Letter: The Truth About Motorcycle Helmets

We’ve all heard time and again, over and over, that motorcycle helmets save lives. Unfortunately, this is not entirely true. The truth is that motorcycle helmets are designed to reduce the net impact on a rider’s skull by about 20 mph. What this means is that a helmet impact of under 20 mph is highly survivable. However, impacts over 20 mph are less and less survivable as the speed increases.

According to the Department of Highway Safety, in 2015, the number of Florida motorcycle fatalities where the riders were wearing helmets vastly exceeded the number of fatalities without helmets. While this isn’t saying that helmets are useless, it is saying that there are other factors besides wearing a helmet that contribute to a motorcycle fatality.

Now if you have ever watched MotoGP racing on TV, you probably have seen motorcycles wipe out on the track at 180 mph and then the helmeted rider gets up, brushes himself off and walks away. So what gives? If helmets only protect to 20 mph, why is it that a crash on the track at 180 mph is so easily survivable? The answer is that the helmet impact speed on the track was not 180 mph, it was actually only about 10 mph. This is the speed a rider gets from falling off the motorcycle a distance to the ground of about 6 feet. Remember, it’s the collision speed and not necessarily the forward speed that matters.

Conversely, take the case of a motorcyclist riding at 45 mph and a car doesn’t see him and pulls into his path trying to make a left turn. In this case, the impact speed is the same as the forward speed. A helmet impact speed of 45 mph is not easily survivable.

You might have guessed by now that I ride a motorcycle. I choose to wear a helmet just because. However, it’s difficult for older riders to find a reasonably priced, good-fitting helmet because the majority of them are designed for young kids. So, adults with larger heads either have to pay $600 for a properly sized helmet or do without. Ever wonder why some bikers have a reputation for being mean? Try wearing a helmet that is 6 sizes too small and see if you don’t get a little testy.

The reason I am writing this is that a new Florida bill (HB 6009/2017) by Representative Don Hahnfeldt of Sumter County is trying to make helmets mandatory for motorcycle riders. While under the guise of “motorcycle safety,” it’s actually a “punish bikers” law. As stated above, while many riders, such as myself, prefer to wear a helmet, it simply isn’t practical for all riders. Hahnfeldt knows that not all riders can afford properly fitted helmets or may have other reasons why a helmet is not feasible, yet he persists in pushing a mandatory helmet law with no exceptions.

Other “punish the bikers” laws are already on the books. For example, if you pop a wheelie on a motorcycle, this carries the highest civil penalty of $5,000 for the third offense plus a 10-year license suspension. The first offense is only $1,000. Compare that to the fine for drunk driving in a car, which is only $500 for the first offense and $1,000 for the second. Is there anyone that seriously believes that popping a wheelie (something that can only be done by a highly skilled rider) is more dangerous than drunk driving? Why then is the penalty for popping a wheelie, even an accidental one, double that of driving drunk in a car? Answer: It’s the lawmakers’ way of punishing bikers.

When I took my required motorcycle course to get my license, the instructor calmly told the students that, “If you wear a helmet, you cannot be killed on a motorcycle.” Unfortunately, that statement is an outright lie. Even though Florida does not require helmets, more riders in 2015 died while wearing a helmet than without. When you hear a news report of a young motorcyclist who hit the guard rail at 240 mph and ground himself into pink slime, you can be assured of two things: a) he was wearing a helmet; and b) he didn’t think he could be killed.

Even still, I encourage all riders to wear a helmet if they can, but we don’t need another “punish the bikers” law making it mandatory.

Dennis Hawkins, The Acreage