""Motorcyclist fired me--because Arai and Shoei didn't like a helmet-standards piece I wrote for the New York Times"
July 11, 2010 9:01 PM   Subscribe

Last year long-time motorcycle journalist Dexter Ford wrote this article for the NYT about helmet safety standards, a followup to his 2005 article "Blowing the Lid Off". Leaked emails (pdf) reveal that helmet manufacturers/advertisers were none too pleased, ultimately resulting in Ford being fired. (via hellforleather)

The hellforleather link is a great writeup, with much more background info.
posted by aerotive (36 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Hugh H. Hurt, a researcher who developed the Head Protection Research Laboratory at the University of Southern California, and author of the Hurt Report, a seminal study of motorcycle crashes

That's awesome.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:14 PM on July 11, 2010

As a former motorcyclist I remember this controversy within the industry as to whether to engineer the things to resist deforming more or less because a motorcycle crash often involves repeated blows to the helmet. One camp believed they should deform quicker to absorb more energy on the first bounce or two, another believed in firming them up more to sustain more repeated impacts. And then there's the question of how good the tests are, because how likely are you to strike an anvil of sorts whilst crashing your motorcycle, anyway?

In short, a crying lack of fit volunteers willing to strap on their helmets along with sophisticated impact measurement equipment and go out and crash. People just aren't willing to do the basic research anymore.

I was fortunate in the crash which ended my motorcycling daze and apparently didn't crash hard on my head and neck, or at any rate not hard enough to exceed the ability of the helmet to protect me, as my head and neck weren't messed up. But that legal boilerplate about "some reasonably foreseeable impacts may exceed..." pasted inside the helmet? They're not kidding...
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:25 PM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I sell magazine advertising for a living, and this stinks on ice. Believe me, I know how tough the print ad market is, but Brian Catterson (and I'm guessing, the Publisher, Marty Estes) have completely compromised any value Motorcyclist might have. Dexter Ford's work will save lives, and they should have had the balls - and integrity - to stand behind Ford. Some things are worth fighting for. Oh, and God damn the marketing executives at Arai and Shoei for demanding Ford's firing or they'd pull their space. I hope those fuckers die in a fire.
posted by mojohand at 9:49 PM on July 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

I hope those fuckers die in a fire.

Nonono. A bike crash.
posted by Schlimmbesserung at 10:00 PM on July 11, 2010 [10 favorites]

Well, I guess I know which helmet brands I won't be buying.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:03 PM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I wonder at what point during his phone conversation with hellforleather Catterson figured out he was right and truly fucked.
posted by jscott at 10:04 PM on July 11, 2010

It shouldn't be a surprise that at least some American magazines pull punches. As people have noted, British magazines and people like Jeremy Clarkson (love him or hate him) will say cars and bikes are rubbish.

We needn't get into details, but I've heard guys at the U.S. bike mags say certain bikes are shit and nothing anywhere close to that is said in print.

On a personal note, I was surprised to ride mid-80s sportbikes with bodywork and feel leg-roasting heat, ride Harleys before the Evo engine came along and some other changes (motor mounts?) were made and feel like my fillings were getting rattled loose... because the motorcycle magazines had never mentioned those things.
posted by ambient2 at 10:16 PM on July 11, 2010 [4 favorites]

I switched to DOT helmets after reading the 2005 article. Shoei and Arai make really nice helmets, but I'm too old to risk subjecting my brain to the abuse a SNELL helmet would dish out. If I'm crashing fast enough that SNELL would make a difference, I'm going to die of something, even if it's not a brain injury.

posted by spacewrench at 10:38 PM on July 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

People just aren't willing to do the basic research anymore.

Five thousand people a year would disagree with that assertion.
posted by jsavimbi at 11:07 PM on July 11, 2010

I hope this post doesn't just bring attention to the interesting politics and testing methodology in the article, but also to the importance of wearing a helmet all the time whilst riding a motorbike, bicycle, scooter, or anything else at any age, that might result in head trauma.

It's late. I'm tired, and I won't go into how helmets save lives, how much they might cost society in terms of social and medical expenditures, or any studies. I'm not going to talk about how the brain is a very important organ of the body, or the reasons why.

