Dan Dutko didn’t wear a helmet on his last ride because it was such an easy ride. There were little kids and grandmothers on those trails. Besides, he didn’t like helmets anyway, and his friend Garry wasn’t wearing one.
Dutko was a Democratic party icon in the ’90s, rubbing elbows with the Clintons and the Gores, raising money for the DNC, and running his private lobbying firm. He was the quintessential Washington political celebrity, famous to the famous but too “insider” to be familiar to the rest of us.
In July 1999, he was in Aspen, Colo., for a party meeting, which President Clinton attended. He was supposed to get a ride home on a colleague’s private jet, but the plans changed, and he suddenly had an extra day to spend in Aspen. He called up his friend Garry Mauro, a Texas Democratic honcho. Mauro was into biking and suggested they go for a ride.
The ascent didn’t take more than an hour, but on the way back downhill, the weather turned cold and rainy. Dutko started to get nervous. He was afraid of heights and must have started to panic, going so fast on the slick mountain road.
“Everybody knows you’re not supposed to hit your front brake,” says Mauro. “When we rented the bikes, they made a point of telling us not to hit the front brake.”
“It was raining, it was cold, he was going downhill, which would have made him nervous,” says Dutko’s widow, Deb Jospin. “So he wasn’t at his best. But that’s why you wear a helmet, for when you’re not quite your best. Anyone can stay upright when everything’s going well.”
Dutko catapulted off the bike and hit his head on the road. Mauro says it didn’t look like a bad accident. “I thought he just fell and scratched himself up,” he says. “I expected to see Dan jump up and be OK.”
But Dutko was unconscious. He was taken to the Aspen Valley Hospital and then flown to the Grand Junction Trauma Center. The doctors told his wife to come quickly and pack for a long stay and that Dan would be in rehabilitation for at least a month. But they said they wouldn’t know anything for a couple of days until the swelling went down.
By the time she arrived the next morning, Dutko had taken a turn for the worse. They’d operated in an attempt to repair the damage on the right and left sides of his brain, but he then developed spontaneous blood clots, and the brain was irremediably swollen. They kept him alive long enough for his wife to arrive. Tuesday morning, they took him off the respirator. He died immediately. He had no ability to keep himself alive.
Anecdotes of helmetless carnage—like Dutko’s—tend to end with a common storyline of extensive, if sometimes brief, medical care. When uninsured bikers break their heads open, it’s often taxpayers who foot the bill. The public spent more than $1 million on Rico’s recovery. His family would never have been able to afford it.
According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, the “direct costs of cyclists’ injuries due to not using helmets are estimated at $81 million each year” while the “indirect costs of cyclists’ injuries due to not using helmets are estimated at $2.3 billion each year.”
Chuck Harney co-owns the Bike Rack, a fancy bike shop off 14th Street. He’s had some personal experiences show him the value of a helmet. He cracked one open last year in a bad fall. But the worst story wasn’t his. It happened to a person he was counseling.
Before opening the Bike Rack, Harney was a social worker. His client came to him with substance abuse problems. But he also had lasting brain damage caused by a bike accident. He hadn’t been wearing a helmet when his bike tire got stuck in the small groove in the street where the asphalt meets the brick gutter. “He couldn’t really speak,” Harney says. “His thought process was slowed down.” The depression and helplessness that resulted from the bike wreck led to his substance abuse.