Bodily safety standards in the US today (Part II of a series)

by Jeff on February 20, 2009

The first part of this series documented that since Pennsylvania repealed its helmet law in 2003 for most riders, head injuries, deaths and resulting costs have increased by an estimated 32-46 percent. Part Two will address a culture of safety, and what people do to protect the rest of the body.

Transportation, Motorcycle Experts Agree – Many US Riders Are Less Safety Conscious Than In Other Cultures

By Jeff Cobb

Motorcycle Safety News

Some motorcycle and scooter riders are high-risk gamblers with their bones, skin, and lives, yet seemingly unaware of unnecessary chances they take.
This is the consensus from interviews with about a dozen transportation safety experts and motorcycle industry representatives nationwide.
Trends from around the country show an increase in numbers of motorbikes being registered.
With gas prices on the rise, and the ever-present allure of fun as a motivator, more motorcycles and scooters than ever are sharing space with larger, and potentially threatening cars, trucks and buses.
But riders are faced with mixed messages about what to wear. Helmet or not? Leather jacket, or just a shirt? Work clothes, or proper motorcycle gear?
The freedom to make these choices is described as woven into this country’s culture.
But since 1985, when states began to repeal helmet laws, some are wondering if freedom needs to be countered with more common sense.
In what some describe as a Darwinian experiment, statistics show that despite efforts to promote safety, in too many cases, the American approach is not working very well.
This contrasts with countries like Germany, France, and those in the U.K., in which a far higher percentage of riders suit-up head to toe, according to Andrea Nalesso, sales marketing manager for Dainese, an Italian safety gear company with U.S. operations in California.
Nalesso travels the world, and said some countries, including Spain and Italy have less of a regard for safety gear, but what was his answer about which country is the worst?
“Very much the U.S., which is the worst among the countries that I know,”  Nalesso said of all “developed” countries he has seen. “The United States is the country with the least awareness about safety.”
Nalesso offered this commentary last September on a cell phone interview as he was being driven back from an epicenter of motor culture, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There his sponsored rider, international star Valentino Rossi, had just taken a pole position for the MotoGP race there.
He recalled being passed in his car by riders on big bikes that day wearing (only) sunglasses, jeans, T-shirts and sneakers.
And Nalesso is hardly alone in his observations. His opinion of some Americans’ safety ethos echoed all sources interviewed.
The problem, they assert is not so simple as saying that motorcycles are inherently more dangerous; it also has a lot to do with riders’ preparation – or lack thereof.
It is well documented that a helmeted rider who crashes in a full leather or textile riding suit – particularly with certified armor built in – might survive with fewer injuries, while one wearing street clothes and no helmet might be seriously hurt for months or even die.
Some people need to think harder about their choices, said Rae Tyson of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
“It stands to reason that if you are engaging in an activity where if something goes wrong, you are going to make contact with some sort of hard object,” Tyson said. “It would be no different than sending the Philadelphia Eagles out on the field without pads and a helmet,” he said to me here in Philadelphia, “It would be the same thing as sending the Flyers out on the ice … you would never do that.”
It’s ironic, others say, that people who ride motorbikes in street clothing may otherwise not be high-risk takers.
If they get in a car, they fasten seatbelts, and are glad for airbags. They take for granted steel beams in the doors, and crush zones front and back.
But this same thorough approach – much of it enforced by legislation – may be disregarded by some riders when asked to see to their own safety.
Of course riders on two-wheelers are much more exposed, but since there is inherently less protection to begin with, safety officials say, does it not make all the more sense to dress in clothes designed to provide better chances of survival?
And when facts are squarely faced, as in the military, the freedom to ride unsafe is less of an option. According to a U.S. Air Force bulletin posting recommendations for its personnel riding on base:
“Not many people realize that most motorcycle injuries occur below the belt. Your legs and feet are extremely vulnerable, so make sure that you wear a decent pair of high boots and some protective pants … “
For street riding, even blue jeans are insufficient. It takes 0.6 seconds for them to tear through.
But while the U.S. struggles with achieving best practices, lawmakers in Europe are driving a standard that has led to a renaissance in materials and technologies.
According to Jordan Levitt, director of sales for Rev’it! Sport USA, a division of the Holland-based motorcycle safety apparel company, Rev-it! Sport International, the “CE” certification that European manufacturers must meet for crash-worthiness enforces minimum standards.
“CE” stands for “Conformité Européen” meaning gear conforms to requirements of European legislation.
There is no such standard mandated for gear sold in the U.S.
In a backhanded endorsement that Europeans are doing things smarter, a safety forum by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) cynically opined that some gear lacking the label might in another sense be considered “CE.” For gear not tested, however, the NTSB said the designation would mean “caveat emptor,” or buyer beware.
But whether certified or not, at least putting on some gear is better than not, according to Harry Hurt, founder and president of the Head Protection Research Lab (, who has spent decades researching motorcycle safety.
He recalled a young man heading to the beach wearing only a bathing suit and sandals who crashed and badly scuffed a large area of skin. He died in the hospital from the burn-like abrasions, commonly called “road rash.”
A less than well-known threat which road rash victims are vulnerable to is “MRSA.” This is a shortening of the name for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. The Mayo clinic describes these antibiotic-resistant bacteria as potentially fatal.
“Hospitals are the most secure home for MRSA. The most likely place to get it really is at the hospital.” Hurt said citing the constant battle to provide sanitized environments, “If you get it, it completely invades the whole body system. It defeats the whole immune system, and you’re dead.”
It can take as little as two days before a road rash victim dies, Hurt said, and MRSA is an insidious hidden killer. Even if impacts do not kill the rider, he said, “some of the worst bugs in the world” may.
While motorcycle and scooter riding can be considered fun and economical, a simple test for whether you are really prepared is this: If you knew you were going to be tossed out a car door at 15-65 mph, how would you dress?
That, many safety experts agree, is how a rider should prepare before hitting the road.

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