A N MLIVE INVESTIGATION
INJURY, DEATH RATES HIGHER FOR HELMETLESS BIKERS
FIRST IN A SERIES
BY JOHN BARNES
The words are achingly sad, a glimpse into the past from the perspective of the present.
A father is afraid. His son is not wearing his motorcycle helmet. And the son tries to reassure him ÔÇö to a point.
ÔÇ£IÔÇÖm always going to be more of a risk taker then you ever were,ÔÇØ Scott Pohl says in a mes*sage sent from his phone on May 23. ÔÇ£ThatÔÇÖs where I get a thrill out of life. You may call it stupid but I call it living. I hope you can understand that.ÔÇØ
Not long afterward, on the second day of summer, the 25-year-old went over his han*dlebars into a Ford Explorer whose driver never saw him coming. His helmet was in his motorcycleÔÇÖs right satchel.
ÔÇ£When they changed that law, I thought it was stupid,ÔÇØ said ScottÔÇÖs father, Karl. ÔÇ£ I didnÔÇÖt know it would affect me like it has. Scott lost his life, and thereÔÇÖs going to be many, many more. He very well may have survived that crash.ÔÇØ
Scott Pohl was the 75th motorcyclist without a helmet killed or seriously injured in Michigan after the state lifted its helmet mandate to give riders choice, an MLive Media Group investigation found.
At least 700 other motorcy*clists without helmets crashed in the six months after Gov. Rick Snyder and lawmakers changed the stateÔÇÖs 35-year-old law, records show.
And while the state is plan*ning a study next year to weigh the fallout, police crash reports already paint a bleak picture.
Motorcyclists without hel*mets were much more likely to die or suffer serious injuries, MLiveÔÇÖs investigation found. They were more likely to be at fault. And many were not li*censed to be on motorcycles in the first placeÔÇö aproblem that includes riders with helmets.
But the investigation also found Michigan crash records fall far short of providing spe*cific details about injuries, which critics say skew statis*tics. A helmetless crash death could have been due to a chest injury ÔÇö as reporters found in a Kalamazoo County case.
ÔÇ£It is frustrating,ÔÇØ said Vince Consiglio, president of ABATE of Michigan, the group most influential in lifting the man*date. ÔÇ£Pennsylvania, Florida and others all do a better job identifying whether weÔÇÖre deal*ingwith severe head injuries or something else.ÔÇØ
Still, opponents argue the higher injury and death rates are undeniable. And just two weeks ago, the investigative arm of Congress said direct costs related to motorcycle crashes totaled $16 billion in 2010.
Riders are 30 times more
MELANIE MAXWELL | MLIVE.COM OM Scott Pohl told his parents heÔÇÖd be safe riding his motorcycle without a helmet. Not long afterward, the Howell-area man died from head injuries when a driver who never saw him turned into his path. His helmet was in his satchel.
likely to die in crashes than are car occupants, the General Accounting Office noted. It also said mandatory helmet laws are the ÔÇ£only strategy proven to be effective in reducing motorcyclist fatalities.ÔÇØ
One police commander does not need studies to tell him that.
ÔÇ£If you were to run full force, as hard as you can, into a cement wall with a helmet on, and then run full force, as fast as you could, into a cement wall with no helmet on, whatÔÇÖs going to hurt worse?ÔÇØ said Lt. Chris McIntire, head of the Michigan State Police post in northern Kent County.
How many did not have to die?
MLive reporters examined state police data for more than 3,000 motorcycle crashes ÔÇö with and without helmets ÔÇö in the six months after the repeal, April 13 to Oct. 13. They also analyzed information on nearly 16,000 crashes from 2008 until the new law.
In those six months, the bulk of this yearÔÇÖs riding season, crash records show:
_ Cyclists without helmets were 43 percent more likely to suffer ÔÇ£incapacitatingÔÇØ injuries.
Of more than 100 deaths ÔÇö evenly split between those with and without helmets ÔÇö they were three times more likely to be killed.
