Family thinks helmet could have saved their son's life in fatal motorcycle crash
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It was 82 degrees with low humidity and light wind the day Scott Pohl died.
This is significant because a motorcycle was not Scott’s primary transportation. He usually drove his pickup to work.
Scott’s shift for most of his six-day week started at 4:30 p.m. But on Fridays and Saturdays he’d start at 7 p.m., which is also significant.
It is why he was headed east on North Territorial Road in Salem Township at 6:32 p.m. on the second day of summer, approaching an SUV driver who never saw him coming.
Scott bought the black 2007 Honda Shadow VLX in April, the month lawmakers lifted Michigan’s mandatory helmet law. Increasingly, he rode helmetless.
Karl Pohl texted his son on May 23, begging him to wear his helmet.
Scott responded he loved his dad, and more.
“I'm always going to be more of a risk taker then you ever were. That's where I get a thrill out of life. You may call it stupid but I call it living. I hope you can understand that,” Scott wrote.
“I say a prayer every time I get on my bike too. I ask to be protected. It makes me feel safer so I hope you can relax a little more. My goal is 100 percent not to get hurt.”
He died exactly one month later, after the SUV turned into his path.
Both parents—divorced for some years, but close friends still—blame the state’s new helmet law.
“When they changed that law, I thought it was stupid. I didn’t know it would affect me like it has,” Karl Pohl says. “He very well may have survived that crash.”
Adds Scott’s mother, Linda Doyle, “The worst pain in the world is losing your children.”
There is a reason she said “children.”
‘An all-American kid’
Karl Pohl taught physical education in Fowlerville schools until his body was overtaken by the rheumatoid arthritis that gnarled his hands. A related bone infection claimed his right leg below the knee. He retired due to his disabilities.
A love of athletics was passed along to the youngest of his three children. As a center on the Class A football squad at Howell High School, Pohl was 6-feet, 1-inch tall and weighed 240 pounds.
The 2005 graduate was named first team all-state by The Detroit News and The Detroit Free Press, and honorable mention all-state by the Associated Press.
Scott was also the Highlanders’ homecoming king, and loved outdoor pursuits like deer hunting and bass fishing.
“He was the all-American kid,” his father says.
After graduation, Scott had a few offers to play college ball. But he studied welding for two years in high school, and the trade would pay off.
Scott landed a union welding job when he was 19. A member of Sheet Metal Workers 292, he was working at Durr Systems Inc. while living with his dad in Livingston County’s rural Marion Township. The company mostly manufactures large-scale equipment for the auto industry.
“He was doing really well,” Karl Pohl says. “He was making more money than any of his friends who went to college.”
‘Mom, I live life on the edge’
The job was not close, about 45 minutes away in Plymouth. Scott set off to work the night of June 22, his helmet stowed in the right saddlebag of his motorcycle.
Scott bought the Honda Shadow in March. He received his motorcycle certification in April.
Though the new law says an operator must be certified for two years before going helmetless, Scott began riding without one.
At first, when Scott was at his mother’s house with the bike, he’d wear his helmet. Then she caught him leaving without it.
“I yelled at him, of course,” she says. “He’d say, ‘Mom, I live life on the edge.’”
She took some consolation that Scott was not inexperienced.
“He’d been on dirt bikes and four-wheelers a lot of his life. It’s not like he didn’t know a lot about bikes.”
Now, she says, “I hate even seeing motorcycles, period, anymore.”
‘She never saw another vehicle’
The road Scott crashed on runs mostly through farmland in northern Washtenaw County. “It is a very nice drive. I can see why he took that way,” says his father.
These are the moments just before and after the crash, according to police and coroner reports obtained through the Freedom of Information Act:
It is 6:32 p.m. The Ford Explorer heading toward Scott is driven by 18-year-old Julia Hamilton. Her 14-year-old brother, Josh, is in the passenger seat.
They had stopped to get ice on their way from one graduation party to another that Friday evening. Hamilton now stops and waits for an oncoming vehicle to pass before turning left toward where the party is being held
“Julia then heard and felt a collision. She thought the collision was at the rear of the Explorer. (She) pulled the rest of the way into the driveway and stopped. She stated she never saw another vehicle or motorcycle,” according to the state police report.
Karl Pohl was told his son went through the motorcycle’s windshield and hit the Explorer’s side.
Scott was still alive -barely. He was airlifted by helicopter to the University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor.
About 25 family members and friends were allowed to say goodbyes before life support was removed. Scott Pohl was pronounced dead at 4:53 a.m. on June 23.
“Life’s just so fragile,” his father says. “You see this kid in the hospital bed. He’s such a strong kid. You’re touching him and feeling his muscles and everything. It didn’t matter how big or strong he was.”
Both parents believe Scott might have lived had he been wearing a helmet. Doyle said they asked doctors that question.
“They said it certainly would have helped,” she says. “But they could not say 100 percent.”
“I hate even seeing motorcycles, period, anymore.”
A double tragedy
In the autopsy report, the medical examiner noted Scott was “the un-helmeted driver of a motorcycle” who died from “traumatic head injuries due to a motorcycle-SUV collision.”
“The manner of death is accidental,” the report says.
The teen driver has been charged with a moving violation causing death, a misdemeanor carrying a maximum one year in jail and $2,000 fine. She is to be arraigned in Ypsilanti on Dec. 10.
“We’re going to vigorously defend her,” says her lawyer Michael Vincent, who also suggested Scott might have lived had he wore his helmet. Scott's parents retained an attorney and are planning civil litigation, but that is a ways off. Both feel sorry for the girl.
“It was an accident,” Karl Pohl says. “She’ll have to live with the consequences of that. That’s why people should wear their helmets. If you’re wearing your helmet, people won’t die and people won’t have to deal with the consequences of having killed someone.”
Police reports are usually emotionless, a “just the facts” recitation of what an officer observes. Scott’s is no different.
A state trooper, arriving on the scene, described seeing “a downed damaged motorcycle. A helmet was observed in the right satchel of the motorcycle. A few feet from the motorcycle (lay) a young man bleeding from the head and left hand. His right cheek was in contact with the road. (He was) breathing poorly in a puddle of blood.”
The report does not capture the pain of two parents who have been here before. Scott’s older brother, Danny, died four years earlier.
He too was 25, and his death involved a motor vehicle.
In 2008, Danny’s body was found in front of Doyle’s Genoa Township home in Livingston County one autumn morning. The jealous boyfriend of a girl he was seeing had just gotten out of jail. There was a 2:30 a.m. confrontation and the man ran Doyle over with a pickup. The man spent three years in prison for the incident.
Pohl and Doyle now have one living child, 31-year-old Kristy Anderson of Morrisville, N.C. They lament she’ll grow old without her brothers, that her baby girl will never know her uncles.
“You get used to having three kids,” Karl Pohl says. “You get used to having them around for Christmas and Thanksgiving. And now their sister is by herself. She’s not going to have anyone.”
Their pain is compounded by one other fact, and this is significant too.
The motorcycle was bought with $4,000 Scott received from his share of a family insurance settlement.
It came from his brother’s death.