Why Houston Artist Jeremy Choate Really Died (Wear Helmets, For Crissake!)

This article has generated important discussion -- and criticism -- which is worth reading and pondering below.

Last Sunday, after the din of sirens had quieted, and after one of Houston's most recognized artists, Jeremy Choate, had died following a horrific traffic accident along Studemont, the public conversation turned to the woman who had apparently caused the accident. Where had she fled to? Had she been drunk? Why did she run?

But none of that changes what seems to be the real reason Choate died -- he hadn't been wearing a helmet. These are not easy things to say, especially when there's such an obvious scapegoat involved.

Police say Shannon Michelle Garcia, of Gainesville, had run away on foot after she rear-ended Choate's motorcycle with her Ford Fusion SUV -- all but condemning herself in public discourse -- and, what's more, there were accusations that she'd been drinking. The guy she'd been dating, Robert Maddux, told police they'd been downing margaritas at a nearby bar and she was not safe to drive.

So it's been easy to blame Garcia, who was arrested Monday afternoon, police told Hair Balls, at a Gainesville hotel. Those who commit crimes always run, public reasoning goes. If she hadn't done anything wrong, why had she fled on foot (while her boyfriend stayed behind) all the way north, past Dallas, to some hotel?

But blame in this tragedy isn't zero sum. And though the inherent nature of counter-factuals precludes definite conclusions, there's a real chance Choate would still be alive right now if he'd been wearing a helmet. He died of blunt impact trauma, skull fractures and a hematoma inside his brain.

"There's no way to tell if his injuries would have been lessened," if Choate had been wearing a helmet, said Tricia Bentley, spokesperson for the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. "But I do think you make a good point about the importance of wearing a helmet. It's always a good idea."

It's more than a good idea. Every year, 4,500 people die in motorcycle accidents, according to studies by the Governors Highway Safety Association. The number of motorcyclist fatalities has doubled since the mid-1990s, but helmets have shaved those numbers by thousands. In 2006, more than 4,800 people died in motorcycle accidents, but protective headgear saved nearly 1,700 riders, reports the Network of Employees for Traffic Safety.

This Saturday, friends of the lighting artist will gather to remember Choate, friend Kevin Holden said. His death has devastated Houston's artist community, and as anger threatens to supersede sadness, the simplest target will be Garcia, who's still awaiting extradition back to Houston.

This is warranted, especially if it's determined she'd been drinking and had disappeared to avoid punishment. Especially if her boyfriend's stories are true. But, in perhaps the saddest twist, some anger must be reserved for Choate himself. Maybe if he'd worn a helmet, he'd still be dead. But then again, maybe he wouldn't, and his children would still have a father.

Our apology for this item, which certainly could have been handled better.

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