_ Helmetless operators were at fault 51 percent of the time, compared to 42 percent for those with helmets. They also were more likely to have been drinking ÔÇö one in seven compared to one in 17 with helmets.
_ Some riders are ignoring requirements they be 21 to ride helmetless. The youngest in a crash was 14, in Muskegon Heights. Two riders, ages 19 and 20 from Eaton and Bay counties, were killed. Almost all underage riders without helmets were at fault in crashes.
_ Most were not licensed to be on the road. Michigan has a loophole allowing riders to avoid safety classes or road tests required to be fully certified.
The new law allows helmet choice for properly licensed motorcyclists 21 or older, provided they purchase the right insurance and pass a motorcycle safety course or have been endorsed to ride for two years.
Much of the legislation ÔÇö such as the $20,000 insurance mandate ÔÇö is unenforceable.
ÔÇ£Clearly they made the law such that itÔÇÖs an honor system,ÔÇØ said Kalamazoo Township Police Chief Tim Bourgeois.
Perhaps surprisingly, most riders in crashes had kept their helmets on. About threefourths wore helmets, far short of the 50 percent detractors predicted overall.
But the higher death and injury rates have remained consistent since MLive began tracking crash reports a month after the law was lifted.
The Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning is planning its own analysis of 2012 crash data, likely in the spring, said Shanon Banner, spokeswoman for the Michigan State Police. The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute will do the study.
The departmentÔÇÖs highway safety office also will fund a field observation, which Banner said ÔÇ£will provide a more accurate analysis of actual helmet useÔÇØ than only those in crashes. More than 550,000 riders are licensed in Michigan, up 11 percent since 2006.
Still, the biggest question likely will go unanswered: How many suffered debilitating head injuries who might have been spared?
No one knows, and lawmakers chose not to find out.
ÔÇÿItÔÇÖs a waste of fricking moneyÔÇÖ
It didnÔÇÖt take long for MichiganÔÇÖs first helmetless motorcyclist to be hospitalized. The same afternoon the mandate was lifted, a 25-year-old Montcalm County man enjoying his newfound liberty was thrown face first into the car he rearended.
It took a bit longer for the first to be killed. Seventeen days later, a father of four died after crashing helmetless on I-69 in Flint.
And on it goes for helmetless crashes, records show:
_ Michael Allen, a 27-year-old Afghanistan war veteran studying to be a kindergarten teacher, suffered a traumatic brain injury when he crashed June 12 on a short trip to the store in Bay County.
He was the 49th rider without a helmet to suffer serious injuries.
_ Tabbitha Bartlett, 19, of Eaton Rapids, became the youngest fatality when the cycle on which she was a passenger hit a culvert on June 27. Her boyfriend also lost his father that day ÔÇö he was the driver.
Their deaths were number 18 and 19.
_ Bryan Smith, 29, of Wyandotte, suffered brain damage when he and Mario Orsette crashed July 17 in Taylor.
Smith, a passenger, was uninsured and needed 18 plates to rebuild his face. He was the 97th helmetless rider to suffer serious injuries. Orsette was the 25th death.
But was the law at fault? The Flint man had been drinking. And anyway, his injuries would not have been prevented by a helmet, his family says.
An effort to answer such questions was nixed by lawmakers. An early version of the proposed law required a study within four years on helmetless head injuries and their cost to the state. The House stripped out that requirement.
Some senators tried to restore and expand the effort, requiring the secretary of state to document ÔÇ£the types and severities of injuries.ÔÇØ They also wanted data on alcohol involvement and how many operators had not passed a safety course.
The effort failed by three votes. Some worried about cost; some mistakenly thought state police already collected the data.
ÔÇ£ThatÔÇÖs the fault of our politics and our elected government. We could have had that information if we wanted that,ÔÇØ said Dan Petterson, president of the pro-helmet motorcycle group SMARTER, for ÔÇ£Skilled Motorcyclist Association ÔÇö Responsible, Trained and Educated Riders.ÔÇØ
Petterson instead approached federal highway safety representatives to evaluate the impact in Michigan.