I'm gonna be that guy-- the public safety nut who invariably shows up in posts like these, espousing the importance of helmet use. I'll be that guy, and tell you to not allow the politics and different confusing standards prevent you from getting a helmet. Just get a helmet, and make sure it's got a sticker on the inside proving one of the following certification: USCPSC, Snell, ANSI for bicycles, and, well, I'll let you choose DOT vs Snell vs Snell for motocycle helmets. Just get a helmet. Wearing a properly-fitting helmet >> not wearing a helmet at all while riding. Two examples, with reasons why:

In undergrad, I did a lot of mountain biking. I always wore a helmet, cause, you know, bumps and stumps and trees and shit make for dangerous terrain. Never fell, never hit my head on anything, and helmet made me look cool: CHEKKIT OUT LADIEEEZ! I'm pursuing DANGEROUS SPORT. I take risks and I'm DAAAAANGEROUS! Pa-choo, pa-choo! Nope, not studying or reading books: nunnadat pansy for me! Check out my quads! Flex."

Home for break, I met up with my brothers and we took our bikes to a local park, where someone had set up a large series of jumps. There was a long, descending runway to the first jump, which was pretty giant. Following this was a few smaller jumps, and then a smooth downhill to level ground. The idea was to hit the first jump, pivot, land and go up the next jump etc. Like in ExciteBike.

The jumps were pretty fun. The weekend warriors, kids, and people our age were out. But as with all things including men, things got a bit competitive. People stopped trying to go for each jump, they just started going for air: how fast and how high could you go?

it was getting dark. We were down to our last runs. It was my turn to go, and I remembered my distant childhood, and performing a tabletop with a BMX bike-- where you bring the rear wheel of your bike horizontal in the air, and drop it back down to land. My legs were strong. My bike was blessed. I turned to the crew and said "fukkit, let's DO this!"

And so I went. Spinning faster, shifting, faster still, shift again, one last puuuussshh and hit the jump, compress, extend, and we have altitude! I was so high up in the air, I could hear people yell "holy shit!" from behind me. I completed the tail whip and brought my rear wheel up and level, as I turned my front wheel to the right. It was totally badass! So much airtime! I can see the tops of trees from here! Ok, let's get ready to make an easy landing.

I glanced down and saw my target piece of ground. I twisted my body and let gravity do its work, but couldn't get the read wheel down in time. Impact. You know how bikers look totally badss in racing photos, with their chests hunkered down low, knees bent to absorb shock? That perfect racing position? Well lemme tell you: it's perfect when you're upright and vertical. I landed in that position, only sideways. It did not look badass.

What follows happened very quickly: I had a relatively soft landing, but then everything went to hell as bike parts got stuck on ground parts, the cleats of my shoes got yanked out of their pedals, and body parts hit ground parts. The hardest hit was to the back of my head-- I felt some whiplash at one point.

When I opened my eyes, everything was blurry. Everything. I knew that the vision center is in the back of the brain, and so I started to panic. The people on the hill were panicking, and were running down.

"ARE YOU OK?" one of my brothers yelled.
"I can't see, man! I can't fucking SEE!"
"I hit my head, the visual cor--"

So I looked around, found my glasses, put my glasses on and could see just fine. The people started clapping and cheering. When I got back to the top of the hill, we looked at my helmet and noticed that the back part of it had collapsed, just as it was designed to do. Who knows how much more force it would've taken to really injure me?

It's obvious that motorcyclists travel at higher speeds and subjected to greater danger. Many riders are safe, and I'm sure most of them are a lot smarter than I am when it comes to not pursuing dangerous behavior. Both types of ride still have significant risk even if their riders are in pretty safe environments: cars are always a danger, moving or not.

At any rate, I guess my point is that everyone should wear a helmet. Yes, apparently, new standards for safety are being made, and yes, some helmets perform better than others. But your brain is pretty important. Do your research, and get a helmet. I would argue that a cheapo helmet conforming to CPSC or either Snell standard would work for bicycles. Dunno anything about motorcycles, except to say that I don't think those awesome black metal ones with a spike sticking out the top are very safe. Certainly very useful if, as you're about to wreck and hit a car, you want to cause some last-minute damage to the car by ducking your head down into your chin and impaling it.

And wear your helmet properly, motorcyclists, and bicyclists.

And the second example? Riding my Ross bike with banana seat for the first time without training wheels. A gentle nudge forward from my father. The feeling of freedom and accomplishment until the fence began to come at me somewhere around warp factor 7. I hit the fence, and had a fast, smooth slide down the length of the banana seat, dropped a few inches, crushed my balls on the top tube of the bike, slid forward the length of the tube, and then the finale: nutticular impact with the stem.

Of course a helmet wouldn't have helped in this particular instance. But it makes me think of two things: that I could've wrecked and hit my head on the ground, and b) there may be a market for similar protection of ones' testicles: a small, formed cup made of expandable polystyrene: we can call them "Nuthuggers." or "SAF-T-NUT." Or something.

posted by herrdoktor at 11:55 PM on July 11, 2010 [34 favorites]

I hope this post doesn't just bring attention to the interesting politics and testing methodology in the article, but also to the importance of wearing a helmet all the time whilst riding a motorbike, bicycle, scooter, or anything else at any age, that might result in head trauma.


