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If your head’s only worth 10 dollars…

March 30, 2009

Safety Ed's helmet, post-crash

With arrival of spring (technically, anyway) some of you might be thinking about a new helmet. The debate rages—full-face vs. open, Snell-approved vs. DoT.

Scootin’ Old Skool’s New Zealand Bureau Chief, Ken McGrath, weighs in:

As far back as I can remember, New Zealand has made helmets compulsory. Apart from the misery caused by head injuries, the rationale was based on the country’s free public health system where the taxpayer would have to foot the bill for treatment and rehabilitation.

My own father was a victim of not wearing a crash hat—wearing only a leather flying helmet just before the war, he slipped on a wet street tramline and dropped his motorcycle under a truck.

The blow to his head filled his left inner ear with blood and he was permanently deafened on that side, hence his inability to serve overseas in WWII (he served as an RNZAF engineer).

Although I totally agree with your comments on the sense of wearing a helmet, as a neuroscientist (my postgraduate thesis research was undertaken on the brain), I cannot agree with your strong support for the Snell standards.

This is because the Snell tests require resistance to a penetrating blow in the same spot twice. This results in a very stiff design which transfers the forces normally experienced in a motorcycle accident (a blow to the head from the road, usually on the side and certainly not penetration in the same spot twice) through the helmet and skull into the brain itself. That is to say that a Snell certified helmet does not absorb enough energy.

Most people do not realise that the brain has the consistency of firm Jell-O and getting it out of the cranium at necropsy is a very difficult undertaking if one does not wish to squish one’s fingers through the organ! My initial trainer in examination of the brain was a dab hand at getting the brain out and I wondered at first why he took, and insisted on, such care until I had a fresh brain in my hands.

A person can suffer serious brain injury by just falling over and banging his/her head, an impact from a fall of just over a metre from rest. Most brain injuries result from torsion, because the brain can twist within the skull causing haemorrhage around the brainstem or trauma to the brainstem and/or upper spinal cord. It is therefore vital that the helmet absorb as much energy as possible.

When I was wiped-out by the police car in 1967, as I went over the top of the car I struck my head in the center of its roof, denting it spectacularly. The lining of my helmet was soft and the fibreglass shell was shattered, so that I suffered nothing, not even a stiff neck. My only injuries at 30 mph were to my right ankle (torn ligament) and right thigh (muscle crushing) from the impact with the car side.

The experts on testing helmets in the US of A are those who test military helmets for the Navy and Air Force, namely Harry Hurt and Dave Thom. We can be sure that the military have every desire to protect their expensively trained personnel and the money to get the best. Hurt & Thom have declared the Snell test a rip-off (increases the cost) and a danger by being too stiff, and have stated that the DOT standard is the best available.

May I prevail upon you to read the article I have attached (here, here and here—it’s in three parts) and then reconsider your advocacy of the Snell standards? I totally agree with everything Harry says which squares with my coronial/forensic experience (my training boss was the district neuropathologist and we did very many accident post-mortems).

Ken’s credentials are certainly impressive, giving his argument considerable weight. Personally, I don’t think the idea of the same spot on the helmet being impacted twice is so far-fetched. I use MotoGP riders’ wipeouts as an example of what I hope I’ll have the presence of mind to do if I do experience something similar, i.e., don’t try to break my fall.

But it must also be remembered that most traffic accidents happen at rather low speeds, so one is not so likely to bounce along the pavement for many yards.

By way of clarification, I don’t wish for anything I’ve said about helmets to be taken as advocacy; I’ve studied the issue extensively and made a decision based on those studies. I urge everyone else to do likewise. I also urge everyone to remember that a helmet cannot protect any part of your head that it does not cover.

But I’m always willing to listen to new arguments and new evidence. Keep in mind, a modular, aka flip-face, helmet cannot meet Snell standards. But that’s what Safety Ed was wearing in Portland, and he suffered no head injury from his fall.

Had he been wearing a piss-pot, all bets would’ve been off. Favicon

  1. March 30, 2009 3:05 pm

    I’ve been trying to find an article published a couple years ago in one of the big motorcycle magazines in which they tested the “cheapie” helmets that only had DOT certification and the SNELL helmets, and drew the same conclusion that the DOT-only helmets were at least as safe, and possibly safer for the same reasons Ken mentioned.

    I know I’ve got a link to it somewhere… I’ll keep looking.

  2. Ken permalink
    March 30, 2009 3:38 pm

    I presume that the helmet in your pic is Safety Ed’s and I note it has abrasion damage on the right temple region—classic for a fall from a bike. No penetrating force there, even if Ed ‘tapped’ his head many times on the road! As Harry Hurt has said, the typical head event in a crash or fall is the head striking the road surface, followed by serious abrasion with the subsequent sliding. In the thousands of accidents he investigated, penetrating events were very rare.

    Speaking of sliding: more than a few yards can be involved, even at low speed. In the last week here in Auckland, an intersection collision in the central city was reported as sending the m/c rider sliding 10 metres (33ft). In my own case, being thrown over the top of the police car (I turned over twice) used up much of the momentum, but I still slid about two car lengths. In the absence of protective clothing (we didn’t have such things in 1967) it was surprising I had no significant skin damage, but my pants and rain jacket were ruined. With good gloves I had no hand injuries, a precaution drummed into to me by a teacher with 2/3rds of the fingers of his left hand gone, ground-off by the road in a simple fall on a m/c while wearing no gloves.

  3. March 30, 2009 4:30 pm

    Lucky, you might be thinking of the Cycle World article. I believe there’s a link to it on the original post about Safety Ed’s spill.

    Yes, Ken, that’s Safety Ed’s helmet…

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