This past weekend marked the 15th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt’s death in a violent racing crash at Daytona Speedway. Earnhardt’s death was due to a basal skull fracture in which his skull separated from his spine. The impact tore his harness and his body was further injured by impact to the steering wheel. To this day, no single person has made a greater or more significant impact on automotive safety. Earnhardt’s death shined a spotlight on the available safety gear and structural limits of vehicles that was far brighter than Nader’s dim bulb – millions of people watched their hero refuse to don a full face helmet and HANS device due to the restrictions they would impose, and avoid an antisubmarining harness for the same reasons. That freedom of movement cost him his life.
Today even the lowest levels of club racing require extensive safety gear, all more than Earnhardt chose, and participants wear it as a badge of honor. The day you have to upgrade to a HANS to keep racing is a big day. Automakers worked with suppliers to redesign seat belts and airbags, and the old standby – the crumple zone – got a remake in process, too. I spent some time with one of GM’s NASCAR safety engineers, who said that in the months after the accident, they spent most of their time meeting with safety teams from the “regular” car lines, all who wanted to upgrade wherever they could, because people were dying. It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact Earnhardt’s death had on passenger safety.
Coming back to my title, who will be the Dale Earnhardt of motorcycling? Who will be the person who is so well-known and respected that everyone follows? Who will shine a bright light on our safety issues, make the world turn around and notice? The adventure and dirt bike crowds seem to spend enough time picking themselves up that gear is not a question for them. Brittany Morrow has done an excellent job advocating for more gear, and by and large, the sportbike crowd is slowly coming around. People like one of my old coworkers, though, aren’t. In one sentence, he explained that even a 3/4 helmet was too limiting to his hearing and visual field while bemoaning the deaths of two of his riding crew buddies who were hit while processing through a red light to keep the group together. Motorcycling is a club, but it is a club of clubs, with no unifying center. Unlike NASCAR and the automotive world, there is no one person everyone recognizes, no one who can impact the entire group.
Our chrome-and-black-leather colleagues (and certainly many of our friends in the power rangers) have a lot in common with Mr Earnhardt when it comes to choice. Safety gear is limiting – it restricts you in some ways and takes a while to get comfortable in. Choosing which gear to wear is a privilege, and I understand that people want that privilege. The AMA continues to give lip service to the notion that wearing gear so basic as a helmet is a choice. As a senior driver on the NASCAR circuit, Mr Earnhardt used his privilege of choice to avoid the single most effective piece of gear the safety guys had to offer that year – the HANS device – and paid with his life for it. No doubt, the crash would have put him out of racing for a while anyway due to the failure of his harness. But he likely would have lived to tell the tale. Riders without helmets don’t.
It’s time for motorcycling to catch up with our four-wheeled friends on the safety front. I’m hoping that we don’t need our own Dale Earnhardt to make the case for stronger equipment rules. And if we do, who would it be, anyway?