He Should Have Been Wearing a Helmet (Repost from QM)

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Martha and I were walking down the street…Downer Street, if I recall correctly…heading north from the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. We were close to the Kinko’s, which was on the west side of the north-south trending street, and about to cross. We were in fact off the curb and checking for traffic. A car was heading to the north, away from us. Since we were walking north and crossing the street diagonally, we were looking at the car from behind, but I could see that the light blue sedan was driven by a middle-aged woman with curly hair and largish glasses. Heading south, towards us, was a man on a bicycle. He had short dark hair, was large-framed and about 6 feet and 1 or 2 inches in height, driving a white or gray ten-speed bike. It might have been a Peugeot.

The bike was heading south at a reasonable clip, but he had stopped pedaling about 100 feet back. The car was slowing and had a left signal on, indicating that she would turn into the driveway of the bank just north of Kinko’s. That would be across the path of the oncoming bike, if she continued. But she was stopped.

It was obvious that the bike rider assumed that the car would stay stopped and let him continue before she made her turn. Therefore, he did not slow down much. But, just as the two vehicles were about 20 feet apart, the car made a small jerking motion, as if the driver was adjusting her foot on the brake. At no point, however, did she move forward. I do note, however, that her front tires were turning left as this was all happening. Depending on what the bike rider saw, he may have reasonably interpreted the signs and signals to mean that this car was about to pull in front of him. I’m pretty sure, however, that this was not going to happen.

The bike rider slammed on his brakes, but it seems that the front brake stuck more firmly than the back brake. The bike stopped instantly and the rear tire started to swing around to the right. But that was irrelevant now, because the bike rider, who was already leaning forward on the handle bars as per normal, was in the air.

He flew up into the air and over the front of the bike, and as he did so, his body rotated 90 degrees and his legs rotated 180 degrees. So, there was a moment in time when this large framed man looked like this:


This is a stick figure like a cartoon, but it is not meant to be funny. It is decidedly not funny. The point of this figure is to illustrate so there is no ambiguity this statement: The second to last experience this man had was being perfectly upside down, with his entire body up in the air and no contact with anything but the air around him.

The last experience he had was his head being pounded into the pavement with the full weight of his body.

He collapsed to the ground and convulsed. I said to Martha “Go into Kinko’s and call 911,” which she did. The nearest rescue facility with an ambulance was almost in sight a couple of blocks up the street, so they would be there in a moment.

I ran over to the man and made myself look big so that cars coming down the street would notice us and not run us over. He was now on his side convulsing heavily and continuously. His convulsing was causing his head and neck to whip around, so I got down and held his body in place so he would damage himself less.

The woman who was driving the car got out and was staring. Two people who had walked out of a local store and did not see the accident came over and yelled at me.

“Leave him alone!” one of them screamed at me.

“He’s an epileptic! He’s just having an epileptic fit! Don’t treat him like he was sick or something.”

The woman who had been driving the car was distraught. She said “I didn’t hit him! I don’t know how this happened! I was waiting for him to go by!”

He continued to convulse. Martha came out of Kinko’s and was standing nearby helping to keep traffic from either hitting us or causing a jam that would make it hard for the ambulance to come down the street. The ambulance was there in moments, and just as the EMTs came rushing over, the man with the bike stopped convulsing. He stopped moving. Eyes that were rolled back in his head became a blank stare.

I lied to Martha. I said I thought he’d probably be OK. It seemed to me that he was dead. To this day, I do not actually know. Perhaps he simply lived the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Or maybe he was fine.

Oh, did I mention? He was not wearing a helmet.

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17 thoughts on “He Should Have Been Wearing a Helmet (Repost from QM)

  1. Yes, he should have been wearing a helmet. but I wonder if it would have made any difference? DELETED I’ve quit wearing my helmet, partially from laziness, partially since i just slow commute and no longer ride recreationally.

  2. @higginbotham. Laziness? It takes five seconds to put on a helmet. A modern helmet fits well and has plenty of ventilation. The type of riding you do as nothing to do with wearing a helmet. It is there to protect your head in an accident, patch of wet leaves, blow out, car turning left in front of you. I ride 5-7K a year and have had one accident where my head hit the ground. It was while riding on a green way at about 12mph. I hit a mossy spot and went down hard enough to break the helmet. I had a mild concussion and some abrasions. With out the helmet it would have been a coup-contrecoup injury and probably fatal. I have worked in a bike shop for nearly twenty years and I have lots of customers that have hit their heads in a crash. Four of them had to relearn how speak, eat with utensils, walk, and not soil themselves, they were the ones not wearing helmets. And one died. He was Cat 1, tens of thousands of miles and knew better but showed up for a group ride, forgot his helmet, and rode anyway. He touched wheels and went down, died at the site.
    All that said, I don’t think it should be mandatory to wear a helmet. Just admit you are an idiot and ride free. The same goes for dudes on motorcycles wearing a t-shirt and flipflops

  3. Sorry, I deleted your link because it is crap. Questionable journals summarized by an admitted biased third party on some internet site? Sorry, no.

  4. Chuck, safety factors that are reasonable and reduce injury on motorized vehicles are traditionally regulated and should be.

    I’ve got no problem with motorcycle riders not wearing helmets as long as we understand that when they go down, if their credit is not good and they don’t have the money in the bank, no ambulance, no treatment at a hospital. Just toss them in some vacant lot somewhere because the rest of us should not be paying for their stupidity.

    “Riding free” costs.

  5. Yup, silly guy should have had a helmet since that helps in most cases. Of course it’s not all cases – but what sort of idiot would go without a helmet hoping that if they have an accident it would be one of those minority cases where a helmet doesn’t help?

