Ben, why weren’t you wearing a helmet?

June 13th, 2006 by

Earl Weaver, the eminently quotable Baltimore Oriole Hall of Fame Manager and World Series winner, once said of the young Carl Yastremski, my boyhood idol, “He’s the best player in baseball – from the neck down.”
Weaver’s quote came to mind this morning when I learned that, while riding his Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle (the fastest “street-legal” bike on the market, according to Susuki), Ben Roethlisberger, of the reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, had been seriously injured when he drove into the side of a Chrysler New Yorker that was making a left turn in front of him in downtown Pittsburgh.
Following surgery to repair his injuries, which were mainly to his head and face, the Pro-Bowl quarterback was listed in serious, but stable, condition.
Harken back to Newton’s first law of inertia, the one about a body in motion remaining in motion until something stops it. In this case, although the the fastest street-legal motorcycle on the market stopped nearly instantaneously when it hit the New Yorker, Roethlisberger kept going until he also plowed into the side of the car (somewhere in America someone is going to refer to this as the “mother of all sacks”).
Unlike Sunday afternoons in the fall and against the advice of his coach, Bill Cowher, the quarterback was not wearing a helmet.
I’ve been planning to write about motorcycle helmets for nearly a week ever since learning that the Michigan House of Representatives, by a vote of 66-37, had voted to repeal the state’s 37 year old helmet law. But Big Ben going belly up yesterday has gotten me off the mark.
One could write for hours, days even, about the psychology involved in deciding to leave the helmet behind, but I won’t, because the science and the medicine and the logic here seem so simple. Even most of the people who don’t wear helmets will admit that they save lives, but, as an otherwise intelligent Massachusetts Representative told me a few days ago when we were debating this motorized russian roulette, “Citizens should have the ‘freedom of choice’ to decide for themselves.”
One could also write about the millions of dollars it takes to treat and care for even one victim of a serious head injury, but I won’t do that either, because the numbers have been trumpeted for decades and they don’t seem to resonate with the audience that needs to hear them.
And one could write about the statistically significant increase in motorcycle fatalities in the 20 states that have totally repealed their helmet laws and in the 26 others that only require helmets for young operators. In fact, since 1967, motorcycle deaths and serious injuries have been directly proportional to the on-again, off-again efforts of congress to either reward or penalize states regarding helmet laws. Since late 1995, it’s been off-again, and fatalities have risen 89%. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has an excellent summary of the history of helmet laws in the US.
In 2004 alone, more than 4,000 people died in motorcycle accidents – an 8% increase over 2003, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And NHTSA also reports that the per capita rate of motorcycle fatalities was 41% higher in states without helmet laws.
But none of this doom and gloom stuff penetrates what must be the really thick cranial tissue of the people who count – the ones who, above all else, want to feel the wind moving through their hair (and the bugs through their teeth) at 65 mph.
As a diehard New England Patriot fan, I really want to see Ben Roethlisberger on the field challenging my team for all he’s worth. So, I hope he makes a miraculously speedy recovery and is his old self by the start of training camp. But what would be really great, better than any football game, is if Big Ben, as soon as he’s sitting up and able to mouth coherent speech, were to make a big-time television public service announcement. A TV spot in which he would tell every kid and every football fan in America that he was wrong, that he was stupid, that he is not immortal and that he will never, ever again ride a motorcycle without wearing the best helmet made in the universe.