KANSAS CITY, Mo. “The person that I knew, that I lived 21 years to build, was erased.”
Nearly 40 years ago, Brent Clark, who now lives in Kansas, cruised down an Oklahoma roadway on his motorcycle, carefree and without a helmet.
All of a sudden, he said a 22-foot station wagon pulled out in front of him, sending him and his motorcycle flying 23 feet beyond the front of the vehicle that hit him.
“Ended up with my left leg over my shoulder and my toes touching my back,” Clark said.
After the crash left him unable to talk, walk, process emotions, or even remember how to use a fork, he said he has worked relentlessly to regain his physical and mental strength.
Had he been wearing a helmet, he says he believes his injuries would have been less severe.
“It’s very free,” he said, explaining the feeling of riding without a helmet. “Free, enjoyable, and also deadly dangerous.”
After Missouri repealed its helmet law in 2020 for anyone under the age of 26, motorcycle fatalities jumped 35% and over 200 riders have died in the past 18 months.
The driving force behind the law’s repeal Sen. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield. Burlison declined to talk to FOX4 about the increase in injuries and fatalities.
Those fighting against the law’s repeal said it never should have happened.
“What changed last year is that the Missouri Legislature and Gov. Mike Parson, you know, listened to the minority,” said Maureen Cunningham, executive director of Missouri’s Brain Injury Association. “They listened to the minority because only a small percentage of drivers are motorcycle riders.”
According to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, “motorcycle fatalities represent approximately 10% of all Missouri highway fatalities each year, yet motorcycles represent approximately 2.6% of all registered vehicles in Missouri.”
Cunningham said no one in Missouri tracks brain injuries among motorcycle riders, but other states do and the findings are alarming.
Pennsylvania saw an 87% increase in head injury hospitalizations after repealing its law and Michigan brain injuries increased 14%, according to a study conducted in 2017 by the American Public Health Association.
Fatalities and serious injuries have skyrocketed since helmet laws began disappearing across the country, but what’s rarely discussed is what happens to the helmetless riders who survive.
“It’s that call that you get at three o-clock in the morning, or three o’clock in the afternoon and life isn’t the same,” Cunningham said.
It’s a call Margaret Shetley, whose son David suffered a traumatic brain injury, will never forget.
“I called my best friend and said, ‘What do I pray?’” she said. “‘Do I pray he lives or do I pray he dies?’ and she said, ‘You pray that God’s will be done.’”
About 20 years ago, David was riding home on his motorcycle when everything went black.
“Someone bumped him, hit him,” Shetley said. “He hit a concrete barrier at 70 miles per hour.”
David was wearing a helmet, but at that speed, even a helmet can only do so much. He suffered severe injuries, but believes the helmet saved his life.
“For me, what I would say to people who are going to get a motorcycle (and not wear a helmet), it’s selfish,” Shetley said. “You have to think what it is going to do to that family if something happens and what are the chances of it happening?”
Dr. Michael Moncure, head of trauma at University Health hospital, said the number of fatalities from all brain injuries has doubled at his hospital since the law’s repeal.
“If you have a significant brain injury and you were in a motorcycle crash and you had a helmet, you’ve got a chance,” he said. “If you don’t have a helmet and it’s a severe enough accident, it can really preclude you from having a survivable brain injury.”
Moncure said he’s performed more emergency brain operations in the past couple of years than ever before.
He said the severity of the brain injuries have also increased, with patients rushed to hospital for basilar skull fractures, in which spinal fluid leaks out of the nose and ears, and lacerations to the skull, in which brain matter spills out.
“A lot of times, these bad brain injuries from not wearing a helmet, you see these massive facial fractures as well, because just the impact, not only to an object, but to the ground,” Moncure said.
Those paying the price aren’t just the riders, but their families, as Margaret Shetley knows.
“Everyday, I watch my son and it hurts, because I know who he was and I know who he wants to be,” Margaret said.
The Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety offers more information on motorcycle safety and cautious driving.