing had been different—a lower suspension, a bigger deer, lucky motorcycle handling, or the lack of crash bars—I'd have crashed hard. Without the clothing and helmet on, it would have certainly killed me.

For those who believe wearing a helmet is an infringement on their freedoms, might there be better places to channel that? For those who think it looks "uncool", consider this: "It's better to look stupid than be stupid."

Personally, I would like to see a law making it mandatory to wear a helmet when riding—just as wearing seatbelts in a car is now. And insurance companies and the state should be released from any responsibility and liability for having to cover the horrendous costs needed to cover their head injuries. Why should the rest of us have to pay those costs when all it takes is a helmet to avoid them?

But then again, sometimes—as in the first accident—there aren't any medical bills. Darwin prevailed, and there's only the cost of the funeral.

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