The Brain Bucket Bash by Les Earnest


This article appeared in the September 1989 issue of Cyclops USA.


Part 1. Skirmishes

Tradition usually takes precedence over common sense.


The adoption of a strong helmet rule by the U.S. Cycling Federation in 1986 struck many as an abrupt and unexpected change, and was met with massive but brief resistance from a large segment of the bicycle racing community.  The way in which that change came about provides some interesting insights into the political processes of the Federation and other sports governing bodies.  This is an account of the events surrounding the helmet rule change as experienced by the author.


Head injuries have been an unfortunate part of cycling since the sport began in the late 1800s.  Indeed, the tendency of the old “high wheeler” bikes to periodically pitch the rider onto his head, often with traumatic results, earned for those machines the apt nickname of “Widowmaker.”


The introduction of the chain-driven “safety bicycle” in the 1880s greatly reduced the frequency of head injuries, but while bicycle technology advanced rapidly, there was no comparable effort made to directly protect the rider’s most vulnerable component: his head.  Bicycle technology stagnated during the first half of the 20th Century and so did helmet development as the world successively shifted its collective attention to motorcycles, automobiles and aircraft.


Leather helmets with soft padded straps over the head did not come into widespread use in the U.S. until after World War II and they were not even required for racing at that time.  Most people rode bareheaded, as the misguided Pros still do today. 


The first specific call for improved helmet standards in bike racing in this country was apparently made by Arthur K. Friskel, a St. Louis medical doctor who served on the ABL Board of Directors from 1967-70 and 1972-74.  (USCF was called the Amateur Bicycle League of America at that time.)  Friskel took particular interest in the helmet issue after one of his sons suffered a skull fracture in the 1966 National Track Championships in Northbrook, Illinois.


Dr. Friskel initiated an accident reporting system within the League, but few district representatives bothered to cooperate.  He also tried to get the Board of Directors interested in developing and requiring better helmets so as to reduce the observably high frequency of head injuries.  His efforts were met with indifference by the Board.


In a memo dated August 8, 1970 to ABLA President Al Toefield, as Friskel was leaving the Board for the first time, he listed 11 recent serious cycling head injuries that had come to his attention and made the following observation:

“As almost all serious bicycling injuries are due to brain damage, I suggest that we seriously reconsider our helmet standards.  Minimal safety precautions would require:

1. A rigid outer shell of material such as plastic or fiberglass.

2. An inner compressible energy absorbing liner of material such as styrofoam (expanded polystyrene) or Gentex polyvinyl chloride. 

3. A sponge rubber inner padding for comfort and a good fit.

4. A strong chin strap with a 4 point attachment to the helmet to reduce rotation.

5. Padded helmet edges, especially at the back, to prevent injury to the back of the neck and cervical spine.”

This was a very foresighted statement, which unfortunately was ignored by the officers of the League.


There were no helmets of the type Friskel described at that time other than some designed for hockey and they did not have adequate liners by modern standards.  Bell began selling well designed helmets in 1975, but such equipment was not accepted by most bike racers.  MSR adapted their mountaineering helmets for cycling about that time and the inadequate SkidLids also appeared.  By the late ’70s, however, the only national level rider who consistently wore a safe helmet was Colorado rider Bob Cook.  It was tragically ironic that he died of brain cancer shortly thereafter.


Bureaucrat’s dilemma

During my first tour as USCF Chairman Board of Control, I found myself in a dilemma regarding the existing helmet rules.  In 1981, a Fresno promoter wanted to require hard shell helmets in an upcoming race because of an incident the year before in which one rider hit a pot hole, crashed, and suffered a serious head injury.  As usual, he sued everyone who was remotely connected with this incident, including the county (which provided the road), the promoter, and the USCF.


I reviewed the USCF helmet rule, which said:

No helmet may be used which restricts the vision of the wearer.  Helmets may be of rigid molded material or padded straps with a maximum distance between the straps of 45 mm.  Straps should not be made of simple strips serving no purpose.  Helmets shall have a chin-strap which shall be securely fastened when in use and shall be securely attached to the helmet by a double strap completely surrounding each ear.

