Before Help Arrives: Being Prepared in the Event of a Motorcycle Accident

During the first few minutes after TJ’s crash, he was woozy and in some pain. Once the adrenaline wore off, his condition became more serious. But without first aid training all we knew to do was call for help. (Photo by the author)

Like it or not, accidents happen. Fortunately, they tend to be rare events, and when they do happen they’re often minor, such as a parking lot tip over that does more harm to our pride than our body or bike. But sometimes accidents are more serious. Sand or gravel may cause us to lose traction. We may overcook a decreasing-radius corner. Or we may have a close encounter with a car or a leaping deer.

As responsible motorcyclists, we owe it to ourselves, our friends and our loved ones to be prepared in case an accident happens. If we’re riding in or near an urban area, then we can usually count on having a cell signal, the ability of first responders to access the scene quickly and the proximity of a hospital. But even in urban areas it could take up to 30 minutes or longer for an ambulance to arrive on the scene.

What should you do until help arrives? And what if the accident happens when you’re riding out in the country or other remote area? Those are exactly the sort of places we love to ride, where we can escape from the city or suburbia to enjoy winding roads and off-the-beaten-path scenery. How would you call for help? And even if you can call for help, how long will it take for an ambulance or helicopter to arrive?

A few years ago, during a dual-sport ride with friends, our buddy TJ crashed his GS on a downhill, landing on his right shoulder. He was woozy and in pain, but he was able to get up, remove his helmet and speak coherently. After a few minutes, TJ told us his fingers were numb, his arm felt cold and he had a history of heart problems. We were lucky. We had a weak cell signal and were able to use my GPS to provide precise coordinates to the 911 dispatcher, and an off-duty paramedic and a nurse happened to be in the area and attended to TJ while we waited for a helicopter. TJ was airlifted to a hospital where he was treated for a dislocated shoulder, a chipped bone in his upper arm and a bruised collarbone. 

We were relieved that first responders were able to provide assistance and evacuation so quickly, but what struck me about that incident was my ignorance of what to do other than dial 911. Recently I completed a weekend-long Wilderness First Aid course put on by NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School. Aimed at those who recreate outdoors where emergency medical response can be expected in less than eight hours, the course teaches the Patient Assessment System, basic first aid and how to make evacuation decisions.

As luck would have it, members of the Pathfinders militia were training in the area, and a nurse and a paramedic from the group attended to TJ until a helicopter arrived. Since help is rarely available in remote areas, it’s good to be prepared with first aid training, a first aid kit and a reliable way to contact first responders. (Photo by the author)

One of the teachers was Dave Craig, a Senior Instructor at NOLS who is a Wilderness EMT as well as a motorcyclist. He enjoys long, exploratory rides on his Suzuki DR650S throughout Arizona and down into Mexico. When I asked Craig how wilderness first aid applies to motorcycling, he said, “When it comes to first response to a motorcycle accident, whether in remote areas or not, there are several important elements. First, secure the scene to prevent further injuries.” This is the first step in the Patient Assessment System (see sidebar below). If the accident occurs on the road or a popular trail, enlist friends or bystanders to control oncoming traffic, and beware of other potential hazards. If the injured rider is trapped under his or her motorcycle, make sure the bike is picked up safely without putting you or others at risk.

“Second, you should be prepared with training and materials to attend to threats to life,” said Craig. “Take a first aid/CPR course and always carry a first aid kit with medical gloves. For the injured rider, first assess the ABCs–Airway, Breathing and Circulation, and check for serious bleeding. Next, evaluate D–Disability; in particular, do you need to protect the spine? And E–Expose any injuries so they can be examined.” This is part of the initial assessment in the Patient Assessment System, which is the first priority after the scene has been secured.

Many believe you should never remove a motorcyclist’s helmet if he or she has been in an accident. However, a full-face helmet’s chinbar covers the rider’s mouth, making it difficult to check airway and breathing. (A flip-up or modular helmet allows a rider’s face to be exposed without removing the helmet.) Also, if the accident occurs in a remote area where it could be an hour or longer until help arrives, removing the helmet allows the rider’s head to be examined for injury and helps keep them cool and comfortable. Whether or not the helmet is removed, ensure that the rider’s head is supported to protect the spine. 

“And third, after completing a thorough patient assessment, you need to have a way to contact emergency services in the areas in which you ride,” Craig said. At a minimum you should carry a cell phone, but a satellite communicator, such as those made by Garmin or SPOT (see Resources), is a great backup because they work anywhere and transmit precise location coordinates to first responders. Be sure to keep your phone and/or communicator in your pocket rather than on your bike in case you and your bike go separate ways in an accident, particularly if you’re riding solo.

