Alive Another Day, Thanks to a Helmet

By Amy Ingram Terrone

“Amy, I need you to sit down,” said the voice over the telephone. It was my sister calling.

When a conversation begins that way, it’s never good news. My brother had been in a motorcycle crash, and was being flown to a local Shock Trauma unit. Nobody was sure that he would survive his injuries on the way. I jumped in the car, picked up my sister who lived nearby, and headed to the hospital.

We drove by the crash scene on the way to the hospital. I saw my brother’s overturned bike in the woods off the side of the road. Police officers, who were still documenting the scene, had cordoned off the area.

A young man that witnessed the crash was still there. He told me that my brother struck a curb at about 45 mph, lost control of the bike, and flew 30-40 feet before landing in the woods.

I asked two questions: “How is he?” and “Was he wearing a helmet?”

“Not good but alive and barely conscious,” was his reply. And, yes, the young man told me, he was wearing a helmet.

I thought there might be hope. After all, I work at the NTSB as a safety advocate and I know that most motorcycle crash deaths are caused by head trauma – and helmets are a vital protection from that risk. Motorcycle helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 69 percent and reduce the risk of death by 42 percent. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that helmets saved the lives of 1,630 motorcyclists in 2013 and that 715 more lives in all states could have been saved if all motorcyclists had worn helmets.

Back in the car en route to the hospital, I felt an odd sense of deja vu. These feelings of extreme worry, sadness, and anger – anger at that stupid motorcycle – seemed eerily familiar. And then I remembered: my mom had also been in a motorcycle crash 12 years prior.

When my mom’s motorcycle skidded on gravel while going around a corner at 25 mph, the bike went out from underneath her and she hit the ground hard. Her head slammed onto the gravel road, bumping along the way as her momentum propelled her forward. But her head was protected by the helmet, so she was merely stunned. However, the weight of the falling motorcycle broke her leg, and she also broke her hand. Her injuries required a long recovery. But I remember her later saying, “Thank God for the helmet.”

To put it mildly, my family has a mixed relationship with motorcycles. Some of us love to ride. But like the families of riders everywhere, we also know we might get that next call – and if we do, we know by now to ask, “Were they wearing a helmet?”

When I entered my brother’s hospital room, his dented helmet was on the floor, and I touched it with reverence. If what I had heard from the witness and police were true, this helmet had, no doubt, saved his life. 

My brother has a long road to recovery. He suffered multiple fractures, of his ribs, wrist, and ankles; six broken bones in his back; a punctured lung and lacerated liver; and a long list of less severe injuries. But he is alive.

Yes, I work for the NTSB. But I am also a big sister and a daughter. I’ve seen the kinship that riders feel with one another; now, after helping family members through the aftermath of a bad crash, I wanted to share our story with that extended family.

Thankfully, my brother’s and mother’s accidents occurred in Maryland, a state with a universal law requiring helmet use.

Currently only 19 states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear a helmet. Laws requiring only some motorcyclists to wear a helmet are in place in 28 states, and three states still have no law whatsoever.

I have heard riders who resist helmets saying that helmets take away their freedom – and that they’re only taking a personal risk. But I know that most also have sisters or daughters or other family members. I know that they’re not taking that risk just for themselves.

If you are thinking about riding without a helmet, think again. My brother and mother might have lost the feeling of the air upon their faces as they cruised down the road, but they gained something immeasurably more valuable: the feeling of air entering and leaving their lungs – ultimately, another day on this earth.

And I gained having them both in my life.

Amy Terrone is a Safety Advocate in the NTSB Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications.

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