This rule, which was obviously written badly, was based on a similar rule of the International Cycling Union (UCI).  It clearly gave riders the right to wear the traditional leather helmets even though they were arguably unsafe.


Though I sympathized with the promoter’s position, I declined to approve a special rule that would have forced most riders to buy a new helmet in order to compete in her particular race.  I proposed instead that she offer special prizes to the first riders across the line wearing the better helmets.  She decided to use this suggestion.


I felt uneasy about refusing her request inasmuch as I believed that we needed a better helmet standard, but it appeared to me that “hard shell” did not necessarily mean “safe.”  There were a number of hard shell helmets made by SkidLid, Pro-tec, and others that had very little energy-absorbing material inside and appeared to offer inadequate protection.  Thus, simply requiring that hard shell helmets be worn would not have ensured that riders had substantially better protection.  What I believed was needed was a performance specification of a safe helmet rather than a structural one.


I gave the Board of Directors a written report of my ruling in this case and pointed out to them the need for a better helmet standard [L. Earnest, USCF Board of Control Report, April 8, 1981].  I asked whether anyone knew of efforts by governmental agencies or standards organizations to develop such a standard and, if not, sought suggestions on how to bring it about.  The blank response of the Board made it clear that this issue was not important in their view.  I was not aware at the time that Dr. Friskel has raised the same issue in this body more than a decade earlier, with similar results.


Though several Eastern directors had been on the Board for decades, none of them mentioned Friskel’s work; indeed, they had probably forgotten it inasmuch as it didn’t interest them.  One director did mention later that he had heard of some group that was then developing a bicycle helmet standard “based on the motorcycle helmet work,” but he couldn’t recall who it was.


While better helmets were becoming available, then, there were no meaningful standards and no reliable way for riders to determine the relative safety of alternative designs.  The helmet manufacturers had quite a bit to say through advertising but a lot of it was bullshit, as usual.


Something to hang a hat on

An informative helmet review article appeared in Bicycling magazine in March 1983 that included impact test results from the Snell Memorial Foundation and comfort ratings from the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA).  This article mentioned that a helmet standard was under development by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).  Here at last was something that I thought I could “hang my hat on.”


I was already familiar with ANSI’s role as the principal national standards organization in the U.S., but I had not heard of the other participants in the helmet evaluation project.  I soon learned that WABA was a regional cycling organization that had been active in helmet use testing for some time and that Snell was a nonprofit corporation that had been developing helmet standards since 1957.


I later learned that the ANSI helmet standard had been stable for sometime, but SkidLid President Kevin Montgomery had joined the Z90 committee and had done his best to prevent its adoption by that body.  When those efforts failed, he used appeals at two levels within ANSI to further delay its release.


I confess that I was still wearing a leather helmet at that time.  I had planned to switch to one of the Bell helmets earlier but was preempted by my wife, who gave me a new leather helmet as a present.  When I tactlessly mentioned my plan she pointed out that “Real bike racers wear only leather.”  I yielded to her style judgment at that time, but when I later read the Snell test results I went out and bought one of the better helmets


Late in 1983 I received a request from the Lehigh County Velodrome (Trexlertown, PA) for permission to impose a special rule requiring the use of helmets that scored well in the Snell impact tests.  As chairman of the USCF Technical Commission, I agreed to this.  I didn’t like it when they later decided to impose this requirement only on novice riders, but I let it go


In the same time period, I became aware that race organizers at the Santa Clara County Velodrome (San Jose, CA) had begun requiring that “hard helmets” be used in all races there.  There was ample evidence that not all helmets with hard shells were safe helmets, so I refused to approve that rule.  Since those races were organized by the San Jose Bicycle Club, on whose board of directors I had served for some time, I tried to talk promoter Don Peterson into adopting the forthcoming ANSI helmet standard instead.  He flatly refused, telling me that the hard helmet rule was a county ordinance and that I couldn’t do anything about it.


