By Rick Schmitt, FairWarning
The results were tragic, but not surprising, last May when Suzanne Randa and her fiance, Thomas Donohoe, crashed while riding Donohoe’s Harley Davidson on Highway 79 near the Southern California city of Loma Linda.
Donohoe, who was wearing a helmet meeting federal safety standards, escaped injury and walked away from the accident. Randa, 49, who wore a so-called novelty helmet that was cheap and stylish but offered but no real protection, died at the scene after her headgear’s strap broke and her head slammed onto the pavement.
“I just don’t think these helmets should be permitted,” said Randa’s 23-year-old daughter, Kelli Meador, who still has her mother’s scarred turtle-shell headgear.
Even as more than 800,000 novelty helmets are sold in the U.S. every year, and as motorcycle crash deaths mount, federal regulators have never acted with urgency to crack down on the popular but flawed headgear. Proposals to limit sales of novelty helmets have been delayed over and over.
It’s not because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets safety standards for helmets, is ignorant of the problem. Six years ago NHTSA hired an independent lab to study seven novelty models, and found they shared a distinguishing characteristic: they were worthless in a crash.
“All analyses gave a 100-percent probability of brain injuries and skull fracture, indicating that the person wearing the helmet will sustain fatal head injuries,” the evaluation found. It added: “Motorcycle riders who wear novelty helmets and believe that ‘something is better than nothing’ have a false sense of security regarding the protection afforded.”
It remains legal to make and sell novelty helmets as long as they aren’t falsely represented as meeting federal standards. Wearing them is clearly against the law only in a dozen or so states that require motorcyclists to wear headgear meeting federal standards.
NHTSA says it is studying ways to limit sales and will have a proposal within a few weeks. That, however, would be only one step in an approval process that, if successful, could take many months or years.
So far the agency has gone no farther than to adopt a rule taking effect next month that it hopes will make it easier for police to spot helmets with fake safety labels.
The lack of resolve by NHTSA to tackle the threat troubles doctors, safety experts and families of crash victims. “It is a huge loophole,” said David Thom, an El Segundo, Calif., engineering consultant and helmet expert.
Numerous tests have shown that certified helmets – those meeting federal standards — save hundreds of lives every year, and cut the risk of a deadly accident by more than a third. They are widely considered the best tool available to prevent fatalities. Novelty helmets, by contrast, account for hundreds of deaths. That is contributing to a troubling trend, as FairWarning has reported, of rising motorcycle fatalities while traffic deaths, generally, have declined. The latest federal figures, for 2011, show motorcycle crashes taking 4,612 lives, more than doubling since the mid-1990s and now accounting for one in seven U.S. traffic deaths.
The inaction also spotlights how politics may trump public health considerations in the debate over motorcycle safety. Arguably the most effective strategy in combating substandard helmets has been limited by legislation promoted by rider groups. States including California and Virginia have prohibited state and local police from using motorcycle checkpoints to ticket violators of helmet laws and other rules of the road.
What’s more, even in some where helmets are required, enforcement is often lax or inconsistent.
Consumer advocates say the situation cries out for changes. “There needs to be more done in eliminating the supply but also in making sure that states with helmet laws are going to crack down,” said Henry Jasny, general counsel of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “People just don’t want to touch it.”
Novelty helmets became popular as a symbols of resistance in states that required bikers to wear certified helmets. But other people also buy the helmets, drawn by the low cost and the misconception that they provide a measure of safety. “I am sure there are lots of people out there who do not appreciate the fact it does not provide any protection,” said Thom, the engineering consultant.
NHTSA’s helmet standard has been in place since 1974. As with other equipment regulations, it’s enforced through a kind of honor system. Manufacturers determine whether their helmets meet the standard, and attach a “DOT” sticker certifying compliance. The agency conducts spot checks after the helmets are on the market with help from independent labs.
Sales of novelty helmets have climbed even as the number of states requiring riders to wear helmets has declined. That’s partly due to more riders hitting the road. Also, the novelty helmets usually are about one-third the cost of a certified helmet, and some riders find comfort in their lighter weight.
It has also been relatively easy to pass them off as legal. The simple stickers NHTSA has required on certified helmets are easy to reproduce for anyone with a computer and printer, while other counterfeit versions are widely available over the Internet.
NHTSA has estimated that as many as 754 people die each year in states with mandatory helmet laws because they wore novelty helmets instead of safe headgear, which amounts to nearly one in six rider fatalities. Yet in the 19 states that require riders of all ages to wear some form of protection, the novelty versions account for about one of every five helmets sold.
Novelty Helmets are sold over the Internet by companies with names such as “Helmets Gone Wild” and “Iron Horse Helmets.” Iron Horse sells German World War II-styled novelty helmets, available in camouflage, gun metal, leather and chrome finishes; and a “Gladiator” helmet with spikes. Prices start at around $30, and top out with a glittery three-quarter shell model for $305.99 that resembles a ’70s disco ball.
Marketers of novelty helmets are unapologetic, dismissing safety concerns and saying they simply are accommodating consumer demand.
Todd Sobel, the founder of Birmingham, Ala.,-based Iron Horse, says that people who buy his helmets know what they are getting into. “They are not bought for safety. They are bought for style,” he said. He also makes the much-disputed assertion that the headgear provides at least some protection.
NHTSA seemed to be getting serious about novelty helmets in 2007 when it subjected seven popular brands to testing by an independent lab. Six of the seven models, distributed by such firms as “Helmets R Us” and “Helmets, Etc.,” failed every phase of the three-part evaluation.
Much of the problem was due to the flawed design of the outer shell and flimsy liners inside. But the straps didn’t work, either, separating on impact — meaning that even if the helmets were more substantial, they were unlikely to stay on a rider’s head during a crash.
Meanwhile, around the country, people continue to die and suffer grievous injuries. In Vermont, Jeff Miller, a truck driver who taught helmet safety for a local Harley dealer, crashed his bike into the back of an SUV last September, suffering multiple skull fractures; he was wearing a novelty helmet. “It is not like he didn’t know that the helmet he was wearing was not safe,” said his wife, Dawn. “He thought it was cool.”
Another victim was Randa, a free spirit who got married as a teenager, divorced, and then lived for a time raising her family on a chicken ranch. In a tragic irony, the father of two of her children was killed years ago in a head-on collision on the same road where she perished.
According to her children, she struggled with alcohol, drug and gambling addictions, but lately seemed to have found happiness with Donohoe, 69, a retired electrician.
Motorcycles were a new adventure, and the experience both exhilarated and terrified her. “My mom was not what you call bike literate,” said Meador, her daughter. “She said it was fun. … She loved being on the back of the bike.”
Donohoe was headed to a doctor’s appointment when the crash occurred. “He was basically cutting through traffic, misjudged a car … and went down,” said Darren Meyer, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol. “As she tumbled down the road she took more impacts.”
Meyer said the choice of helmets “absolutely” made a difference in their fates.
Donohoe was charged with vehicular manslaughter and with having a provisional motorcycle permit that did not allow him to carry passengers. He said he purchased the novelty helmet from a roommate. “I tried to get her to get a helmet like mine,” he said, but Randa did not like how she looked in the DOT-certified helmet.
“Of course I feel a sense of responsibility,” he said, adding that he has a new point of view about novelty helmets following the tragedy. “I think they should be regulated. I don’t think they should ever be sold, period.”
FairWarning (www.fairwarning.org) is a nonprofit investigative news organization based in Los Angeles that focuses on public health and safety issues.