Let me add riding a horse to that list.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 12:56 AM on July 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

I haven't read Motorcyclist in years, but back when, they never seemed to run into a motorcycle they didn't like.*

I always just took it as a given that they were in the pocket of the manufacturers.

* Except for their bizarre obsession with BMW switchgear.
posted by madajb at 1:13 AM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Let me add riding a horse to that list.

Having been thrown by a horse going at a full gallop, I will attest to this.
posted by rodgerd at 1:55 AM on July 12, 2010

I wear a Shoei as it's the only brand that fits my giant noggin comfortably. Now I guess I should look to see if my helmet is Snell 2005 or 2010.
posted by maxwelton at 2:19 AM on July 12, 2010

Huh. Because I wear a Multitech it only has a DOT rating. So I guess I lucked out.

On topic, I've always assumed every magazine is in the pockets of its advertisers and is essentially a marketing organ for them. Doesn't stop me from reading them but I know to ignore the product reviews.
posted by maxwelton at 2:24 AM on July 12, 2010

Having been thrown by a horse going at a full gallop, I will attest to this.

I've fallen on my head at a canter: I will never forget riding the rest of the trail with blurry vision on one side, wondering if it might be permanent. I still wonder if anything got knocked for good. I may never know the answer, but I do know that it would have been a hell of a lot worse if I wasn't wearing a helmet.
posted by GeorgeBickham at 3:14 AM on July 12, 2010

Reading this stuff breaks my fucking heart. Bet they all thought fate would just keep on ignoring their stupidity.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:25 AM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's pretty rare around here to see a motorcyclist wearing a helmet at all. I'd estimate that 95% of the ones I've seen since PA rescinded the helmet law are bare headed.
posted by octothorpe at 4:07 AM on July 12, 2010

Let me put on my shocked face. Magazines cowtow to advertisers. This is why I don't really rely on magazines for advice on ANYTHING.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:44 AM on July 12, 2010

Don't forget Helmets for motorists.
posted by scruss at 4:45 AM on July 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

What St. Alia said. I don't know motorcycle magazines but car mags are pretty notorious for sucking up to the auto companies who are their main advertisers.
posted by octothorpe at 5:19 AM on July 12, 2010

Magazines have what, about 5 years left?
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:25 AM on July 12, 2010

Chiming in on the helmet thing. I mountain bike a lot and in the last three years I've personally witnessed about ten potentially fatal or permanent-disability bike crashes where helmets have saved lives, or at least prevented severe brain trauma. Including:

-- guy going head first off a 3' high log, fracturing three vertebrae
-- guy going head first off a 3' high rock, landing face first
-- child going into a tree at high speed, head first (about four weeks ago)
-- guy losing it on a downhill and crashing on his head into a large boulder (this weekend)
-- guy falling backwards on steep uphill and slamming head into ground
-- girl hitting unseen log in long grass, endo to head

These are just the ones I was there for. If you added in the ones I heard about from friends the list would be in the dozens. For example, the guy who's on complete cognitive rest right now or the other guy who lost 1/3 of his cognitive ability.

My own experience is that, after cuts and bruises, so-called concussions (which people are slowly getting used to calling MTBI (Mild Traumatic Brain Injuries) are the single most common injury in mountain biking. And that's WITH wearing a helmet.

It really only takes seeing one person out cold with blood coming out of their nose and ears to make you pretty definite about this. I won't ride with someone who doesn't have a helmet and I always carry a spare for that reason.
posted by unSane at 5:54 AM on July 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

People just aren't willing to do the basic research anymore.

Five thousand people a year would disagree with that assertion.

Five thousand people a year are strapping on impact measurement equipment and cameras and then crashing?

BTW, thanks to those of you who have posted horrific stories about bicycle crashes. I had just about gotten the nerve up to do some bicycling, even though I'll never ride motorcycles again, but I think I'll stick to swimming*

* and probably drown.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:04 AM on July 12, 2010

I survived a crash that involved a long slide along the pavement, my helmet saving the side of my face from any damage whatsoever. I can't imagine riding without one. And I just checked my Shoei, it's Snell 2005. But it fits, it's quiet at speed (so I'm not temporarily deaf after a long ride) and I'll keep it for now. But I'll be sure its replacement is Snell 2010.
posted by tommasz at 6:08 AM on July 12, 2010

My four year old still thinks wearing his Spiderman bike helmet is cool, but I'm glad to read herrdoktor's post anyway. Because someday he might not, so I need to keep stats in mind for arguments.
posted by emjaybee at 6:22 AM on July 12, 2010

Hmmm, mine and my wife's helmets are a few years old and are Snell 2005. I think it's probably time to upgrade. In just a few minutes worth of research, I did notice that Arai are touting ECE approval on their top-of-the-line ($700ish) RX7 GP helmet, while still attempting to make it sound inferior to SNELL:

Arai is extremely proud to announce that the new RX-7 GP helmet is one of the very first to meet both ECE Regulation 22-05 and upcoming SNELL M2010 standard.

