Hypothermia

A SCANTILY-clad motorcyclist earned a chilly reception from police and a trip to hospital after he was caught riding 150kmph.

Police called paramedics and the 22-year-old was taken to hospital with hypothermia symptoms after he was intercepted traveling 50kmph over the speed limit on the Hume Highway at Wangaratta in Victoria’s north about 5.30pm (AEST) yesterday.

Police said the man was wearing minimal clothing and no cold weather gear when he was pulled over.

The Hawthorn East man also had his motorcycle impounded for 30 days.

AAP April 10, 2012 1:33PM

The above news story demonstrates one of the dangers inherent in riding a motorcycle, the risk of hypothermia when weather conditions become cold, but you might be surprised by the date and time on this story. Early evening on an April day in Australia is not the time, or the season, that many people would associate with a hypothermia risk.

“Hypo” means under, (hence a hypodermic syringe delivers liquid under the dermis – the skin). Normal human core body temperature is 37°C (98.6°F), clinically hypothermia occurs when the core temperature falls below 35°C (95°F) – that’s not much of a drop. Hypothermia facts courtesy of Cool Antarctica.

Certainly this young mans choice of riding apparel was inappropriate for this ride, not only from the point of view of weather conditions, but also in terms of protection. Quite possibly when he began his ride it was one of the warm gloriously sunny Autumn days that we are blessed with in this country. Quite possibly he had every intention of getting back home before sunset, so warmer clothing was not high on his priority list, but the reality of motorcycle riding is that “things change”, and one of the most changeable things we must deal with is the weather.

Being prepared when we ride is essential for our safety. As a young rider new to road riding and touring I was caught out by cold weather and lack of appropriate clothing, but I only had to learn that lesson once. From that day on I have ensured that I carry at least one extra clothing layer, a spare pair of gloves, and wet weather protection. And never forget that your wet weather gear is an extra layer even in dry weather, so don’t hesitate to use it if you are cold. Wet weather gear is usually excellent at cutting down wind chill, a huge factor in hypothermia. Having thin layers that can be put on or removed as temperature conditions change allow us to control body temperature without reducing mobility, and pay particular attention to collar and cuff areas. Infiltration by cold winds is an enemy to both concentration and comfort. Knowing how many layers, and what items are appropriate for the conditions takes practice, and sometimes trial and error, but like anything you get better with experience. I have found that in colder weather, when I am standing still, if I am just on the point of feeling uncomfortably warm, once I’m on the bike travelling at highway speeds my temperature is just about perfect.

So we know this riders lack of clothing contributed to his hypothermia, but the question on my mind is, did his speed also contribute to his hypothermia, or did the hypothermia contribute to his speeding?

Signs of mild hypothermia include shivering, numb hands and other extremities and reduced manual dexterity. Complex skills become more difficult, the victim may also feel tired and may argue and become uncooperative. The beginnings of hypothermia are notoriously difficult for the victim to spot themselves, they will often be strongly denied. Difficulty in performing tasks such as fastening up clothing, putting on gloves etc, may result in the victim getting irritated and ending up not bothering, which of course will make them get even colder. A fall in core temperature of only 1°C can slow reaction times and impair judgment.

If mild hypothermia can occur after a drop in core body temperature of only 1°C, then many of us will have suffered from it at some stage during our riding, and probably not been aware of it. Did this rider fail to realise he had hypothermia? I think the answer is most probably yes. So did he also fail to realise that he was even speeding? I’m sure he would happily have used that argument to try to avoid the speeding fine and subsequent impounding of his motorcycle, but it opens up the question of how many times motorcycle riders have made bad decisions, not because they were bad riders, but because their judgement was impaired and they were unaware of the fact. I’m sure I have been in that situation.

Moderate hypothermia occurs when the core temperature falls below 35°C and results in violent shivering and a loss in muscular coordination. Most dangerous of all at this stage is perhaps the loss of ability to make rational decisions. Below 32°C (89.6°F) shivering stops as there is no energy left to keep it going, this causes the temperature to drop even further and more rapidly. Unconsciousness comes at around 30°C (86°F).

How many motorcycle accidents, and motorcycle deaths could be directly attributed to hypothermia? I have not been able to find any research into the subject, but common sense and experience tell me that it could be a frighteningly high number. Riding a motorcycle well and safely requires 100% of your concentration 100% of the time, so anything that affects that concentration could have potentially fatal results.

As we head into the cooler weather in the Southern Hemisphere be aware of the signs of hypothermia and monitor yourself, and your riding companions for them. Be prepared by carrying extra layers and wet weather gear, and remember to use them. If you notice a change in your riding take a break, have a warm drink and a snack before continuing your trip. For me the best part of any trip is getting home safe, so then I get to do it all again.

The Perpetual Motorcyclist

© Observations of a Perpetual Motorcyclist, 2012 – 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Observations of a Perpetual Motorcyclist with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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11 responses to “Hypothermia

  1. Timely subject when we are just coming into our winter months. It is all so easy to push beyond your limits. fatigue settles in quickly in cold conditions. you must be aware of your limitations.
    I recall setting of for a ride at 6am one June morning from Narrabri in NSW. There was quite a frost and I needed to stop about every 30 mins to warm my hands with the exhaust. I had multiple layers of clothing on and winter gloves. My body was warm enough but for the life of me I could not keep my hands warm. it wasn’t until 9am that I was able to stay on the bike for continuous stretches between fuel stops.
    My next purchase for my bike was Heated grips. Great thing are Heated grips. To ride in winter it is worth while spending a few extra $ on quality riding cloths/gear.

    Cliff

    • It is incredibly hard to keep your hands warm, I was reminded only this morning. In previous years I have got by using inner and outer gloves along with heated grips, but even then the finger tips still get cold. Good point about fatigue increasing in cold weather, it’s easy to forget how much energy your body is putting into keeping warm, on top of the concentration required to ride a motorcycle. Thanks for commenting Coyote.

  2. We’re just leaving the cold weather behind here in the States, but it is not time to ride around with just a t-shirt, yet. I walked out yesterday afternoon to ride a couple miles across the city, started the bike to let it warm up, then went back to the house for my leather jacket because the air was cool when I was simply standing by the bike. In truth, the weather could have turned within an hour and I’d rather be a bit warm in the jacket at the shop I went to, than cold for even as little as a couple miles on the way home – particularly since I consider the city to be the most dangerous place to ride through and I’ll take any advantage I can arrange (like not being cold). The desert or mountains have far fewer “bonehead automobile drivers”.

    • A very wise decision by the sounds of things. It is always so nice when the promise of warmer weather arrives, but the Spring and Autumn seasons can also be the most frustrating, layers on in the morning, off during the day, back on the evening. But as you say, every advantage available, so it is a small price to pay for added comfort and safety.

  3. Excellent article and advice. One of the issues for some is where to carry that extra gear. Sports Bike Riders, in particular, lack carry space although wet weather gear is great since it is compact. I’m glad I fitted a rear rack and top box on the old Zephyr.
    Another issue is dehydration which, although it is more of an issue in warmer months, can be an issue all year. Carrying a bottle of water and drinking before a ride and along the way if on a long ride is the way to go.
    An interesting article notes that:
    ” “Humans don’t naturally hydrate themselves properly, and they can become very dehydrated in cold weather because there is little physiological stimulus to drink.”
    The mechanisms that reduce that stimulus were studied. http://www.unh.edu/news/news_releases/2005/january/sk_050128cold.html
    Another article mentions that dehydration can accelerate hypothermia. http://sectionhiker.com/preventing-dehydration-in-winter/

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