Comment Section: Helmets, Media, and Responsibility

 In Learning Curve

James Kelly is loaded into an ambulance after hitting a car in 2011.

This piece is about helmets and photo shoots and why I think it’s important that pro riders wear safety gear when they appear in media.

I.

Three years ago I went out to shoot photos with James Kelly. We set up on a blind left corner with a steeply banked inside lane. The idea was to get a shot of him hitting the apex super hard, then move on to the next spot. James hiked up far enough to get some good speed, put his headphones on, and kicked in.

Seconds after I gave him the all-clear, a Toyota Prius came into view. I yelled up the hill about the car, but James did not hear me. He hit the front of that car going about 25mph. His board wedged in the front bumper and he was taken to the hospital.

When I went to pick him up from emergency room I found him laying in bed, wiggling his toes to reassure himself that he wasn’t paralyzed.

II.

I care about the safety issues inherent to downhill skateboarding because they are real to me in a way that they aren’t to most people.

I myself have destroyed helmets and gotten hurt in random, unpredictable crashes. A month after I got slide gloves, I smashed my head doing a hands-down toeside on hard wheels and had to get my scalp stapled shut. Right after I moved to California I did a slide to let a motorcycle pass on my local run and got hit by the front wheel, tearing a ligament in my shoulder. Two years ago I hit a crack shutting down toeside and flew backwards onto my head at the bottom of a local run I’ve skated hundreds of times. Last year someone dipped their wheel off the inside of a right turn at Maryhill and crashed in front of me, causing me to flip over backwards and smash my head at full speed.

I was skating behind Nick Dunmall when he rubbed wheels with Zak Maytum and broke his shoulder at Maryhill.

I was skating behind Billy when he crashed at 78mph in Colorado and picked him up from the hospital after he smashed his head at Angie’s Curves.

I was there when Dustin Hampton suffered terrible internal injuries at Barrett Junction and when AJ Haiby compound fractured his arm a year later.

I saw Erik Lundberg wobble out footbraking at 60mph at Peyragudes and heard his helmet crack the pavement as he tumbled to a stop.

I was sitting on the side of the road watching when a Landyachtz rider went off the cliff in Malibu and fell all the way to the canyon floor.

I was filming when Pjäx Christner was knocked unconscious for two minutes after another rider crashed into him at Kozakov. I turned off the camera when he woke up screaming in pain and didn’t film the helicopter that airlifted him to the hospital.

“Safety” is an abstract concept to most longboarders, something they know they should pay attention to but don’t spend a lot of time worrying about. It’s something I think about on a daily basis.

III.

Downhill skateboarding is uniquely dangerous compared to street and transition. Thirty people died skateboarding in America last year. None of them were skating street or transition. Every single death was in the road: 24 people died after being hit by cars, the other 6 fell bombing hills without helmets. (Two of those killed by cars had helmets on.)

IV.

No, I don’t put a helmet on every single time I step on a skateboard. Yes, everyone is free to do as they please; nobody can force anyone to wear a helmet all the time. Helmets are not the be-all and end-all of skateboard safety–it takes a great deal of knowledge and experience to skate hills with a reasonable degree of safety. But helmets are definitely a good start.

V.

I am a professional photographer who has exclusively shot downhill skateboarding for the last four years. With very few easily dealt-with exceptions (low-profile knee pads with shorts; kneepads over jeans; ugly, visually-busy sticker jobs; etc), I do not believe helmets or safety gear make skate photos look bad. To the contrary, I think the colorful, visually exciting safety gear used for racing can greatly enhance what would otherwise be a fairly boring picture.

VI.

The culture of this sport is a reflection of the industry that sponsors riders and funds the media organizations that cover them.

The skate media has a tremendous influence on everyday skaters. Kids emulate the pro riders they see in videos and magazines. When kids saw Louis and James stand-up sliding in open face helmets, they started doing the same. When they see George Mackenzie wearing an old school full-ear helmet, kids go out and buy full cuts. Every time I post a photo of Zak Maytum online someone asks where they can get an aero helmet like his. Whether they acknowledge it or not, pro skaters are role models.

Those of us in business and media positions in the skateboard industry have a great deal of power over the sponsored riders that promote our products. There are many more talented, sponsorship-worthy skaters than the industry can support. If I told an unknown, unsponsored kid at a slide jam that he would get on the Venom team and be featured on the front page of Skatehouse or in the pages of SkateSlate if he’d be willing to skate without a helmet you can bet that he’d have that helmet off and be throwing switch backside powerslides before I had time to get my camera out. Similarly, if I told that kid that he’d be kicked off the team if we ever caught him skating without a helmet, he’d be damn sure to put a lid on every time he stepped on a board, and especially when the cameras were out.

As an industry, we have a responsibility to keep kids as safe as possible when they use our products. I am proud of longboarding’s industry-wide consensus on helmets and support companies that encourage their riders to protect their health and safety through the use of appropriate protective equipment.

Encouraging helmet use is in everyone’s long-term best interest. We don’t need to preach; leading by example has worked well so far. Let’s keep this good thing going.

– Max Dubler

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