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Glad they were wearing helmets

Sgt. Jesse Grabow inspects the dented and scratched helmets of Todd and Nancy Pearson, who survived a motorcycle vs. deer accident in northern Becker County thanks to wearing their helmets. BRIAN BASHAM/TRIBUNE

In the words of Becker County Deputy Sid Canham, you never see anything good at the scene of a motorcycle-deer accident.

He was the first law enforcement officer on the scene after Todd Pearson,  a state trooper who was motorcycling on Becker County Road 37 in his off time with his wife, Nancy, hit a deer.

For Todd, it meant five broken ribs, a punctured lung and a bruised liver. Nancy suffered a nasty road rash.

But the Aug.  24, 2011 accident could have been a lot worse. Both happened to be wearing helmets that day, so it was the dented, scratched helmets, not their heads, that took a beating as they rolled and slid along the highway after hitting the adult doe broadside.

“I’d either be dead or in a nursing home,” if not for the helmet, he said Thursday, after he was given the Saved by the Helmet Award at State Patrol headquarters in Detroit Lakes Thursday.

The scary thing, for motorcyclists who like to think they can handle anything that comes up, is how quickly it happened.

“It jumped out right where they were at,” said Scott Morinville, of Brooks, Minn., a brother-in-law of Nancy who was riding behind the Pearsons that day.

“The deer jumped right in front of them,” he said. “It came out, stopped for just a second, then jumped right in front of them.”

The motorcycle went down and the Pearsons slid a long way on their backs, then started tumbling along, he said.

The crash happened at about 4:45 p.m. on a sunny, windy day near Highway 113 in northern Becker County.

You never know when a deer is going to jump out in front of your vehicle, day or night, Canham said, speaking from personal patrol experience.

In a way, the Pearsons were lucky, they had other motorcyclists with them to call for help, and firefighters from Elbow Lake and Tulaby Lake came on the accident scene almost right away. They were on their way to a disaster drill in Osage.

They secured the scene and handled traffic control. Both Todd and Nancy Pearson remained conscious throughout the ordeal. Todd remembers being terrified that they would be run over lying on the highway, and with an adrenaline rush he went to Nancy and got her off the roadway before collapsing.

“I thought Todd was dying, he was spitting up blood and choking,” Scott said. “I was on the phone the whole time with 911, they wouldn’t let me hang up.”

Todd was airlifted by North Memorial Air Ambulance Service (which has a base in Bemidji) to Essentia Health hospital in Fargo, where he remained for six days.

He still marvels at how fast it happened. “We were just driving along, just cruising easy — you’d think there’d be time to stop,” he said.

He and Nancy were riding their 2006 Victory Freedom V-twin, the first of three motorcycles in their group.

Brother-in-law Scott and his wife Judy were behind them, and Scott’s nephew was behind them riding solo.

“The deer came right to left, I saw a brown blur,” and hit the brakes instinctively, Todd said. “I just remember the sound of hitting it. Then we were on the ground.”

“I’m glad it happened to us, not them, Nancy added. “Scott didn’t have a helmet on.”

Helmets aren’t required by state law, except for those with motorcycle learner permits.

The culprit in the Pearson’s accident was a full-sized doe, followed by a year-old fawn. “If you get a suicidal deer, what do you do?” Nancy said.

Todd has been a trooper for more than 30 years, based out of Fosston. He said he used to motorcycle often in his 20s, and picked it up again a few years ago.

Motorcycle season is just starting, and Captain Bruce Hentges of the State Patrol in Detroit Lakes hopes the cautionary tale will encourage motorcyclists to wear helmets and protective clothing.

“They (the Pearsons) made the safe choice, luckily,” he said. “It’s not so much the original collision, it’s when your head hits the road,” that serious injury or death often occurs, he said.

“We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Nancy said. “If you’re going to ride motorcycles, you’ve got to dress for it.”

She was wearing a vest at the time of the accident and Todd was wearing a sleeveless Sturgis shirt, and suffered serious road rash abrasions — he very nearly had a shoulder tattoo removed the hard way, he said. “Road rash hurts — for a long time,” he said.

“That Sturgis shirt was only two weeks old,” Nancy said. “He was more upset about the shirt than the bike — the bike can be fixed,” she said with a laugh.

The Sturgis shirt, which was cut off Todd by EMS workers, has since been mended, and the two always wear helmets now and full protective clothing, no matter how hot it is outside, Nancy said.

She thanked Lt. Chuck Backes and trooper Joan Kunz, in particular for all their help during and after the accident.

“It really hit home that we are part of the State Patrol family,” she said. “I still choke up about it,” she said.

The Pearsons beat some grim statistics – over the last three years in Minnesota, 16 of the 19 fatal vehicle-deer crashes have involved motorcycles, said Jesse Grabow, information officer for the State Patrol in Detroit Lakes.

“Which is why we definitely encourage helmets,” Grabow said.