The RX-7 GP is in all respects the new benchmark in Arai’s helmet technology. The RX-7 GP was developed with the SNELL M2010 in sight, one of the most stringent helmet standards for impact-absorption test, in addition to the mandated ECE Regulation 22-05 standard.

There are however, considerable differences between the ECE 22-05 and SNELL M2010 requirements.

SNELL M2010 requires for instance that any location above the test line is to be tested by two consecutive impacts, while ECE 22-05 requires a single impact only to specific points on the test headform. This makes the total impact energy absorbed byeach test location by the SNELL M2010 standard, almost twice as high as for the ECE 22-05 tests in some consumer size ranges.

In addition, SNELL M2010 impact absorption tests are carried out with hemispherical and bar anvils. Both anvils are known as harsh to the outer shell performance. Furthermore, to insure the helmet shell is strong enough, shell penetration testing is also required by SNELL M2010, but is missing in the ECE 22-05 standards.

The impact-absorption capacity of the new Arai RX-7 GP exceeds even that of the RX-7 Corsair. Together with its conformity to both the ECE Regulation 22-05 and SNELL M2010 it makes the RX-7 GP a true new benchmark in helmet technology.

http://www.araihelmet-europe.com/rx7gp/eng/ .
posted by letitrain at 7:04 AM on July 12, 2010

I don't think I've ever been mountain biking without a helmet ever since I came across the guy who had slammed head first into a tree, and his buddies who were trying to keep him from going into shock while waiting on the helicopter. Ugh.
posted by Big_B at 8:39 AM on July 12, 2010

We always said, "If you have a ten dollar head, get a ten dollar helmet."
posted by digsrus at 9:19 AM on July 12, 2010

When I was getting back in to motorcycling, I found that article. So, I bought less expensive DOT only helmets. That Motorcyclist would fire him for such a well-researched article just reinforces my lack of faith in Motorcyclist. Doesn't surprise me, though. "Industry standards kill customers" isn't generally a good advertising point.
posted by QIbHom at 10:38 AM on July 12, 2010

I haven't read Motorcyclist in years, but back when, they never seemed to run into a motorcycle they didn't like.

Reminds me of BSNYC's bike (the kind you pedal) "reviews" in the style of Bicycling.

I thought this bit of explanation from Catterson was telling: "Thus my 'feed her to the dogs' comment, which was obviously intended for his eyes only."

Right, it was obviously intended for his eyes only. But you still said it.
posted by kenko at 12:27 PM on July 12, 2010

A helmet saved my life in a freak accident once. I wouldn't ride an inch without one.

I used to dirtbike, and the country around here is pretty scrubby, more suited for enduro or trials. I was literally stopped, trying to make my way up a woody ravine and I popped my front tire up on a tree that had fallen over and was blocking the path. The pressure of my tire made tree roll and swung a branch up that was connected further down out of sight, and through a kind of fulcrum effect, smashed right into my forehead. Like a major-leaguer swinging a bat. Without a helmet it would have taken my scalp off I'm sure.
posted by puny human at 8:36 PM on July 12, 2010

puny human: It doesn't take much. A family friend lost their future son-in-law. From the police reconstruction of what happened, it appeared he'd been tooling along on his farm bike at perhaps 30 km/h on a gravel road. As he'd gone onto a sealed surface something had gone wrong, probably just the wheels hooking up, and he'd been thrown and landed on his head, at 30 km/h.

They switched the life support off the week before Christmas.
posted by rodgerd at 3:08 AM on July 13, 2010

Hell, you can fall off the toilet and crack your head in a way that will kill you. It doesn't necessarily take much to rattle the brain badly.

I recommend wearing a Snell-approved helmet when pooping. Be safe!
posted by five fresh fish at 7:50 AM on July 13, 2010

From now on, I will always think of you as Mr. Poop Helmet, five fresh fish.
posted by puny human at 5:18 PM on July 13, 2010

No no no. A helmet made of poop might be comfortable, but it would never pass Snell's standards.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:08 PM on July 13, 2010

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