Monday, January 17, 2011

Best of Backmarker: Revisiting Ben Roethlisberger's 2006 motorcycle crash

Last Saturday afternoon, I stopped for a beer in a local bar while Ravens-Steelers was going down. Judging from his performance, Roethlisberger certainly recovered from his serious motorcycle crash a few years back. Pittsburgh started the second half down by two touchdowns, and the Ravens' defense was making the Steelers' O-line look pretty rusty. Then Roethlisberger took over. That recovery, of course, was not necessarily the best outcome for American womanhood, since he seems to celebrate with sexual assault. 

Let's go back to revisit the circumstances of his high-profile wipeout. It was those, uh, 'heady' days of Summer, 2006 and bike sales were at an all-time high. A few days of bad press couldn't dampen consumers' enthusiasm...

It was the summer of 2006, and you couldn't spell 'Roethlisberger' without E-R...
From June, 2006.... A couple of weeks ago, Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, suffered facial injuries when a car turned left in front of him while he was out riding his motorcycle. 

It emerged that Roethlisberger never wore a crash helmet. This choice, which is open to Pennsylvania motorcyclists over the age of 21, had already been a subject of discussion between the quarterback and Steelers management. “I'll just continue to be careful,” he said before the crash, adding, “We always ride in a group of people, so I think that makes it even more safe.” He rides without a helmet, but he’s careful. Reading that, I thought, he might be a hell of a passer but he’s obviously an oxymoron. 

I must admit that his celebrated face-plant proved my own prejudice. No helmet, I thought. Riding in a group, I thought. Just another dumb-ass on a Harley cruiser. (NB: I love XR750s, and rated the XR1200R highly; I've got nothing against Harley-Davidson, it's Harley riders I can't stand.)

So you can imagine my surprise when I saw photos of the crash scene and realized Roethlisberger had been riding a Hayabusa. A Hayabusa. No helmet. I mean, it only goes what, 190? What could possibly go wrong? 

The fact that Roethlisberger was probably not actively at fault in the accident—which had all the hallmarks of a classic car vs. motorcycle collision—amply proves that there is no safe way to ride without a helmet. 

Any good street rider is on a state of high alert when he or she approaches an intersection where there’s a car waiting to turn. But no matter how good you are, you can always be done by a car driver that won’t (“can’t” is the wrong word and “doesn’t” is too blame-neutral) see you. I really don’t want to kick a guy when he’s down (particularly a guy who could beat me up with his eyes closed) but for the record, Roethlisberger wasn’t paying attention. One witness reported seeing and reacting to the turning car as the ballplayer passed her. Guys! Come on! You’ve got to be way more observant than any cage driver. 

As an ex—and sometimes still—(crap) motorcycle racer, the idea of riding without a helmet completely baffles me. But then, I know from experience how violent a crash can be. I have never met a racer who rides on the street without a lid. No racer would ever swallow the anti-helmet lobby’s ridiculous claims that helmets are over-rated as protective gear. Ironically Roethlisberger wears a helmet on his job. 

Some Pennsylvania ABATE spokesman wrote an editorial in USA Today providing “fair and balanced” coverage of the little debate stirred when the QB was blindsided by that Chrysler. I’m sure ABATE would argue that he should be allowed to play without a helmet, too. After all, without a helmet he could never be face-masked. And he’d be able to hear the pitter-patter of approaching pass rushers. Wearing a helmet, ABATE would argue, is a choice players should be able to make. It’s one of many factors that may contribute to player safety, along with education of pass-rushers, awareness on the part of blockers... Blah, blah, blah. 

Depending on which state you live in, ABATE could stand for “American Bikers Aimed Towards Education,” or “American Bikers for Awareness, Training and Education,” or even “A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments.” [Or, now in 2011, perhaps, "A Bunch of Asshole Tea-party Enthusiasts - MG] 

But whatever it stands for, virtually all of ABATE’s energy is devoted to lobbying for motorcyclists’ right to ride without helmets. It’s as if the National Rifle Association lobbied primarily to ensure that gun owners had the right to play Russian roulette. 

