Countersteering: One's Jello


For more than 30 years, a group of us has gathered to watch the Superbowl. We have persevered through "wardrobe malfunctions" and more than a few mediocre games. It didn't matter so much if the Patriots were involved, but that helped. This year will be my last, I think. There are just too many addled brains and premature deaths as a result of playing this game.

I played in high school, but we mostly didn't achieve the speed or the beef to be found in the pros. A very useful equation from physics tells us that the energy dissipated in a collision is the mass of the moving body times its speed squared. The squared term is important; it goes up fast. A bullet doesn't weight much, but its speed explains its lethality. Similarly, but now with real mass, high speed collisions on the open road keep EMTs up at night.

So when a 260 pound linebacker accelerates toward a 225 pound running back who has just burst through the line, you add their vectors and the resulting collision is truly fearsome. "Oh, good hit," roars the commentator. And then one of the players doesn't get up. Pretty soon, the team doctor is shining a pencil light into the dazed player's eyes. Pupillary reflex? Brain working? Hello, anyone home?

What has become clear over the years is that, in spite of the players' wearing of helmets and other protection, repeated "contact" like what I just described does more than we thought it did. In fact, we now have a pretty good understanding of what a helmet can do, and it's not what most of us helmeted types want to hear.

Modern helmets are amazing things: they're light, strong, and resistant to puncture. But they're designed to protect the brain case — the skull — not the brain. So when a helmeted individual collides abruptly with a 300 pound lineman or a 3000 pound car, the brain, in spite of its internal cushioning (fluids and three membranes), bashes into the skull. Three pounds of jello-like material are not designed to decelerate like that. The result can be a concussion or even substantial sub-dural hematoma. This latter is medical lingo for bleeding from ruptured veins just under one of the brain-encasing membranes not good if pressure builds up. Is one of these enough to put you in another category for a month? For life?

OK, if a helmet can't adequately protect the brain from trauma, are the guys riding around bare-headed in New Hampshire off the hook? No.

Helmets can do a lot of things well. Because all of them offer some cushioning, even the skimpy things bicyclists now wear (no one wore helmets when I was riding seriously), they do provide some protection during slow speed crashes because they compress, thereby absorbing some of the energy of the crash. The almost-four-pound-thing worn by motorcyclists also helps prevent bad road rash and spearing from sharp objects that might be encountered by a sliding head on the edge of the road. Further, our best data says that 20 percent of all crashes involve the indignity of a head plant. I'm pretty much alone in this, but I like my face, so I wear a full-faced helmet. And, yes, I know it makes me look like a want to join Matt Damon on Mars. But, a full-faced helmet helmet also keeps my head warmer and prevents unsightly bugs in my teeth, not to mention all those bee and wasp stings. They get sucked in, buzz madly against the face shield, but leave my face alone.

I'm really sorry to report on the scrambled brain part. I hadn't thought much about that issue in the context of a helmet, but, if you query most of the non-riding public, we motorcyclists wouldn't notice this eventuality anyway.

Bob Engel lives in Marlboro with his motorcycles, wife, and cat.


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