ÔÇ£They told me, ÔÇÿNo, itÔÇÖs a waste of fricking money. Why we would we do that? We have multiple studies that will tell us what happens,ÔÇÖÔÇØ Petterson recalled.
One such study was done in 2009. Research in 18 states ÔÇö including neighboring Indiana, Ohio and Minnesota ÔÇö found unhelmeted motorcyclists treated at hospitals suffered nearly twice the percentage of head and face injuries, about one in five. The injuries were also more severe.
But legislating a similar study here might not have mattered.
Michigan does not have the technology to identify motorcyclistsÔÇÖ injuries, much less whether a rider was helmeted or not.
Injured brain or a broken leg?
The situation persists despite calls for reform. The governorÔÇÖs Traffic Safety Advisory Commission in 2009 called for enhancing police crash reports to more ÔÇ£accurately report bodily injury location and severity.ÔÇØ
Currently, police reports only rank severity of injuries, the worst being fatal or ÔÇ£incapacitating,ÔÇØ the least being no injury. They do not record where an injury occurred.
ÔÇ£Police officers are not trained or equipped to determine type or extent of injuries at a crash,ÔÇØ said Banner, the state police spokeswoman. ÔÇ£Those determinations are better made by trained medical personnel in a hospital setting, or during a postmortem exam of fatally injured riders.ÔÇØ
But unlike some other states, Michigan does not have a system that merges hospital, ambulance and police information to show whether a crash resulted in traumatic brain damage ÔÇö one of the most severe and costly injuries ÔÇö or a painful case of ÔÇ£road rash.ÔÇØ
That system, financed largely through federal grants, is called CODES, for Crash Outcome Data Evaluation System. It was in place in the 18 states studied by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2009.
Michigan applied for CODES funding, but did not qualify because it does not have a statewide emergency medical database. Emergency rooms and hospitals also do not uniformly file an ÔÇ£external cause code,ÔÇØ which show if the cause was a motorcycle crash.
ÔÇ£Some keep them, and some donÔÇÖt,ÔÇØ said Linda Scarpetta, manager of the Injury and Violence Prevention Section at the state Department of Community Health. Even then, they might not report whether a head injury involved a helmet, she added.
Anne Readett, communications chief for the Office of Highway Safety Planning, said the agency is working on a plan to link crash data with emergency or other healthcare information. The effort is some years from implementation, she said, but Michigan will lack at least one element that helped elsewhere.
ÔÇ£Federal funding for CODES projects is no longer available,ÔÇØ Readett said.
ÔÇÿMy goal is 100% not to get hurtÔÇÖ
On May 23, Karl Pohl saw his son riding helmetless from their rural home southwest of Howell. He left a voice mail, then sent a worried text message.
The sonÔÇÖs reply is eloquent, for the medium.
Scott: ÔÇ£I made it to work safe and sound with my helmet on. I didnÔÇÖt appreciate the attitude you gave me. .... however I understand where your coming from.ÔÇØ
His dad replies: ÔÇ£I just wish you were of the same mind set you were when you first got your cycle......talking about head injuries etc.ÔÇØ
Scott: ÔÇ£I sure as hell donÔÇÖt want a head injury. Priority #1 is not to go down to begin with. ... I say a prayer every time I get on my bike too. I ask to be protected. It makes me feel safer so I hope you can relax a little more.ÔÇØ
Scott Pohl died exactly one month later, when a driver who never saw him turned left. The cause of death was traumatic head injury.
And this is what ScottÔÇÖs father sees when he rereads the last line of his sonÔÇÖs message.
ÔÇ£My goal is 100% not to get hurt.ÔÇØ And then he closes, ÔÇ£...... Love you Dad!ÔÇØ
ÔÇö Contributing to this report were: John Counts, of AnnArbor.com; Jonathan Oosting, of MLiveÔÇÖs statewide team; Dominic Adams, of The Flint Journal; Gus Burns, of MLiveÔÇÖs Detroit hub; Zane Mc Millin, of The Grand Rapids Press; and Aaron Mueller, of the Kalamazoo Gazette.