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Helmetless pay cost, and so does society

As I was training to become a trauma neurosurgeon, I saw a lot of horrifying injuries because there was no law requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

I hate to remember the nights spent desperately trying to save the lives of young, vibrant people with tremendous injuries, massive skull fractures and brain tissue oozing through the lacerations in their scalps. The public never gets a close-up view of this destruction, but I did because no one was required to wear a helmet.

When the helmet law passed, the number of severe injuries from motorcycle accidents dropped, and I got more sleep at night. The motorcycle-related brain injuries that we did see were less devastating. Patients responded better to therapy and were capable of a much better recovery. The thought of helmets once again becoming an option Ñ not a requirement Ñ makes my stomach turn.

Supporters of House Bill 2432, which was approved and sent to the state Senate in April, have probably never seen a young man lose his promising future in one motorcycle ride because he decided not to wear a helmet. If he were fortunate enough to survive, he would do so at an incredible cost to society. Lifelong care for a person who survives a traumatic brain injury in his or her 20s can cost several million dollars, which will not be covered by insurance. We all pay the price for the joy ride that person took. In some cases, the injured can't pay at all, so society must foot the bill entirely.

I love to zip along Oregon's roads on a motorcycle, and I have quite a bit of hair to let the wind blow through. But the feeling of wind in your hair is not worth the risk of getting your bare head smashed against the pavement in an accident.

Frequently, motorcycle crash survivors can't do the basic things we all take for granted: brush their own teeth, clean themselves or even remember their best friends' names. They undergo emotional swings that can prevent them from ever having stable relationships with other people. They often can't hold down jobs Ñ if they can get one. In many cases, they require significant financial and health care support from society, even if they are able to live independently. This does not include those that die of brain injury.

Anyone working in the trauma field will tell you helmets work! Good helmets save lives by decreasing the forces experienced by the brain on impact. Some people who survive because of their helmets will suffer from injuries to other parts of the body, such as the spine. None of these injuries is caused by the helmet, as some argue.

Instead of repealing the helmet law, we should strengthen it. We should require motorcycle riders to wear helmets that meet strict American National Standards Institute safety standards, rather than cheap imitations that only meet Department of Transportation standards.

Advocates of repealing the helmet law say adults should have the freedom to take risks. I say, not if everyone else has to pay for them. I take risks every day riding motorcycles or flying down a hill on a mountain bike. Every time I do, I wear a helmet because I've seen how much damage cracking your head open can cause. I don't want to lose my vitality and become a burden to society.

I ask that you do the same for me and other Oregonians. A helmet is a small price to pay for the privilege of riding a motorcycle on public roads. It is much easier to rescind a law focused on preventing tragedy when one has no concept of the reality of the lives of those permanently injured. Ask a brain-injured person if he or she thinks the helmet law should be repealed.

Dr. Randall Chesnut is the director of neurotrauma and critical care at the Oregon Health & Science University School of Medicine.