Protecting your head
David Thom: An interview
with the head-protection research man
Thom (center), senior program
manager at the Head Protection
Research Laboratory and Dr. "Butch"
Deacon (left), the new director of
research at HPRL talks with AMA
President Robert Rasor (far right,
AMA Director of State Affairs Sean
Maher (next to Rasor) and AMA
Government Relations Vice President
Edward Moreland (off to the left out
Nov. 20 – Crashing.
It's not a side of motorcycling we prefer to
talk about. But crashes do, as they say, happen.
Fortunately, there are people like David
Thom, a researcher who's spent the last 25 years
studying motorcycle crashes, and the ways to
avoid them—or at least walk away without serious
Thom has been a motorcyclist since 1970, and
at the age of 21, he joined a research team
being put together by Hugh H. Hurt, better known
as Harry Hurt, to conduct a highly detailed
study of motorcycle accidents.
The study ended in 1981 with the release of a
report officially called "Motorcycle Accident
Cause Factors and Identification of
Countermeasures," but popularly known as the
"Hurt Report." To this day, it remains the most
comprehensive piece of research ever conducted
concerning motorcycle accidents.
Following release of that report, Hurt and
Thom founded the Head Protection Research
Laboratory, now based in Paramount, California,
which is one of the premier helmet-testing labs
in the world. And they've continued to be
involved in research on wide-ranging topics
including rider braking performance, motorcycle
conspicuity, car driver inattention and helmet
retention system design.
Recently, Thom and Dr. "Butch" Deacon, the
new director of research at HPRL, visited the
AMA campus in Pickerington, Ohio. This gave us
an opportunity to ask how the Hurt Report was
holding up after all these years, and what new
challenges face motorcyclists as we ride into
the 21st century.
one of the lead researchers on the famous Hurt
Report, what was it like to be involved in that
Thom: It was a very fun and interesting
project, but it was also very sobering, very
quickly. I had been riding motorcycles since I
was 15 1/2, and I'd fallen a few times, but I'd
never broken any bones or anything, and Mom
always made me wear a helmet. Then, all of the
sudden to be introduced to a study where our
job, everyday, was to go find motorcycle
accidents where riders have been hurt—that was
How did you become involved in the Hurt
Thom: At the time, I was just a kid
working at a motorcycle shop. This customer,
Professor Hurt, used to come in to buy parts. I
knew he was doing some motorcycle study. He
asked me to join the project, but I had no idea
what it was going to become or that it would be
talked about 25 years later.
How much of that original study is
still applicable for riders today?
Well we think a lot of it's still
applicable, but we don't know what is and
what isn't. That's the reason we need a new
There is a list of things that have changed
since the Hurt report that are listed in the
National Agenda for Motorcycle Safety. That list
includes the new vehicle types out there and new
motorcycle types. When I think of the
motorcycles I was riding 25 years ago, they're
very different from what we have today.
Then we have this whole other world of
distractions within the car. They were important
then, and they're even more important now, we
think. Cellphones are a perfect example. Who
hasn't been cut off or squeezed out by some
yahoo with a phone at their ear and driving with
We think a lot of things are still
applicable. We still think most motorcycle-vs.-car
crashes are probably caused by cars, but we
don't know that for an absolute fact, and that's
a very important issue from a safety standpoint.
We know that there's still a lot of alcohol
involved in fatalities. But we don't know if
that alcohol involvement is on the part of the
motorcyclist or the car driver when we look at
the federal stats, because they don't have the
kind of detail that we had in the Hurt study—it
just says alcohol involved. It doesn't tell you
if it was the guy who ran over the motorcyclist
who was drunk. So we think the federal stats are
not necessarily representative of our motorcycle
How close do you think we are to
getting that new research?
Thom: Closer than we've been in an awful
long time. There is a lot of activity and
interest right now in crash research. NHTSA (the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)
had a project on the books, but not funded. So
there's interest, and more of a need for it,
because we are in the fourth year of steadily,
dramatically increasing fatalities. There have
to be some reasons for that, and if we don't
find out what those reasons are, the numbers are
going to keep going up.
Deacon: The other thing that's driving
the interest is that the demographics have
changed for motorcycle riders. We think they
tend to be more affluent, older…but we don't
In the years since the report, you and
Harry Hurt have continued to be on the leading
edge of motorcycle research in a number of
areas. Can you tell us about the range of work
you do through the Head Protection Research Lab?
Thom: For many years, we have really
concentrated on helmet issues, hence the name.
We started it at the University of Southern
California as we were winding down the Hurt
I've done an awful lot in the head protection
world of motorcyclists. And bicyclists have been
in a revolutionary era in head protection over
the last 15 years, so we've been very involved
in that, and in other sports areas for the last
10 years. There's a whole list of games that
have become more and more visible in the head
Then, four years ago, Honda came to us and
said they were selling a lot of motorcycles in
Thailand, and no one was doing any safety
(research) work there. So they came to us and
offered to sponsor a project in which we would
be involved as a research partner with
Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. That study
has just been completed, and the report will be
available in the near future.
Professor Hurt doing research on
I-10 in the late 70s.