A quick lesson in legislative history: Before 1966, no state required motorcycle riders to wear crash helmets. That changed when the Highway Safety Act forced states to enact helmet laws or lose a portion of their federal highway funding. By 1975, 47 states required helmet use, and not surprisingly, motorcycle fatalities and serious head injuries plummeted. However, in that year—and under pressure from California legislators, as that state was one of the three holdouts—Congress revisited the Highway Safety Act and removed the language requiring crash helmets. By 1980 more than half of the helmet laws had been repealed. 

Through the early ‘90s, there was a gradual rise in the number of states requiring helmet use and then, again, a change in the wording of federal highway funding legislation precipitated another spate of repeals. At the moment only 20 states require all motorcyclists to wear helmets. In the other 30 states, most riders choose to ride without helmets. Clearly, as a group, motorcyclists are so stupid that we need to be forced to protect ourselves. 

It’s not trivial, either, that in a year-old interview in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Roethlisberger said, “Obviously, Pennsylvania doesn't think people need to [wear crash helmets.]” As ridiculous as it seems, there are lots of people who look to the state as an authority on subjects from smoking to seatbelt use. By not mandating helmets, 30 states are telling their citizens that riding without one is okay. 

The Darwinist in me says let the dumber half of the riding population kill itself off. But our sport is not so politically empowered that it can afford a groundswell of opposition from cage drivers. In a slightly different universe, Roethlisberger would have been killed in a triple-the-speed-limit crash, and the mass media, in delighted mock-horror, would have focused on the mind-bending power of his ‘busa. That tiny bump in CNN’s ratings could then have grown into a wave of ballot propositions for horsepower limitations and God-knows-what else. The incipient “these bikes are too crazily fast and dangerous and should be banned” argument is a lot easier to press when the case can be made that the very people most protected are motorcyclists, “because look at their rates of death and crippling injury.” 

ABATE will argue (in between death threats against me) that they are the ones who’ll lobby to preserve our riding rights. That’s part of the problem: The right to arm bears is enshrined in the Constitution, but the founding fathers lacked the foresight to imagine affordable 180-horsepower street bikes, so owning them is a privilege, not a right. It’s only by using them responsibly that the privilege will be retained. 

Two notes from the Department of Irony: California—the state that triggered a landslide of helmet-law repeals—is now one of the minority of states that do require all riders to wear helmets. Four states do not even require children to wear them. One of those is New Hampshire. Their car license plates famously carry the slogan “Live free or die.” Perhaps their motorcycle license plates should read, “Live free and die.” 

I admit that I was almost surprised to hear Roethlisberger say, from hospital, that if he rides at all in the future he’ll wear a helmet. I expected the tired argument that a helmet might not have prevented his injuries. A full-face lid would have allowed him to sleep in his own bed on the night of his crash. But most of the no-helmet gang—if forced to wear a helmet because they’re riding through a totalitarian state, for example—favor those little fiberglass yarmulkes, often without even a chinstrap. So indeed their helmets wouldn’t have helped. 

Maybe Roethlisberger will really surprise me now by using his fame and easy media access to get this message out: “I’m a world-class athlete at the top of my game, with reflexes, eye-hand coordination, and balance that put me in the top .01 percent of the population. I’m young, fit and strong. And I was no match for a grandmother in a sedan. I can’t believe that I always wore a helmet to play football, where my head would only hit grass. The total horsepower of all the players on the field is only a fraction of my motorcycle’s, but I rode bare-headed on the street where my head could hit concrete, cars, and fire hydrants. You will never be as rich, famous, or talented as I am, but you can prove that you’re smarter: start wearing your helmet before your first crash. And my message to legislators is, I was counting on you to protect me. Quit playing fast and loose with the lives of motorcyclists too stupid to protect themselves. Make helmets mandatory.” 

That's what he could've done. Instead, he's been charged not once, but twice, with sexual assault. Cut him some slack, eh? He's a hell of a quarterback. 

Here's an idea... you know, Pittsburgh's hardly a steel town any more anyway, now that we've outsourced most of our manufacturing to the third world. If Roethlisberger takes his team all the way, I suggest changing the name of the team to reflect his influence. Like, from 'Steelers' to 'Rapists.'

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