I perceived that one possible explanation for Peterson’s unyielding stance was that one of his major sponsors was SkidLid and that it would be awkward to have the sponsor’s helmets banned from the track.  I found it surprising that the county would have adopted a “hard helmet” law without convincing evidence that it would promote safety.  I knew Don well enough to not believe everything he said, so I contacted the county law library and requested a copy of the ordinance covering the velodrome.  Upon examining it I found that there was no mention of “hard helmets,” as I suspected.  In fact, it said that any rules governing the use of the velodrome had to be approved by the county Board of Supervisors.  The record showed that no such rules had ever been approved.


I called Peterson’s bluff and wrote to the country recreation authorities, pointing out the discrepancy between the velodrome rules and the county ordinance and recommending that they adopt the forthcoming ANSI Z90.4standard.  The recreation authorities invited Don Peterson to review and comment on my proposal.  Don lined up several local “experts” such as bicycle component manufacturer Phil Wood, who contributed the following evaluation.

“I understand that this paper was presented as part of an argument petitioning the park velodrome people to reduce their safety standards.  Their hard hat rule is based on experimental evidence and I do not expect them to abandon it.  I particularly am unable to believe that they would be vulnerable to anything as nebulous as this test procedure draft.”

Though I had known for a long time that Phil was a curmudgeon, I was surprised that he would put anything this absurd in writing.


Don Peterson followed up by having a lawyer send me a threatening letter filled with legalistic nonsense.  I told Don what he could do with his lawyer and eventually won the local struggle over helmet standards, but I later paid a heavy political price.


Getting antsy over ANSI

The ANSI Z90.4 helmet standard was finally released in April 1984, after all appeals against it within ANSI had been heard and rejected.  Though the Snell Foundation had played a major role in developing that standard, they later released one of their own that specified a higher drop height for certain impact tests (2 meter drop versus 1 meter for ANSI).  Thus any helmet that met the Snell standard would apparently also meet the ANSI standard.


I knew that any attempt to strengthen the USCF helmet standard would meet with substantial political opposition, so I focused on getting the lesser ANSI standard adopted.  I hoped that its status as an industry standard might make it possible to reach a favorable political consensus within the USCF Board of Directors.  I knew that many directors were rather conservative -- in fact reactionary -- and that it would take strong and persistent arguments to talk the necessary 2/3 of them into supporting a change.


An opportunity to start this political negotiation appeared in May 1984, the month following the ANSI release.  The New York-New Jersey political cabal that had controlled the Federation during nearly all of its existence set out to overthrow the President (Phil Voxland) and to fire the Executive Director (Dave Prouty) because they were not following the cabal’s directions.  They arranged for a special meeting of the Board in Chicago at which they hoped to effect this coup.


As it turned out, the cabal made two mistakes: they stupidly failed to follow the constitutional requirements for calling a special meeting, which meant that Voxland, Prouty, and their supporters could legally block any overthrow attempt, and the cabal didn’t count its votes accurately – they didn’t have enough followers to do the hatchet job even if they had set it up correctly.


Though the Chicago Board meeting was largely a waste of time, I took advantage of the situation to formally initiate a review of the ANSI helmet issue and to beat up on Voxland over his earlier attempt to usurp the Technical Commission’s responsibility for selecting race officials for the Olympics.  Though I supported Voxland on nearly all issues and did not wish to oust him, I was not above taking advantage of his weakened political condition to accomplish my goals.


When I called for the establishment of a committee to review the ANSI standard, there was no response from the Board.  I had hoped that an ad hoc committee might be formed, but in view of their disinterest I volunteered the Technical Commission as a review body, which was accepted by the Board.  I offered to give copies of the ANSI standard to anyone who was interested but received only one such request


The cabal did succeed in ousting Voxland in the regular elections late in 1984, but their candidate imploded and resigned just 2 months later and Voxland promptly regained control.  The cabal had to wait until 1986 to pick off Prouty.