Many riders from the early '80s
remember Harry as a professorial figure who also
rode a motorcycle and had a really good,
down-to-earth understanding of motorcycling. How
is Harry today? Does he remain directly involved
in your work and motorcycling?
Thom: He is the president of our
organization. He's semi-retired now—he's only in
a couple days a week for a few hours. And he
doesn't ride motorcycles anymore—he keeps his
beautifully restored Norton Commando in the
of the key parts of the work you do involves
smashing helmets in the lab to see how well
they'll protect riders on the road. Do you have
any idea how many helmets you've destroyed doing
that work over the years?
Thom: Oh, thousands. Between motorcycles
and bicycles, we have probably tested at least a
few thousand. We've been doing it for 20 years,
almost every day—that's a lot of helmets.
What is the most common myth regarding
Deacon: One of them is that a helmet
converts a fatal head injury to quadriplegia.
That is totally erroneous.
In fact, all of the canards you hear about
helmets are usually false—like they cut down
Thom: Or the extra weight will somehow
cause basil skull fractures—absolutely untrue.
Another theory is that you can't hear and
therefore you crash—we didn't find anything to
support that. There were studies done by the
National Public Services Research Institute, and
they didn't find any restriction of vision or
hearing to be any meaningful factor whatsoever.
So all these myths are unfounded in
When it comes to purchasing a
motorcycle helmet, there are some questions
regarding Snell, DOT, BSI…
Thom: Well, that's a huge can of worms. I
mean that is a huge, huge question, because it's
very complicated. What we recommend for helmets
is, first of all, get a helmet that you like, so
you'll wear it.
Second, it ought to have more coverage,
rather than less, because the more coverage
you've got, the more protection you'll get.
Third, it's got to meet the DOT (Department
of Transportation) standards. We would say it
doesn't need to meet the other standards—that
it's OK if it doesn't meet Snell, and it's OK if
it doesn't meet BSI.
Beyond that, it's very complicated. If you
listen to Snell, they represent their standard
as a higher standard. But I would ask, what is
If I look at two motorcycles and I say,
"That's a higher standard motorcycle," what does
that mean? Does it have more chrome? Bigger
tires? More horsepower? Better handling? A
It's the same thing with helmets. It's not
simply a matter of Snell being higher than DOT.
They're different. We actually did a study in
'92 where we compared a bunch of helmets, and we
discovered that when you meet Snell, it makes it
harder to meet DOT, because they have
Here's a reason why it's conflicting. One would
think that if you had a helmet that would take a
high-speed motorcycle crash, that if you used
it, for example, in a football game, it would be
even better—you wouldn't get injured. Well, that
doesn't turn out to be the case. A helmet that
is designed for the types of lifesaving events
that may occur on a motorcycle at high speed
doesn't necessarily give you the same protection
if you're riding a bicycle, or playing football.
It can absorb a high-energy crash. It's
designed for that. But in a low-energy crash, or
a crash of prolonged duration, it may not
That's just one of the complications—the fact
that you can't set a standard higher and still
have it work at lower levels.
Thom: That's very true. For example,
an Arai Quantum F will not protect you from a
bullet shot from a gun. One could call that
extreme circumstance "a higher standard." There
are helmets that will prevent penetration by a
bullet. But you wouldn't want to wear one in a
motorcycle accident, because it won't provide
you any protection if you fall off your
Does that mean that a DOT helmet will
protect me better in a 40-mph get-off, and a
Snell in a 100-mph get-off?
Thom: Well, there's an important
distinction to make there. The speed you're
going forward, meaning the speed showing on your
speedometer, is almost never, thank goodness,
the speed with which you hit your head on
something. Who's gone to the races and seen the
guy fall down going 120 mph. I have dozens of
times. They fall off, they hit their head on the
ground and they go sliding down the racetrack
till they go into the hay bales or whatever. But
what the helmet has to protect them from is the
fall from ride height, which is five feet off
the ground, irrespective of how fast they were
That's another myth about helmets, that they
can't protect you at anything greater than 13
mph—because that happens to be the vertical
impact velocity of the DOT standard, 13.4 mph.
But that doesn't relate to how fast your bike is
going, unless you hit a bridge abutment. If you
hit a bridge abutment, and you're going a 100,
or even 20, it's all over.
But the reality is, all a helmet has to do is
protect us from the fall to the ground.
Based on your decades of direct
involvement in riding and safety research, what
are the most important things riders can do to
protect themselves on the road?
Deacon: Don't drink.
Thom: Don't drink intoxicants and
ride, absolutely. And wear a DOT-qualified
Deacon: Wear a real helmet, as
opposed to wearing a fake (or novelty) helmet.
Plus, we think, take a training course. We
really can't back that up, but we believe that
in our hearts.
And be visible. Unfortunately that's very
counter to the typical black-leather style
jacket, and I take a lot of ribbing for that
because I wear a leather jacket. But I wear a
florescent vest over the top of it.
What we found in the Hurt Report is that when
someone has left-turned in front of a
motorcycle—that was the most common type of
accident—what they said afterwards is, "I
started the left turn, and this motorcycle came
out of nowhere and hit me."
So my thinking is, anything you can do to let
people see you is beneficial.