Don't Underestimate the dangers of Motorcycles

Wearing my trauma surgeon hat, I wrote this op-ed piece which printed in today’s Asheville Citizen-Times

Over the last couple of weeks there’s been a lot of discussion about motorcycles and motorcycle safety here in Asheville and nationwide. As a trauma surgeon, I thought that my input could be useful.

For some numbers, in the year 2005, Mission Hospital admitted 176 motorcycle crash victims. Approximately one-third of these patients required an ICU stay with the range from a couple of hours to 53 days. Just over 60 percent of the patients wore helmets. The overall length of stay for all motorcycle crash victims was twice that of our general trauma population. The median hospital charge was over $17,000. Surprisingly, and this is a testimony to the whole trauma team, out of the 176 patients only four died.

Since mandatory helmet laws have been repealed in many states, this has given trauma surgeons the unique opportunity to study if helmets really make a difference in survival. A recent study in Michigan compared the outcome of patients before the helmet law was repealed to those patients who presented after. The outcome was striking. The number of significant brain injuries dramatically increased and the severity of brain injury also increased. The length of stay in the hospital and in the intensive care unit was longer in those patients without helmets. Significantly more patients who were not wearing helmets required prolonged rehabilitation after their hospitalization. Finally, as expected, the cost of care was significantly more for those patients who did not wear helmets. The conclusion of this study and many others was the helmets protect the brain and save lives.

A 30-year-old female was riding her motorcycle with several of her friends. She was far away from home. She was involved in motorcycle crash. She was found to have a broken pelvis, which required surgery. Her friends stayed around as long as they could but finally had to return home to their own families. This young lady was stranded here in Asheville. She recovered from her surgery and endured her initial postoperative physical therapy, alone until she could be flown home over 1,500 miles away.

A 65-year-old male who rode motorcycles in his “younger” days, was convinced by his grandson, who bought a used motorcycle, to help him fix it up. Once the motorcycle was fixed, he took a ride to make sure everything was in working order. Unfortunately, he was unable to avoid a truck which pulled out in front of him. The resulting crash threw him over 50 feet. He suffered deep abrasions to both arms and legs. He sustained multiple facial fractures and a traumatic head injury. After three days in the intensive care unit his traumatic brain injury continued to worsen in spite of aggressive therapy and multiple surgeries, the patient was declared brain dead.

In the emergency room, the intensive care unit or the trauma care unit, we deal with dramatic stories like these almost on a daily basis. Motorcycles provide almost no protection to the rider. Therefore, even minor motorcycle crashes can cause significant injuries. Deep abrasions resulting from a fall and skidding on concrete are considered a relatively “minor” injury. Patients who have these injuries will attest that they are not minor. As a matter of fact, they cause major pain and disability. They cause multiple trips to the operating room. Some of these abrasions require skin grafting in order for them to heal.

Motorcycles are inherently dangerous. Enthusiasts are extremely vulnerable to bad automobile drivers. Someone can easily pull out of a “hidden” mountain road or stop suddenly. There is very little that even the most extremely conscientious motorcycle rider can do.

Motorcycle riders can decrease the chance of injury or death by doing a few things:

• Take a motorcycle safety course

• Be conscientious and thoughtful while riding

• Wear leathers (this decreases the chance and the severity of abrasions)

• Always wear a full helmet with a face safety shield

• For more information, please check out the following Web sites — The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration ( and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (