With the right knowledge and a little bit of forethought, the first person on the scene at a motorcycle accident can make the difference between life and death. I just wish I’d thought about this stuff before I found a rider down, trapped under his own bike on a desolate road. Here’s what happened.
I’m fortunate to live at the bottom of California’s Highway 2, 66 miles of twists through the San Gabriel Mountains with not one stop sign or stop light. The road climbs to 7,903 feet at Dawson Saddle rising above desert chaparral to monumental ponderosa pines. It’s my afternoon ride, one I used to take with a pretty care-free attitude.
We came upon the bad scene on a straightaway with no visible signs of a collision and the bike still running, the rider’s leg pinned under the fairing. We immediately blocked the lane from oncoming traffic. Mike, my frequent riding partner, went straight to the victim and started to check his condition. Another rider lifted the rider’s bike and rolled it off the roadway.
This stretch of road is far from cell service so I jumped on my bike for Newcomb’s Ranch, a popular rest stop for motorcyclists that was six miles or so east to try and find help. The last thing I heard from Mike as I fired up the bike was that the victim was having trouble breathing. There was no way to really know what shape the guy was in, but I couldn’t shake the feeling this man’s life was in my hands as I pinned the throttle for help.
Fortunately, a Sheriff’s search and rescue team was having lunch at Newcomb’s as I came screeching into the parking lot at full-tilt. They made the call for a rescue helicopter and sped to the scene. The victim, suffered some serious bumps and bruises, a broken leg and a collapsed lung from being side swiped by a deer. Thankfully he is expected to make a full recovery.
Between Mike and I, we had just enough medical experience to do all the right things, but it still nagged me as to what the proper procedure would be in this situation weeks after we’d heard the victim was alright. I made a call to an old friend that is a paramedic in Vail, Colorado to get the definitive best practices on coming upon such a scene.
1. Make sure the victim and anyone in your party are not in danger. This could be from oncoming traffic, possible fire from spilled fuel or other environmental threats. Use your motorcycle to block traffic at a safe distance from the victim and send any other available people to flag down traffic as a warning.
2. When the scene is secure dial 911 or send someone for help if phone service is not available. Take note of the nearest mile marker, cross street or geographical landmark to relay to the first responders. If time allows use your smart phone to shoot photos in all four directions, this may help trying to explain to first responders or dispatch.
3. Before determining specific injuries, address any immediate life threats, the A-B-C… Airway-Breathing-Circulation. Is the airway blocked? Is the patient still breathing? Do they have a pulse? If not CPR will need to be administered. If you don’t know how, you should learn. Here is a link to the Mayo Clinic’s guide to CPR.
4. Starting at the head and moving to the toes look for any major bleeding. If there is major bleeding you will need to stop it by applying direct pressure with bandages, clothing, blankets or towels. If that doesn’t work a tourniquet will be needed to keep the victim from bleeding out.
5. If a patient is conscious and breathing, you should use the time to get as much information as you can from the patient before help arrives. This way, if the person becomes unconscious before help arrives, as in a head injury, this gives the paramedics valuable information that they will not be able to obtain if the patient stays unconscious. Name, age, medical conditions, medications he takes, allergies to medications are all helpful pieces of information. Ask the patient these questions:
- What is your name?
- Do you know where you are?
- Do you know what day it is?
- Do you remember what happened?
These questions will help you obtain an idea if any kind of brain injury has occurred. If you’re able to tell paramedics which of these questions the patient could and could not answer, it helps tremendously. These questions can also be repeated at intervals to see if there is any change in the patient’s mental status.
6. Keep the patient warm or cool, whatever the climate dictates, and do your best to keep the victim comfortable without moving them until help arrives.
But what about the helmet and the gear? This was arguably the most motorcycle specific question about what to do at an accident, and one that was debated at length that day among the lookie-loos that stopped to see what was happening. The overwhelming majority of riders I talked to were in the “leave the helmet on until the pros arrive” group, which is what we did. My paramedic friend elaborated on that thought and admitted that it’s a tricky question.
“Unless the airway is blocked and the helmet must be removed to clear it, leave the helmet on. If the helmet must be removed, it can be removed if done so very carefully.” She continued, ”It is best if you have two people to do it - one to slide hands up inside of the helmet by the ears and hold the head steady while the other pulls the helmet gently in an axial straight line (in line with the spinal cord). Many helmets have quick release tabs or allow for easy removal of the cheek pads, which you’ll obviously want to do before taking the helmet off if possible. Again, this should only be done if the airway is restricted, because sometimes the helmet gives valuable head and neck support.”
She recommends: “Start by asking if there is any pain in the lower leg or foot, if they feel any bleeding in the boots. If there doesn’t seem to be an injury in the area, I would just leave them on. If it’s cold this will also help for warmth. If the victim feels as though there may be a broken bone in the boot, leaving the boot in place will sometimes work as a splint and should not be removed. The main thing to look for is swelling and bleeding. The swelling could cause a loss of circulation and unchecked bleeding could cause the worst case scenario.” She finished with this sage advice, “This is the hard thing with medicine - every situation is different, sometimes gut feelings and common sense go a long way.”
Hopefully you never have to come upon a scene as I did but, if you do, this knowledge will give you the confidence to make good decisions when faced with such a situation.
In the end, even with my previous Wilderness First Responder certificate, that’s what we relied on was our gut and our common sense.
Editors Note: While you would think we would all be protected under a Good Samaritan law, in these litigious United States those laws vary from state to state and county to county. It’s good to know the law in your area by googling Good Sam Law (location) For instance California Health and Safety Code Section 1799.102 says, “No person who in good faith, and not for compensation, renders emergency medical or nonmedical care at the scene of an emergency shall be liable for any civil damages resulting from any act or omission.”
Also, this is the opinion of a contributor and a paramedic, and is not the definitive or research based guide you might wish it to be. We think they’re a wonderful place to start, but need to reiterate that they are tips meant to help you think about how to be prepared ahead of time and not rules or official procedures.
Sinuhe Xavier is a jack of all trades. When he isn’t directing films or commercials, driving a Land Rover for Overland Journal across some far off land, or creating content for The Mighty Motor - he’s out being a bad ass on his ADV bike. You should most definitely follow him on Instagram.