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Why a helmet is not guaranteed to save your life

The topic of protective equipment for riders will always remain relevant. Each year, new technologies emerge to reduce the number and severity of injuries among motorcyclists in case of accidents. However, despite these advancements, the mortality rate of motorcyclists remains unchanged. Even modern helmets, while essential, may not guarantee a rider’s survival in a severe accident. The necessity of wearing a helmet is undeniable, but why doesn’t it always save riders’ lives? This question is answered by scientist and rider Oleg Maltsev and motorcycle safety expert David L. Hough.

David L. Hough: I want to address the topic of motorcycle protective equipment. In the US, many people believe that riding motorcycles is all about fun and that all you need to do is put on a helmet and get a license. However, we still see around 4,000 motorcycle-related deaths every year. While helmets often protect the skull during a collision, they may not prevent the loss of life.

Oleg Maltsev: That’s absolutely correct. Just like a military helmet designed to withstand a certain caliber bullet may protect the helmet but not the person from a fatal concussion. Helmets are designed to handle specific impact forces, but a person’s head may not withstand those forces.

DH: In the USA, helmet tests are conducted to protect the head at speeds not exceeding 12.5 mph. However, real-world motorcycle speeds are often much higher. While it’s true that wearing a helmet can be determined in the morgue, the unfortunate reality is that, in any case, the riders involved in severe accidents have already lost their lives.

OM: I believe that the problem of equipment has not been discussed at the scientific level at all. For example, civil aviation pilots fly in a shirt, ties, and pants, without any equipment; military fighter pilots fly in a high-altitude suit and helmet. There is probably some difference.

DH: The biggest problem with motorcycle gear, at least in the US, is that the people who design, manufacture, and sell “protection” don’t understand what’s really going on. A striking example of their misunderstanding is that a person does not die because he has cracks in his skull, but because his brain has turned to mush from the impact.

OM: If you look at this issue from a military point of view, equipment is passive defense, passive armor. The military has the same equipment as motorcyclists – a steel helmet and body armor. For example, what is the most important thing for me in a helmet? It’s good visibility. I need a helmet with maximum visibility. If I have poor eyesight, I need to wear glasses. You need to find the ideal option while driving to accurately assess the entire situation. But the sad reality is that people buy full-face and sport helmets where nothing is visible at all. So they completely deprive themselves of the opportunity to see anything. And a respected person, who even writes books on this topic, believes that only such helmets should be worn. I explained to him that you can wear such a helmet on the track, but in the city, a sport helmet is a guarantee that you will get into an accident. You protect your visibility as much as possible. The eyes for a motorcyclist, as well as for a pilot, are the most important part of their “communication.” Just as a Boeing has a huge illuminated panel, the instrument panel, and the pilot must simultaneously stay outside and control all the instruments. And if he puts on a helmet that does not allow him to look at the dashboard normally, there will be big problems. Pilots are under constant stress and multitasking. Likewise, a motorcyclist in a cautious city is constantly faced with multiple tasks, and if his vision is limited in any way, he will be in huge trouble.

DH: In America, the helmet issue is 50% apolitical. This topic is like a complicated “bowl of spaghetti,” where money, style, and some elements of safety and comfort are intertwined. Of course, helmet manufacturers always argue that everyone should wear helmets. My colleague who conducted the research believes that a helmet is not primarily designed to save your life but to provide some protection in case of an accident. For example, if you are driving and look towards a pebble, you may end up in an accident due to this distraction. At a minimum, a helmet can protect against such things.

OM: But it’s not just the impact of an accident; there’s also the risk of falling from a motorcycle. This is where a helmet can really help. A person can fall to the right, left, or backward, and when he falls, the helmet will definitely protect him from hitting the back of his head on the asphalt. By the way, falling backward is the safest fall. There has never been a time when a person fell backward and was killed. This is easy to check; all military personnel are taught this. Take a chair and lean back. If you press your chin to your chest as you fall, you will not hit your head. A person who falls backward in a stairwell folds up like a bracket, and everything that happens to him results from injuries due to subsequent impacts on iron railings, and so on. But when we expose, we definitely break the limb due to the mass that is loaded on the arm at the moment of contact with the break. There is a video where a girl misses a turn at a speed of 200 km/h and hits a bump stop, which throws her back, and the motorcycle flies further.

So, at a speed of 200 km/h, she only broke her arm because she stuck it out. But even the fracture could have been avoided. As for death, it occurs when a person on a motorcycle at full speed crashes into an object. We are saying that a similar situation can arise at any time if you are driving at a speed that limits your braking capabilities. If you don’t know what’s going on, then even a speed of 60 km per hour can definitely be fatal for you.

The full conversation between academician Oleg Maltsev and motorcycle safety expert David L. Hough you can watch below the link


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