He Should Have Been Wearing a Helmet

Martha and I were walking down the street…Downer Street, if I recall correctly…heading north from the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. We were close to the Kinko’s, which was on the west side of the north-south trending street, and about to cross. We were in fact off the curb and checking for traffic. A car was heading to the north, away from us. Since we were walking north and crossing the street diagonally, we were looking at the car from behind, but I could see that the light blue sedan was driven by a middle-aged woman with curly hair and largish glasses. Heading south, towards us, was a man on a bicycle. He had short dark hair, was large-framed and about 6 feet and 1 or 2 inches in height, driving a white or gray ten-speed bike. It might have been a Peugeot.

The bike was heading south at a reasonable clip, but he had stopped pedaling about 100 feet back. The car was slowing and had a left signal on, indicating that she would turn into the driveway of the bank just north of Kinko’s. That would be across the path of the oncoming bike, if she continued. But she was stopped.

It was obvious that the bike rider assumed that the car would stay stopped and let him continue before she made her turn. Therefore, he did not slow down much. But, just as the two vehicles were about 20 feet apart, the car made a small jerking motion, as if the driver was adjusting her foot on the brake. At no point, however, did she move forward. I do note, however, that her front tires were turning left as this was all happening. Depending on what the bike rider saw, he may have reasonably interpreted the signs and signals to mean that this car was about to pull in front of him. I’m pretty sure, however, that this was not going to happen.

The bike rider slammed on his brakes, but it seems that the front brake stuck more firmly than the back brake. The bike stopped instantly and the rear tire started to swing around to the right. But that was irrelevant now, because the bike rider, who was already leaning forward on the handle bars as per normal, was in the air.

He flew up into the air and over the front of the bike, and as he did so, his body rotated 90 degrees and his legs rotated 180 degrees. So, there was a moment in time when this large framed man looked like this:
This is a stick figure like a cartoon, but it is not meant to be funny. It is decidedly not funny. The point of this figure is to illustrate so there is no ambiguity this statement: The second to last experience this man had was being perfectly upside down, with his entire body up in the air and no contact with anything but the air around him.

The last experience he had was his head being pounded into the pavement with the full weight of his body.

He collapsed to the ground and convulsed. I said to Martha “Go into Kinko’s and call 911,” which she did. The nearest rescue facility with an ambulance was almost in sight a couple of blocks up the street, so they would be there in a moment.

I ran over to the man and made myself look big so that cars coming down the street would notice us and not run us over. He was now on his side convulsing heavily and continuously. His convulsing was causing his head and neck to whip around, so I got down and held his body in place so he would damage himself less.

The woman who was driving the car got out and was staring. Two people who had walked out of a local store and did not see the accident came over and yelled at me.

“Leave him alone!” one of them screamed at me.

“He’s an epileptic! He’s just having an epileptic fit! Don’t treat him like he was sick or something.”

The woman who had been driving the car was distraught. She said “I didn’t hit him! I don’t know how this happened! I was waiting for him to go by!”

He continued to convulse. Martha came out of Kinko’s and was standing nearby helping to keep traffic from either hitting us or causing a jam that would make it hard for the ambulance to come down the street. The ambulance was there in moments, and just as the EMTs came rushing over, the man with the bike stopped convulsing. He stopped moving. Eyes that were rolled back in his head became a blank stare.

I lied to Martha. I said I thought he’d probably be OK. It seemed to me that he was dead. To this day, I do not actually know. Perhaps he simply lived the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Oh, did I mention? He was not wearing a helmet.

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22 Responses to “He Should Have Been Wearing a Helmet”

  1. July 15th, 2009 at 7:41 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    This is an important reminder. I haven’t been bike riding at all this year, and part of it is that I don’t have a helmet.

  2. July 15th, 2009 at 8:07 am

    Jason Thibeault says:

    I biked fairly often to work last year, though since moving I’m a little too far now. Never without a helmet, it’s actually the law around these parts. Still, this resonates with me. If you go headfirst into the pavement in that manner, helmet or no, you’re liable to snap your neck. Poor guy.

  3. July 15th, 2009 at 9:21 am

    Spiv says:

    I bike daily (recreational, work is 40 miles each way in 90+ degree weather and 95%+ humidity with a rain storm almost every day on the way home). No helmet, admittedly, and I do often find myself at a pace above 25mph. I’m mostly worried about getting hit by someone, but this brakes-over experience is a thing I’ve witnessed a couple times, though every time the person came out with road rash and no head injury. Lucky, but not uncommon.

