Last year when state lawmakers were considering a repeal of the motorcycle helmet law, Martin Foil marched into their Raleigh offices and plunked down a helmet.
It was scraped, cracked and flecked with dried blood.
“You need to know that this saved the life of one of your constituents the day before yesterday,” he told them.
Foil, 49, is executive director of Hinds’ Feet Farm, a rehabilitation program for people with traumatic brain injuries. He likes to think that helmet had something to do with the legislature’s eventual vote to keep the helmet law.
It wouldn’t be the first time a helmet of his has made a powerful impression. For years Foil has used his collection of 50 helmets to show people just why they are so important.
They’re important to him. His younger brother, Phil, lives with their father and receives round-the-clock care after sustaining serious brain injuries in a 1984 auto accident.
For all the stacks of papers with statistics touting evidence that helmets save lives, Foil still finds plenty of hard-headed people who just don’t get the message until they see a helmet worn by someone who was thrown 15 feet in the air and bounced across the pavement.
“The statistics are meaningless numbers,” said Foil, a native of Concord. “But when you can attach it to a person, then it makes a connection,” he said.
His collection started with just a few: a horse rider’s helmet, a construction worker’s hardhat. But before he knew it, it had grown, as dozens of people sent them his way.
“Nobody ever turned me down,” he said. “I have every kind of helmet you could imagine. A firefighter’s helmet, a helicopter pilot’s helmet, an F-15 fighter-pilot helmet, a motorcycle helmet, a NASCAR helmet. Football. Baseball. You name it, I got it.”
Two years ago, Foil began taking them to elementary schools around where he lives in University City. He would pass them around. The kids would excitedly imagine what the helmet owner’s job was like.
In the process, the helmets would persuade the kids who think helmets are uncool to reconsider.
“The message is, hey, everybody wears helmets, and not just kids, but adults doing cool stuff,” said Foil. “You have to wear the right helmet for the right thing at the right time.”
In his collection, Foil has eight helmets that have saved lives. They drive home a point, too.
“Showing a kid a helmet that’s broken, whether it’s a motorcycle or a bicycle helmet, those really make an impact,” he said. “It’s a very powerful message, and kids seem to get it.”
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 91 percent of the 618 bicyclists killed in 2009 – the latest records released – weren’t wearing helmets. That year, another 51,000 bicyclists suffered injuries while riding.
The institute estimates that helmet use could reduce brain injury by up to 85 percent.
Foil said he would continue advocating the use of helmets, especially to kids, for as long as he is asked.
“If I change just one kid, or five kids, out of the thousands that I’ve spoken to, that’s great,” he said. “When it comes to brain injury, there’s only one cure, and that’s prevention.”