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Protecting your head

David Thom: An interview with the head-protection research man

by Bill Andrews

 

 

Click to enlarge
David 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 of picture). 

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 injury.

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.

Click to enlargeAs one of the lead researchers on the famous Hurt Report, what was it like to be involved in that landmark study?
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 very sobering.

How did you become involved in the Hurt Report?
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?
Click to enlargeThom: 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 study.

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 one hand?

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 problems.

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 know.

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 Study.

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 protection world.

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.

Click to enlarge
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 office.

Click to enlargeOne 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 helmet usage?
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 visibility.

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 scientific fact.

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 higher?

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 shorter wheelbase?

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 conflicting requirements.

Click to enlargeDeacon: 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 protect you.

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 motorcycle.

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 going forward.

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 helmet.

Deacon: Wear a real helmet, as opposed to wearing a fake (or novelty) helmet.

Click to enlargeThom: 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.

© 2002, American Motorcyclist Association