Scholarship: Colleen P. On Motorcycle Helmets

Below is one of the essays from this year’s Carpey Law scholarship competition, Colleen Paraska. Colleen will attend the University of Maryland at College Park in the fall.

Ten seconds in 1982. That’s all it took, and if in those ten seconds my mom had died, I wouldn’t be writing this essay. My mother was nineteen at the time, an avid motorcycle rider, who rode her Honda Hawk on a daily basis to and from the University of Maryland. One day she was on her way to the campus and the unthinkable happened. A pheasant smashed into her head. She instantly blacked out, but somehow managed to control her bike. Coming back to reality, she found herself parked safely on the side of the road. The pheasant had struck her and then impaled itself onto the handlebars. Covered in blood, she realized the only reason she survived was because of the helmet on her head.

In 1982, Maryland was experiencing a slack off in motorcycle helmet laws. Only riders who were seventeen and younger were required to wear a helmet. At nineteen, my mother clearly could have gone without this protection, but was concerned about her motorcycle safety. She was a responsible rider, staying under the speed limit and using her signals appropriately. But, apparently, the pheasant did not really care. Some motorcyclists brag about their ability to be safe but the fact of the matter is, once you get on that bike, you never know what will happen. A senseless pheasant careened through the air and headed straight towards my mother. No amount of safe driving courses could have helped.

My mom arrived to college safely, albeit panicked and cloaked in the bird’s remains, and quickly ran to my grandmother’s office. After my mom assured my grandmother she was not hurt, even though she was crying hysterically, my grandmother said to my mom, “That’s why you wear a helmet.” The crisis was averted and my mother became even more diligent about motorcycle safety practices. She never forgot that a helmet can be a major factor that greatly influences the survival rate of an accident.

Later that year, she was volunteering at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma. In her element, she was flying through the building, assisting with triage, helping to stitch up patients, and pumping stomachs. Soon she found herself in a frenzied shock trauma bay, filled with at least ten nurses and doctors. “Oh, God, look at his head!” “He’s losing too much blood!” “Get the shock ready!” These exclamations exploded throughout the room. On the bed lay a nineteen year old boy, inching closer to death with each passing second. Eventually, silence, except for the sound of death as the heart monitor flat-lined. It was too late.

My mother remembers the next moment as though it happened yesterday. The lead doctor yanked off his gloves and sighed in frustration, “There’s nothing I can do; he wasn’t wearing a helmet.” The room fell silent and my mother watched as they wheeled the once lively boy towards the morgue. “If only,” she thought, “he had been like me and worn his stupid helmet.”

But in reality, the nineteen year old boy had been following the laws. He was above the age a rider needed to be in order to have his own choice on whether or not he’d wear a helmet. It was his choice to get on his bike that day without any safety equipment; he was within the law to do so. Only ten years later, Maryland reinstated its law that every rider, regardless of age, must wear a helmet. My mother often wonders if that had been the law ten years earlier, would the boy have survived.

It’s a gruesome thought to have and certainly a thought that supports the universal coverage law. People can be saved by simply wearing their helmet. Hundreds of motorcyclists each year have been able to walk away from a grisly scene just because they wore protective gear.

What about, however, those who do not survive regardless of what they are wearing? In 2011, my mother’s close friend died in a motorcycle accident. He had been wearing his helmet and driving safely, but a woman fell asleep at the wheel of her car and killed him and seven others. The helmet did not make a difference. For some, it simply does not matter.

Every time an individual gets in a motor vehicle or on a motorcycle, they take the risk of getting into an accident. It is a given, an understanding that must be made by all. And, sometimes, no matter how safe someone is being, it just will not make a difference.

Why then, should people be forced to wear a helmet if they do not wish to? After all, not wearing a helmet only affects the individual who made that choice. It does not harm any others who are involved in the accident. Taking away freedoms and decision making is a risk the government takes when passing laws.

But, how many laws are too many? States such as Pennsylvania try to find a balance of powers between the government and the people. Only riders who are twenty years old or younger, or riders who haven’t completed the state-approved safety courses, are required to wear a helmet. Older riders are given the choice. Once a motorcyclist has had experience on the bike, he or she should, some believe, be able to make a decision about his/her own safety. In a world full of so many laws, a little choice can be a refreshing option.

There will always be two sides to this debate. My mother, ashen at the memory of someone her own age dying, believes a helmet should be mandatory for all. But others, desperate for some freedom and a choice of their own may opt to feel the wind blowing through their hair. Regardless, all motorcyclists must obey the laws of the state they travel in. Whether it is a total coverage state such as Maryland or an age limit state such as Pennsylvania, the rules of the road should be followed to ensure safe travel for all. You never know when a pheasant is right around the corner.