    One of my bikes is a “fixed gear,” which is to say a trendy road bike with only one speed and is intended to be stopped without the aid of brakes (the rear gear does not have a ratcheting mechanism like most geared road bikes. When you stop peddling, you drag the bike to a stop). I have only a front “e-brake’ to stop quickly. The key here is that people often lean forward to grab their brakes, and one should very much practice pushing yourself back in the seat and using only your front brakes to the point that it is second nature. If you’re doing it “right,” you should be able to lock up the front wheel without doing an ‘end-o’ or ‘stoppie’ or whatever the kids are calling it.

    Unless you live where there are hills. Then you’re in trouble on the down.

  4. July 15th, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Who Cares says:

    The way the impact is described a helmet would most likely not have helped. The reason for this being that two of the more likely injuries are a broken neck or the spine being pushed into the brain.

  5. July 15th, 2009 at 9:53 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Actually, I don’t think his neck was broken. The helmet may have been a good idea.

    The point is, there have been a lot of studies done and overall having the helmet on is beneficial, life saving, and so on and so forth.

  6. July 15th, 2009 at 9:54 am

    MikeMa says:

    I always ride with a helmet. I can remember when I was a kid, we didn’t have them and when my kids were little they were nearly the only kids on the block with them. Guess we felt our kid’s brains were more valuable than the other parents on the block felt about their kids noggins.

    It is quite an art to try and figure out what a car will do and how it will affect you when riding. Some accidents are unavoidable but not wearing a helmet is just asking for an extra penalty. Some of the ‘beautiful’ people riding bareheaded on the roads clearly value the look of their hair over the contents of their skulls. I suspect they are right to do so.

  7. July 15th, 2009 at 10:24 am

    Len says:

    Helmets aren’t just for bicycles. A good friend of my wife was found dead on one of our local pathways, having (apparently) lost his balance on roller blades, hitting his head on the pavement.

  8. July 15th, 2009 at 11:43 am

    badrescher says:

    Very moving and I hope it makes a difference to those who think it will not happen to them.

    A few years ago while on vacation at Lake Tahoe, two cars’ worth of my family witnessed a car slam into a man on a bike and keep going, leaving behind only a license plate and a few shards of yellow plastic. My brother stayed with the confused rider, trying to keep him awake until the ambulance arrived. Later that night and the next day news reports told us that the young man died of internal injuries.

    The rider was not wearing a helmet, but that would not have mattered in this case, which is why I am mentioning it here. There is more he neglected which may have saved his life.

    Although the driver of the car was drunk, I believe I can say with confidence that he would have hit the rider if he was sober.

    The rider was wearing dark clothing and riding a bike with no light on a dark street with a blind curve at 10 o’clock in the evening. Nobody saw him dart into the street until it was too late. We never found out if he had been drinking himself, but simply being visible may have made all the difference.

  9. July 15th, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    Who Cares says:

    Greg you ignored the other possibility of injury from being smashed head first into the road.
    The spine being shoved into the skull is more likely then a broken neck seeing that the guy was showing symptoms that resembled a grand mal seizure. Which is also a symptom when the skull is caved in for which wearing a helmet could have helped him survive.

  10. July 15th, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    The spine being shoved into the skull is more likely then a broken neck That is what I assumed had happened.

  11. July 15th, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Hillbilly Scientist says:

    I once witnessed a fatal car vs. bike accident in Austin, TX. A car approached a group of four cyclists riding on a wide shoulder. Just as the car passed, it swerved to the right and struck all four bikes. The driver later said that she had been reaching for a CD in her glove compartment. Three of the cyclists were unresponsive by the time I arrived at the scene on my bicycle about 15 seconds later. The fourth, the only one of the four that had been wearing a helmet, lost a little skin, but suffered no permanent injuries.

    Would the three dead cyclists have been saved if they had been wearing helmets? Are you willing to do the experiment?

  12. July 15th, 2009 at 3:21 pm

    rfguy says:

    I ride a bicycle nearly every day – to work, to the grocery store, and just for fun. I always wear a helmet (these days; when I was much younger, I don’t think bicycle helmets were available). Last year, while riding through the park, I hit an unseen hole in the long grass and did a big endo just as described in the story above. My helmet cracked from the impact, but I did not have any lasting damage – my neck was sore for a few months afterwards, but nothing broken (I did go to the hospital for x-rays to be sure).

    That’s probably the third time that a helmet has really saved me from serious injury or death.


  13. July 15th, 2009 at 7:35 pm

    Jeremy O'Wheel says:

    There was a really good analysis of the benefits of wearing helmets in the comments to this article;


    Essentially helmets play a big role in reducing minor head injuries but don’t have any effect on reducing major head injuries.

    The fact that they reduce injuries is a good reason to wear them, but it’s unlikely that doing so will save your life.

  14. July 15th, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    prn says:

    I’m not what those who care would likely call a “real” cyclist, but when I can, I like to ride my bike to work, to the dentist, etc., that is, around town, not for hundreds of miles on the road or up and down rough terrain. I’ve been riding for more than 50 years, so you might correctly guess that helmets were not something I got used to as a kid.

