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Derryfield School students get lesson in motorcycle safety

New Hampshire Union Leader

May 01. 2013 11:14PM
Chris McNeil, who teaches Latin at The Derryfield School in Manchester, chats about safety with some of his students, from left, Owen Leonard of Manchester, Kyle Slevira of Manchester, Trevor Gagnon of Pelham and Connor Jackson of Derry. (Shawne K. Wickham /NH Sunday News)

MANCHESTER - Students at The Derryfield School got a lesson on Wednesday in both physics and safety that didn't require any complicated formulas or equations.

A small watermelon dropped to the pavement and landed with a heavy thud, showing quite effectively how just a little velocity can increase the force of impact. The students were asked to think of the melon as their own head left unprotected by a helmet in a bicycle crash.

And if that wasn't enough, they also got a first-hand look at the importance of safety equipment when one of their teachers tumbled across the parking lot before skidding to a stop after purposely dumping his motorcycle.

"I think the visuals are very helpful and send out the message to promote safety and wearing safety gear," said Sgt. Joe DiRusso, commander of the New Hampshire State Police motorcycle unit.

Now that spring has finally sprung in New Hampshire, motorcycles are rapidly coming out of winter hibernation and sharing the road with cars and trucks. State police are reminding drivers to be aware of the increased motorcycle traffic and urging the motorcyclists to look out for themselves by taking simple safety measures such as proper training and wearing helmets.

DiRusso was joined at the school by two troopers who skillfully navigated the large, heavy NHSP Harley Davidsons through a course of orange cones. It was an impressive feat to any novice who has attempted to learn on much smaller and more maneuverable machines, but didn't do much for the kids who were enjoying the beautiful spring afternoon and break from the classroom.

They were much more attentive when Latin teacher Chris McNeil hopped on his BMW and roared around a loop in the school parking lot several times. McNeil, who is also a competitive motorcycle racer and stunt rider, wore his heavily-padded leather racing suit, boots and helmet and after a few dry runs, he was ready to intentionally put himself through a mini-wreck. While billed as a "controlled crash," it actually demonstrated how little control there is in a motorcycle accident - even at a low rate of speed.

McNeil cruised down a hill into a turn, where he let the motorcycle slide out from under him. The machine made a loud crunch as it bounced across a gravel median then skidded to a stop. McNeil took a hard bounce off the asphalt and the momentum carried him into a slide that left black marks and scuffed the protective suit.

McNeil said he knew without having to look that a fresh patch of raw skin lay beneath the thick leather of his suit. He's been through enough actual crashes to know he will recover, but the pain was going to linger for a while.

"Road rash takes longer to heal almost than bones. I'll take a broken bone over road rash any day," McNeil said. "My hip hurts a little bit right now but without the gear, I probably would be taking an ambulance ride right now."

McNeil was going slow enough to avoid making impact with his head, which was encased in a heavy racing helmet.

DiRusso said helmets are the most effective safety equipment for anyone operating or riding on a motorcycle. DiRusso said over the last six years, 67 percent of motorcycle fatalities were not wearing a helmet.

While most of the Derryfield students in attendance Wednesday were young enough that bicycle safety was a much more relevant topic, DiRusso said the importance of helmets is the same.

That's how the watermelons fit in Wednesday's demonstrations.

Brian Adie, a sixth-grader from Londonderry, stood on a construction lift as the designated melon dropper. The first height was about five feet and left a half-inch crack in the green rind. A second watermelon placed in a helmet was dropped from the same height and was unscathed. The experiment continued with drops from about 10 feet and finally 15 feet. The damage to the unprotected watermelons increased with the height while the helmeted specimens remained intact.

Public Safety Schools Manchester Photo Feature

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