In order to assess the frequency and cost of head injuries for the helmet study, I needed to collect accident reports as well and medical and liability damage claims.  Upon seeking this information I found that there was no reporting system within the Federation for race accidents.  I was eventually able to get some useful damage claim summaries from the Federation’s insurance carriers, but I had to twist the arm of the insurance agent rather hard before I got it, even though he was a USCF director!  (There is a lot more that could be said about business dealings between USCF directors and the Federation, but that would carry us far off this topic.)


An apparently unsolicited letter from Bill Montgomery, President of the San Diego Velodrome Association, to USCF President Voxland dated May 4, 1984, argued strongly against adoption of the ANSI Z90.4 helmet standard and speculated that their association’s contract with the City of San Diego might be jeopardized if riders’ freedom of choice was restricted by the adoption of such a rule.  The author of this letter somehow neglected to mention that he was also an officer of SkidLid.


Flipflop failure

In Dave Prouty’s recent book [David Prouty, In Spite of Us, VeloNews Press, Boulder, CO, 1988] relating his experiences as the first Executive Director of the USCF, he gives himself much of the credit for bringing about the adoption of the ANSI helmet standard in late 1985, and for successfully dealing with the insurance crisis of 1986.  He somehow overlooked the fact that he helped cause that crisis by helping to defeat the ANSI helmet rule in 1984 when I first proposed it to the Board.


I had placed the proposed ANSI helmet rule on the legislative agenda of the October 1984 meeting of the USCF Board of Directors.  In mid-September I was pleased to receive a letter from USCF attorney Brian Geddes that generally supported my proposal on the grounds that it would reduce the Federation’s liability.


I was dismayed to receive another letter from Geddes just over two weeks later that backpedaled from his earlier position.  He had apparently received new advice from Dr. Tom Dickson, a sports medicine specialist in Trexlertown. Dickson had received strongly negative responses from riders after stricter helmet standards were imposed there, and had concluded that the riders must be right.


Dickson also had participated in the blood boosting fiasco at the ’84 Olympics just before this incident, though we didn’t know it at the time.  He later “blew the whistle” on his co-conspirators in an apparent attempt to avert attention from his own unethical conduct. [L. Earnest, Coors is safer than tea, Cyclops USA, August 1988].


At an Executive Committee meeting just preceding the October 1984 meeting of the Board, I attempted to talk Prouty, Geddes, and Voxland into supporting the ANSI helmet standard and offered to modify the wording to deal with any concerns that they might have. Voxland was strongly opposed, arguing that race officials are incapable of enforcing such a rule and that adopting it would increase the Federation’s liability in that we would be taking responsibility for helmet adequacy. Voxland couldn’t have been more wrong, but he appeared to sincerely believe his own arguments and he matched me for stubbornness.


Voxland instead wanted all helmet technical requirements removed from the Rule Book and to assert there that the Federation has no responsibility for the adequacy of helmets.  His theory was that by disclaiming responsibility for helmet selection, the Federation could avoid being sued by people who injure themselves as a result of wearing an inadequate helmet.


Unfortunately, Voxland’s theory was inconsistent with the way in which our wonderful legal system actually works: nearly everyone who gets seriously injured sues everyone who was even remotely connected with the race and they usually collect from whoever has deep pockets. The only practical way to reduce liability would be to reduce the frequency of serious accidents.


In the Executive Committee discussion, Prouty played the role of the Good Bureaucrat, carefully explaining that he was not necessarily opposed to the ANSI helmet standard but thought that “We should study it some more.”  My counterargument was that while they were studying, riders were being maimed and killed.  When they discounted that claim, I became irate and interjected that “The blood will be on your hands,” which brought the discussion to a close with an uncomfortable silence.


Given the opposition of the leadership, I knew that my proposal was doomed, but I refused to back off.  In the ensuing debate before the Board, Voxland and Prouty were joined in their opposition by Hannah North, who was the women athletes’ representative, and a number of other directors.  North was also the Marketing Director of SkidLid, whose products would have been barred by my proposal, but she was apparently not bothered by such a gross conflict-of-interest.  This kind of blindness or flagrant self-interest is sadly characteristic of many USCF directors up to the present.


