IOWA CITY – The University of Iowa goes to great lengths to protect student athletes from concussions on the field, yet the Athletic Department doesn’t require student-athletes to wear helmets while riding mopeds.
Mopeds, or scooters, are increasingly popular among UI students, with campus permits jumping nearly sixfold since 2002. UI student athletes, who jet between classes and practice, ride mopeds at a higher rate, according to anecdotal reports.
Riding without a helmet isn’t illegal in Iowa, and the UI doesn’t require helmets of all students. But because helmets save lives, some UI doctors and a former football player said student athletes could set an example for the rest of the UI population.
“It might have a positive effect,” said Josh Koeppel, a former UI football player who was struck by a truck while riding a moped in August 2010.
Koeppel’s crash, a cringe-worthy collision still on YouTube, shows him being struck by a pickup, flipping feet-over-head and rolling briefly on the pavement. The real shocker is when Koeppel stands up, suffering only minor scrapes and pain from the collision.
“I was lucky enough to walk away,” said Koeppel, 25. “I should have been wearing a helmet.”
Most UI teams don’t require helmets
Five of the UI’s 22 sports teams have rules requiring student athletes to wear helmets while riding mopeds. Men’s basketball, wrestling, volleyball, women’s gymnastics and field hockey require moped riders to wear helmets, according to policies provided by the UI as part of information requested by The Gazette.
Men’s basketball coach Fran McCaffery imposed a helmet rule when he came to the UI in 2010.
“I instituted this policy for the health and welfare of our athletes,” McCaffery said in an email to The Gazette.
This season is the first time McCaffery learned of a player not wearing a helmet. He made the whole team run more laps and told them the punishment would get worse if anyone else broke the rules.
“Hasn’t happened since,” he said.
Football, which has more than 100 players, many of whom ride mopeds, has no helmet policy. Several players have been in crashes in recent years.
Dalton Shaull, a walk-on linebacker from Oskaloosa, was injured in June when he rear-ended a car while riding a moped on Highway 1, east of Mormon Trek Boulevard, in Iowa City. Shaull was not wearing a helmet.
Head Football Coach Kirk Ferentz said in 2010, after Koeppel’s collision, that his No. 1 concern about mopeds was that players weren’t wearing helmets.
“I encourage them to wear helmets, but I haven’t been very successful on that front,” Ferentz said at the time.
He declined a recent request for an interview as to why he hasn’t implemented a helmet rule.
UI Athletics Director Gary Barta told The Gazette he lets coaches set team rules more stringent than the Student-Athlete Code of Conduct. He’s not aware of any universities making requirements, such as helmet use, a part of a student athlete’s scholarship.
But the Athletic Department does lay down the law in other areas, such as use of social media. The department issued “guiding principles” in 2008 that expect student athletes to “post only information and images that appropriately represent the University to the public.” Student athletes must monitor comments on their sites and sites of teammates.
Football players are prohibited from using Twitter.
Concussions a major concern
Football and concussions have been the focus of national scrutiny in recent years.
Thousands of former NFL players are suing the league, saying the NFL is responsible for the long-term care of athletes suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s and other diseases that may be linked to brain injury.
The Big Ten Conference and the Ivy League launched a collaborative effort in 2012 to study the effects of head injuries among their student athletes. The UI, Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa all have concussion-management plans, as mandated by the NCAA since 2010.
But when it comes to protecting the heads of student athletes riding mopeds, some UI coaches feel as if their hands are tied without a state law, Athletics Director Barta said.
“I find it ironic that in this time where there’s great debate about concussions in sport, we have a state that doesn’t mandate wearing helmets,” he said.
Listen to Athletics Director Barta on helmet laws here:
No state law
Iowa is among only three states in the country without helmets laws – Illinois and New Hampshire are the other two. In these states, nearly 80 percent of fatal crashes involved victims without helmets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Riders who don’t wear helmets are more likely to suffer traumatic brain injuries, and median hospital charges for those kinds of injuries are 13 times higher than for victims without such injuries, the CDC reported.
A group of Iowa City students tried to convince lawmakers to pass a law in 2012 requiring people under age 18 to wear helmets while riding mopeds.
The students were devastated by the August 2011 death of Iowa City West High student Caroline Found, who lost control of her moped and crashed into a tree on Mormon Trek Boulevard. Found, 17, was not wearing a helmet.
Lawmakers, swayed by a strong anti-helmet lobby, didn’t budge.
Found’s death convinced Head Women’s Gymnastics Coach Larissa Libby to implement a helmet policy for her student-athletes.
“The day after her funeral, I went back and changed the rules,” Libby said.
The gymnastics policy calls for a warning on the first offense. If it happens a second time, Libby makes the student-athlete call her parent and explain that she broke the team rules.
“Without trying to take their rights away, we do educate them about why it’s important,” Libby said. “We’ve not had any issues with it. For the most part, my kids have their helmets on.”
Medical support for helmets
Several UI doctors agree with team rules requiring helmets.
“The problem is that coaches are not always in support of that because of the lack of a helmet law,” said Dr. Marina Usacheva, a general practitioner who works at the UI Student Health and Wellness.
She wishes student health doctors had more access to coaches and student-athletes to provide education about helmet use. She also thinks student-athletes could model safe moped use to other UI students.
Dr. Andy Peterson, director of the University of Iowa’s sports concussion clinic, said they treat UI student-athletes for concussions not related to sports, but privacy laws prevented him from saying whether any of the injuries were caused by moped crashes.
“Helmets are a good idea for anyone who is riding a moped/scooter/motorcycle/bicycle/unicycle/horse, whether they are a student athlete or not,” Peterson wrote in an email.
Moped ridership has skyrocketed in Iowa City.
More than 1,330 students and faculty purchased parking permits from the UI in October 2012, which is nearly six times the 229 permits issued in October 2002. Iowa City also started requiring moped parking permits in 2011.
Thirty-seven percent of UI students surveyed last spring said they did not regularly wear helmets while riding a motorcycle in the previous year, which was worse than the national rate for college students.
The National College Health Assessment used for the UI survey doesn’t specify mopeds or scooters in the question, which might skew the results, said Tanya Villhauer, associate director for education with Student Health and Wellness. But getting students to wear helmets can be a tough sell, even when Student Health gave out 150 free helmets as part of a spring 2012 campaign.
“You can preach about all the stuff that can happen, but they don’t hear it until they ready to hear it,” Villhauer said.
• Men’s Basketball — When operating or riding a scooter\moped, you must wear a helmet at all times.
• Women’s gymnastics: Helmets On Mopeds
Currently the state of Iowa does not require the use of helmets. However, statistics show that fatalities on mopeds and motorcycles are rising. For this purpose, you will be required to wear a helmet at all times when using mopeds/motorcycles for transportation. No exceptions.
—First Offense: Warning will be issued with a reminder of the policy
—Second Offense: Your parents will be informed of your decision not to wear a helmet and suspension from the team until further notice
• Volleyball: Helmet Rule
A helmet must always be worn correctly, whenever you are driving or riding a moped.
— 1st offense: one match suspension
— 2nd 0ffense: could result In indefinite suspension from the team, will be handled on a case by case basis
• Field Hockey: Mopeds/Scooters:
— Obey all moped laws.
—Flag on your moped if you do not have a motorcycle license.
— Do not ride double unless your moped is legally built for two people and you have your motorcycle license.
— Obey all traffic laws.
— Do not listen to IPods or use any other electronics while operating your moped.
— Be smart about Weather conditions while using a moped.
— Be a defensive driver.
— Helmets are to be worn at all times when on a moped
• Wrestling – Helmets are mandatory on mopeds and motorcycles.