#316 Getting Ahead – Helmets

There’s no doubt in any rational mind that full-face helmets offer superior safety. So where’s the insurance break, then?

I’ve no idea what “mushroom head” is, but according to a suggested post that keeps popping into my Facebook feed I can avoid it by purchasing the world’s smallest DOT motorcycle helmet. It was with this in mind that I recently fronted up to a presentation of Arai’s latest full-face helmet, the Corsair X. Here were the two extremes in helmet philosophy: the absolute minimum you can get away with to meet the law; and just about the most technically sophisticated head impact protection you can buy.
On a sidenote: Hirotake Arai was the son of a Tokyo haberdasher, and designed a heat-dissipating helmet for Japanese forces fighting in Southeast Asia in World War Two. After hostilities ceased in 1945, Arai turned to safety helmets. The founder’s grandson now runs the company.
Bikers are, at heart, rebels. We eschew the cozy security of an air-conditioned cage for the adrenaline rush of close combat on the road. But it’s dangerous. RCMP data suggest that motorcycles are 15 times more likely to be involved in a crash than other vehicles. And motorcycle crashes are rarely trivial. It doesn’t matter if it’s the other guy’s fault: if you tangle with another vehicle, you’re going to come off worse.
In spite of these hazards, there’s a general resistance to helmet use across the motorcycling spectrum. The introduction of a helmet law in coiffure-conscious Italy in 2000 bankrupted scooter-maker Aprilia and nearly sank Vespa’s parent Piaggio as scooter sales slumped. Persistent lobbying in the US has caused many states to rescind helmet laws or make their use optional in certain circumstances. In my own early motorcycling days, I only wore a helmet until I was out of sight of my mom!
The arguments against helmet use (apart from ruining your hairdo) should at least be afforded some scrutiny: early full-face helmets could restrict peripheral vision (though newer designs don’t); the extra weight of a helmet could, in rare circumstances, increase the risk of neck injury; and the “moral hazard” of wearing a helmet (generating a false sense of security) could encourage riskier riding behaviour. But while you can cherry-pick anecdotes, opinions and studies to support those beliefs, the overwhelming body of objective evidence points to a better outcome for helmet wearers in the inevitable get-off or collision.
Since Florida repealed its helmet law in 2000 (making helmet wearing optional for over-21s) motorcycle fatalities have increased 71 per cent and hospital admissions of riders with head injuries by 80 per cent (compared with neighbouring Georgia, which kept its helmet law).
Though I almost always wear a full-face helmet while riding, if you choose not to (where it’s an option) that’s your business—just as long as I’m not picking up the tab for your medical bills. In helmet-liberated Florida, for example, private medical insurance is mandatory if you choose not to wear a helmet. And yes, I have tried riding helmetless—in Arizona. I lasted about 10 minutes before the wind noise and buffeting drove me back inside my plush-lined skid lid.
In Canada, the option is academic. Wearing a helmet is the law. So why wouldn’t you choose the best head protection you can afford? But what kind of helmet? Is there any real evidence that a full-face helmet offers better protection than a BC beanie?
A 2011 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that compared with motorcyclists wearing full-face helmets those wearing half-coverage helmets were more than twice as likely to suffer head trauma and brain injuries in a crash. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that a helmet chin bar could save you from slow, painful facial reconstruction in the event of a faceplant.
Cost is a factor, of course. A basic DOT half helmet can be had for $99, while a top-of-the-line Arai could set you back a grand or more. Attitude is another important factor. Somehow, a full-face helmet doesn’t look quite right with chaps, tassels and fingerless gloves. Making a statement is more difficult if your skull facemask is hidden under your face shield.
So the evidence confirms that wearing a full-face helmet significantly reduces head trauma in a crash, and I’d prefer not to spend the rest of my days being fed through a tube. But if full-face helmets are safer, shouldn’t I get a break on my insurance for wearing one?
British Columbia’s provincial vehicle insurer, ICBC states on its website that one of the reasons motorcycle insurance rates are disproportionately high is motorcyclists’ relative lack of physical protection, leading to more expensive medical treatment, rehabilitation, and disability payments in the event of a crash.
So if wearing a full-face helmet reduces the risk of head injury in a crash, insurance companies and provincial insurance corporations could save money by encouraging full-face helmet use. And if they can save money, maybe they should pass on the savings in the form of premium discounts to full-face helmet wearers, just as they do for “safe” drivers. But I’m not holding my breath on that one…

We’re 20 km further on before we realize Jim is missing. We left him fiddling with his GPS at the roadside. By the time we retrace our route, the ambulance has already left; there’s just a cop car and the mangled R1150R parked on the shoulder. A bend at the top of a rise conspired with a thin drizzle on fresh tar to slide the back tire. When it hooked up again, the resulting high-side spat Jim into the air before he hit the deck—hard. The result: four broken ribs and a concussion.
Jim’s full-face helmet was badly beaten and scratched up from sliding across the pavement; but it did its job. Jim made a full recovery. Without it, I’m sure we’d be talking about him in the past tense.

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