My proposal was soundly defeated – only 1 or 2 directors voted with me.  The Board went on to adopt Voxland’s proposal, which left no helmet standards in the Rule Book for 1985.  Though I was badly disappointed by this defeat I didn’t sulk.  As soon as I got home I started working on a plan to reverse this decision the following year


Push comes to shove

Immediately following the defeat of my helmet proposal, I compiled a list of arguments that I had heard presented against it, then wrote a refutation of each.  I planned to distribute this material to the Board, but attorney Brian Geddes argued that it might be used against us in some of the law suits in which the Federation was involved.  He requested that I instead address the memo to him, so that it would be protected from outside eyes by attorney-client privilege, and distribute it only to the officers of the Federation and members of the Technical Commission.  I did so reluctantly [L. Earnest, “Cycling helmet issues,” USCF memo to B. Geddes & Executive Committee, November 1, 1984].


As usual, during 1985 many people were seriously maimed as a result of wearing inadequate helmets.  As usual, many of them received substantial medical payments from the Federation’s insurer and some sued the Federation for damages even though it was they who had selected their helmets.


In the following months, I did not receive a single comment on my memo, either argumentative or favorable, though I kept bringing up this issue in my Technical Commission reports of January, April, and August, 1985.  In the April report, I tried to provoke a response from the Board by making the following observation:

“While I understand the philosophical issue of self-determination in matters of safety, it is hard to be convinced of the correctness of that stance in view of the ongoing carnage and spiraling insurance rates that it produces.  It is one thing to philosophize about the right to make informed decisions regarding one’s choice of headgear.  It is another to scrape a kid off the street who is having convulsions and whose depth of analysis extended only as far as looking at the neat macho pictures of riders wearing leather helmets in Velo-news.”

There was still no response from any director to these arguments.


I was delighted to discover in this period that Dr. Robert Bond, who had been my closest friend through elementary school, had been writing about the importance of using adequate helmets [Robert E. Bond, M.D., “Dear Dr.: Why some cyclists don’t need helmets,” American Wheelman, September 1982].  He and I had managed to get into a great deal of trouble together early in our lives, before we went in different directions, and now had somehow independently chosen the same issue.


My term of office on the Board expired in 1985, so I had to run for re-election.  A friend named Tom Nee also planned to run for the Board and I publicly supported his candidacy.  We knew that cycling clubs often voted on a regional basis, which meant that we would be splitting the Northern California votes, with some risk to both of us.


As it turned out, my earlier fight over the helmet issue with my own club, San Jose B.C., became a factor as they worked against my election. When the results came in we learned that Tom Nee had made the cut but I was soundly defeated. In fact, all the incumbent directors from the West were defeated that year.


Such purges seem to happen periodically in the West, where the clubs apparently believe that anyone who has served on the Board for awhile must be corrupt. I had been a beneficiary of such an overthrow in 1979 and became a victim in 1985. In the East the average tenure exceeds 10 years and Ernie Seubert has been on the Board for 33 years.  In the West, the average tenure is currently 2.8 years (the highest it has been for sometime) and I have served the longest (8 years).


My defeat left the office of Technical Chairman open, and Ernie Seubert happily stepped into it.  The simultaneous defeat of Western Vice-President Ted Kirkbride left an opening that was filled by Chuck Pranke, who was aligned with the cabal.  In addition, Rich DeGarmo was ousted from his Vice Presidency by Nancy Martin’s political manipulations, giving the cabal another position on the Executive Committee.  Though Phil Voxland was reelected as President, he and Prouty now faced an Executive Committee that was controlled by the cabal, and I knew then that Prouty’s days were numbered.  I wished him good luck and a happy landing.  I was subsequently surprised that he lasted more than 6 months.


Being a stubborn kind of person, I did not accept my defeat gracefully.  I decided that keeping my report on the helmet issue confidential was unlikely to bring about the needed change, so my last official act as chairman of the Technical Commission was to openly distribute it to the entire Board [L. Earnest, “Helmet safety issues,  memo to USCF Board of Directors, July 18, 1985].


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