Motorcycle Safety Starts with Properly Worn Helmets

HOUSTON (June 29, 2011) —  Motorcycle safety starts with drivers and passengers wearing properly strapped helmets to avoid death or serious injury, say neurosurgeons from Ben Taub General Hospital, one of the busiest trauma centers in the nation.

With the lure of the open air and good weather, more cyclists are expected to take to the roadways this summer. Additionally, higher gas prices are making more people consider motorcycles as a cheaper, alternative mode of transportation.

To be safe and reduce the risk of accidents, the Harris County Hospital District and state officials urge drivers to be more aware of motorcycles on the road. However, it’s the personal decision of motorcycle riders to wear a helmet, stay within speed limits and avoid drinking alcohol that could make the difference between life and death, says Dr. Shankar Gopinath, chief, Neurosurgery, Ben Taub General Hospital, and assistant professor, Baylor College of Medicine.

“By its nature, accidents involving a motorcycle will almost certainly result in more severe injuries for cyclists and passengers. But when you don’t wear a helmet or wear it improperly, you risk making your injuries worse,” he says. “The result is usually death, surviving with long-term disabilities or living in a coma or vegetative state.”

Texas law requires riders under age 21 to wear a helmet. Those over 21 can ride without a helmet if they’ve completed a safety course. According to the Texas Department of Transportation, two out of every three motorcycle riders involved in accident suffers serious injury or dies.
In 2009, the state reported 434 motorcyclists died on Texas roadways. Of those killed, more than half (260) were not wearing a helmet. That year, motorcycle-related deaths represented 14 percent of all the state’s traffic fatalities.

Over the last decade, the state’s number of motorcycle accidents has more than doubled to 422,815. If riders don’t heed safety warnings, experts expect the numbers to climb.

At Ben Taub General Hospital, a Level I Trauma Center designated by the American College of Surgeons and the Texas Department of Health and Human Services for its ability to care for the most-severely injured patients, staff pronounced 11 people killed among the 86 total motorcycle accident victims treated in 2010. Of those killed, seven were not wearing a helmet and two were listed as undetermined.

“We don’t want to say that wearing a helmet will save your life in an accident, but if it improves your chances, why wouldn’t you wear one,” syas Dr. Claudia Robertson, medical director, Neurosurgical Intensive Care Unit, Ben Taub General Hospital, and assistant professor, Baylor College of Medicine. “It makes good sense. You wear a seatbelt when you’re in a car, but you have to put it on to make it work. So why wouldn’t you protect your head by wearing a helmet and strapping it on correctly.”

“You could recover from extremity injuries in months or years, but if you suffer a brain injury you may never recover,” Gopinath says. “It’s especially tough on families because they realize what’s happening to you, while you as a patient have no way of knowing. You could be living for 20-30 years in a state of consciousness where you don’t know who you are or anyone around you.”

Gopinath and Robertson say that in their years of experience in healthcare, a lot of the motorcycle accidents seem to occur to people during celebrations for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations or festive holidays like New Year’s Day or Independence Day.

“Riders seem to be more relaxed or careless on these occasions,” Robertson said. “For some, they may drink alcohol or be a little more reckless.”

Both recommend safety tips offered by the Texas Department of Transportation.

For motorcyclists:

• Wear a helmet (properly) and other protective gear

• Turn on your headlights and ride defensively

• Avoid the center of the lane where debris and oil build up

• Ride at a safe speed and never ride if you've been drinking

• Take a course to learn or reinforce safe riding techniques

For other drivers:

• Look twice for motorcyclists at intersections, entering highways and whenever turning or changing lanes

• Always maintain a safe following distance

• When passing a motorcyclist, move to the other lane and allow a full lane for the motorcycle

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