    About a year ago, I was coming home from work (without a helmet), turned a gentle corner and the next thing I knew I was trying to untangle myself from the bike, which was more or less on top of me. I still don’t know what went wrong and I doubt that I ever will. Before I managed to get up or even untangled, several people had appeared as if by magic. One of them was a doctor, who took one look at me and told me I would definitely need sutures. She actually drove me to my doctor’s office, where one of the docs cleaned me up and stitched up my face, etc. A CAT scan showed no brain damage. I did, however, resemble Frankenstein’s monster for a while. (By now I’m not noticeably uglier than I was before.)

    I was lucky. I now wear a helmet all the time.


  15. July 15th, 2009 at 9:17 pm

    george.w says:

    Horrifying description. I’ll second what Spiv said about braking; get your weight away from the front wheel. My bike has really serious disc brakes so it has to become a trained reaction.

    A bike is my main transportation and has been since before Gerry Ford took the oath of office. I never wore a helmet before five years ago. Also didn’t know that concussions are cumulative.

    I’ve always been physically active, and got my bell rung lots of times; off a horse, when a drunk guy punched me once, a shot-put ball, fell out of a dune buggy, walked into an overhanging pipe, others. Always felt fine after a few hours, thought little of it. Never had a serious accident on my bike.

    Then I was riding to lunch on a beautiful summer day, and woke up in a strange place that I soon recognized as an emergency room. I don’t remember the accident, but based on the injuries we think a car probably turned right in front of me, forcing me to try to make the turn with them. There were no witnesses so that is conjecture. It was a quiet area, and based on the timeline I was there for about twenty minutes before someone found me and called 911.

    The result was problems with memory, concentration, and balance. At times even walking was problematic; I staggered like a drunk. It was more than a year before I could balance well enough to think about riding again. The neurologist explained that it wasn’t the severity of that particular injury, so much as its position following all the other ones.

  16. July 15th, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    Greg Laden says:

    Non helmeted riders are 14 times more likely to be inolved in a fatal bike crash than helmeted riders. According to helmet.org


  17. July 15th, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    george.w says:

    Hope I was clear that I sure as frack wear a helmet now…

    (And it doesn’t say anything good about my common sense that I only started wearing one after a severe head injury. )

  18. July 15th, 2009 at 11:32 pm

    Tacticus says:

    Greg I would guess that those details don’t include places where helmets are uncommon?

    Though helmets do assist I think if cyclists need them for day to day riding so should car passengers\drivers

  19. July 16th, 2009 at 10:26 am

    Kelly McCullough says:

    Tacticus, @ 18 yep, they’re called seat belts. I wear them for the same reason that I wear a helmet while biking–I’m a big fan of reducing my odds of ending up dead or damaged.

  20. July 16th, 2009 at 2:39 pm

    KT says:

    I’ve dissected animal tissues before, and two are very delicate and hard to get out in one piece: the liver and the brain. These organs are easily squishified. You can live without chunks of your liver. Your brain? Not so much. Wear a helmet!

  21. July 17th, 2009 at 10:49 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Tacticus: I included the link so people could follow up. Your logic regarding who should wear helmets is impenetrable.

    Kelly: You’re doing it rong!!! Do not put the seat belts on your head!!!

  22. July 19th, 2009 at 10:38 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    My cycling days go back to the days when bikes only had one speed, and pedaling backwards constituted braking. I have never understood the appeal of hand brakes. When you need to stop, why not put your best muscles into the effort? Helmets? Those were for motorcyclists – oops, “bikers”. I have been corrected numerous times on that. Including by the biker I married, who seemed to make a career out of crashing, until he could no longer afford the repairs to his bike. That was always somebody else’s fault, even when he rear-ended a semi with clear brake lights and turn signal showing. (He insisted that the trucker really meant he was turning into the next driveway, not the one he did.)

    No doubt those combined experiences have skewed my viewpoint regarding wearing helmets, but I came to believe that they should be worn by all riders, motorized or self-propelled. Listening to the arguments against mandating helmet usage, I find my self willing to agree, with one proviso. Let’s not have helmet laws, with the understanding that anyone receiving a serious head injury while refusing to wear one has NO CLAIM on any kind of health coverage or rehabilitation or nursing home services paid for by any of the rest of us or our insurance companies. (Same thing, actually.) If you’re independently wealthy, and are lucky/smart enough to have made previous provisions to have your fortune maintained and wisely spent on your personal care, then you may receive all the TLC that’s out there. But if you’re too stupid, stubborn, reckless and foolish to wear a helmet and you crash and receive a head injury, the rest of us shouldn’t have to pay for it. Nor should your family.

    Now, go ahead, make your choice. Helmet? Or are you feeling really lucky today?

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