    There’s this recent case of a novice motorbike rider who had a crash at low speed – had his helmet and all but the fence post won. The police suspect he was only doing maybe 12mph. Low speed, had all his safety gear, and didn’t make it – bummer. Still, using rare cases like that to justify not wearing the safety gear is dumber than creationist stupid. (I suspect the guy did a high-side due to bad balance on a bend.)

  6. “it would be one of those minority cases where a helmet doesn’t help?”

    I think you put an incorrect “doesn’t” in there.

    Cases where a helmet helps are a very extreme minority.

    Cases where a (bicycle) helmet made it worse is a minority.

    Cases where it made no damn difference a vasty majority.

  7. @wow#6: Where do you get your figures from? The professional helmet deniers associations?

  8. This is an essay I wrote after an accident. Not to sound, oh, biased or anything, but it’s titled Wear Your Freakin’ Bike Helmets.

    I offer it here in the hope that it might amuse, but also to attempt to make the point that your intuition, informed by who-knows-how-many-years you’ve ridden without a helmet, will lead you to completely erroneous risk-benefit choices.

    It’s easy to assume that it won’t happen to you, because it never has. And frankly, it probably never will (“probably” used here in the strict technical sense of “greater than 50% probability”).

    But pilots long ago learned this the hard way: “Trust the math, not your gut feel” is written in the blood from a thousand crashes.

    If you bet on the come, stake everything on the proposition that your winning streak means you’ll never roll craps, your expected value is negative. That is, if you assign much value to breathing and non-drooling, ambulatory activities.

  9. My best bike accident was when I was a grad student at Texas Tech. I had a part time janitorial job which I did at night. I was riding my bicycle racing for home, no light, down an unlighted street. I rode down the middle of the street so as not to hit parked cars, etc. I heard a dog bark and turned to look in that direction. In doing so. I deviated from the center of the road and went splat into the rear of a parked station wagon. When the noise died down, I picked up my bike and hoofed it on down the road, wanting to clear the scene before anyone came out to see what the noise was. I left my bike in a friend’s yard and called my wife from a pay phone. My bike was destroyed, and I was black and blue. A few days later, new bike, and daytime, I rode down the road. The station wagon was there, with the imprint of my handlebars on the back. I think if it had been a regular car, I would have ended up through the back window. This was about 1959, and bike helmets had not yet been invented.

  10. “Where do you get your figures from? The professional helmet deniers associations?”

    From the A&E reports of the NHS.

    Where do you get your figures from? Your anus?

  11. Jesus, I remember this incident.

    It was a horrible day, during (what was) a wonderful time in Milwaukee.

  12. I have to say I have mixed feelings about (bicycle) helmet laws, and I will say up front that I know it isn’t completely logical.

    Here’s the thing: I learned to ride as a kid a long time ago and bike helmets were at that point unknown unless you were a bike racer — and even then, I don’t think they were that common (this is the 1970s).

    And since nothing untoward happened to me in all those years (up to when I was a teenager) in riding of course, sometimes giving helmets to kids looks a little like overkill. I fell of my bike any number of times — and learned to be more careful afterwards. Maybe that’s part of the problem with the resistance to helmet laws — people know it isn’t logical, but resist anyway, and one reason might be that biking is an activity we associate with childhood. That is, a 5-year-old isn’t ever going to be going that fast, they can only fall so far, so the chances of serious injury are less from the stuff they do and more from other people around them like careless drivers.

    But logically I know that adults are a somewhat different matter and that helmets are an unambiguously good idea. Certainly I saw more people wearing them in bike-heavy San Francisco when I moved there in the early 90s. And I see people with them now.

    So while I am on board with the head injury issue, I find myself resisting wearing a helmet, even though I know it is the right thing to do.

    By the way, I have been in a vehicle accident where I was seriously injured (I was run over by a drunken motorcyclist) — so I am much more supportive of drunk driving laws, and liability for bartenders, so maybe it’s all about what you experience and relate to your own life. Like, I don’t resist seat belt laws at all.

  13. There are studies showing that laws requiring helmets are bad for public health. The exercise you get by switching from a car to bike is a great benefit for your health and requiring helmets will discourage some people from biking. This effect is larger than the health benefit from forcing people to use helmets. It’s easy to misinterpret the statistics, though, since if you implement a helmet law the reduction in bikers will lead to fewer accidents so it will look like a great success.

  14. Thomas, I call BS. Turn “there are studies” into citations to valid peer reviewed research that actually says what you say it says and people might begin to take your suggestion seriously. The readers of this blog are hard core skeptics.

  15. Hmm. This story sounds a bit contrived, but apart from that, a helmet is not a guarantee of anything. Not that a helmet wouldn’t have helped, but if the driver had yielded right of way like she should have, nobody would have been hurt at all.

    It’s important to recognize two things:
    a) Because a concussion is the result of the bran impacting the inside of the skull, a helmet can never prevent it.
    b) If I run into a person with my car, they’re going to be messed up. This is why I had to pass tests in order to prove I was capable of operating my vehicle safely. The safety of everyone who may pass in front of my car is my responsibility.

    These are facts and there is no way around them. That’s why they’re called “facts”. Nowhere is it written that I will be absolved of all responsibility if I kill someone who is not wearing a helmet.

    Riding a bike with no helmet is hardly a death sentence. If it was, the Netherlands would be pretty much wiped out tomorrow. And there’s no way China would account for 1/4 of the world’s population.

    I don’t know what the total is now, but as of 23 million rides on US bike-share systems, no bike share rider has died. Not a single one:

    The most successful bike share systems do not require helmets, and I don’t know anybody who walks around with a helmet “just in case” they might grab a Citi-Bike. Seattle and Sydney bike share systems, for example, are not seeing the use they had hoped for. They only thing they have in common that no successful system is subject to, is helmet laws.

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