Accidents are emotionally charged situations–for the rider(s) involved and for bystanders. If you witness an accident or are one of the first to arrive on the scene, it’s important to stay calm and help keep others calm. Assess the situation before diving in; help secure the scene and act in a thorough, deliberate manner. Just as motorcycle skills training prepares us to be better riders, hands-on first aid training prepares us to act with confidence so we can assist the injured as well as first responders. Always have emergency contact and personal medical information on your person in an easy-to-find location, as well as a first aid kit, a cell phone and, if traveling in remote areas, a satellite communicator.

Roadguardians.org offers an 8-hour Accident Scene Management Bystander Assistance Program for motorcyclists. (Photo by Scott A. Williams)

Patient Assessment System

Scene Size-up

  • Identify hazards to self, other rescuers, bystanders, patient.
  • Determine mechanism of injury.
  • Form a general impression of seriousness.
  • Determine the number of patients.
  • Protect yourself with body substance isolation (e.g., wear gloves).

Initial Assessment

  • Obtain consent, assess for responsiveness and protect the spine.
  • A – Airway: Open the airway; look in the mouth and clear obvious obstructions.
  • B – Breathing: Look, listen and feel.
  • C – Circulation: Check pulse at the neck; look and sweep body for severe bleeding.
  • D – Disability: Decide if further spine protection is needed.
  • E – Expose and examine major injuries.

Secondary Assessment

  • Head-to-toe examination (look, listen, feel, smell, ask)
  • Measurement of vital signs (responsiveness, heart rate, skin, respiration, temperature, pupils)
  • Medical history (chief complaint; SAMPLE — Symptoms, Allergies, Medications, Past history, Last intake/output, Events)

Source: “NOLS Wilderness Medicine, 6th Edition” (see Resources below)

NOLS Wilderness Medicine, 6th Edition
NOLS Wilderness Medicine, 6th Edition

Resources

Training

  • Accident Scene Management Bystander Assistance Program for motorcyclists; 8-hour course; visit roadguardians.org 
  • American Red Cross Adult First Aid/CPR/AED Course; 6-hour course (certification valid for two years); visit redcross.org 
  • NOLS Wilderness First Aid Course; 16 hours over two days (certification valid for two years); visit nols.edu
  • “NOLS Wilderness Medicine, 6th Edition,” by Ted Schimelpfenig (Chapter 1 covers the Patient Assessment System in detail); $16.95, visit store.nols.edu


First Aid Kits/Supplies

NOLS Med Kit 1.0
NOLS Med Kit 1.0
  • American Red Cross’ online store sells a variety of first aid kits, supplies and instructional books; visit redcross.org/store
  • NOLS Med Kits are made by Adventure Medical Kits and range from the basic, 3.7-ounce Med Kit 1.0 ($16.95) to the well-stocked, 25-ounce Med Kit 5.0 ($84.99); resupply packs and individual supplies also available; add a NOLS Wilderness Medicine Pocket Guide for $4.99; visit store.nols.edu

Personal Medical Information

  • Smartphones typically have easily accessible medical information and an emergency contact, as well as the ability to dial 911, directly from the home or lock screen. Look up the details for your device and fill in the forms as completely as possible.
  • Rescue Facts Emergency Pack, which attaches to apparel or helmet with hook-and-loop, contains a rewritable medical information form so it is easily accessible by first responders; $10, visit aerostich.com
Rescue Facts
Rescue Facts

Satellite Communicators

Garmin InReach Explorer+
Garmin InReach Explorer+
  • Garmin makes several products with inReach technology that allows two-way text messaging and S.O.S. signals via the global Iridium satellite network; starting at $349.99 plus required service plan; visit garmin.com 
  • SPOT makes one-way (Gen3) and two-way (SPOT X) satellite communicators for sending text messages and S.O.S. signals; starting at $149.99 plus required service plan; visit findmespot.com
SPOT X
SPOT X

2 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks very much for raising the awareness of this important aspect—not just for motorcycle riding. Accidents happen and while protective gear is the 1st line of defense, knowing first aid is equally important. I agree that flip up helmets are helpful but you may want to mention there are full face helmets that allow the cheek cushions to be removed to provide for safer helmet removal (e.g. Arai XD4). And for personal medical information the Road iD bracelets are a viable option.

  2. I ride in British Columbia and NW US states. Cell coverage is minimal in remote areas, usually just around towns. I always carry my Spot Gen 3 on my person. Often an accident involves a blow to the head, the Spot is easy, press one button. Also useful for hiking, skiing etc. Any outdoor activity. Another often overlooked benefit is the tracking feature. Recently a rider in BC just disappeared, almost certainly went off the road somewhere. He has not been found 6 months later. With a Spot on track mode your loved ones can find you and get closure. I cannot fathom why every rider does not have one, we pay a lot of money for our bikes and to ride them. This is a very cheap insurance to have. I am a Doctor and have come across several serious accidents, always in very remote areas. A GPS locator can save a life, seems like a no brainer. But then people ride without a helmet, so they obviously have a brain that is not worth protecting. Cam

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