Dead or alive? You betcha! That’s been the question surrounding the use of motorcycle helmets for many decades. And the big question is: Whose choice is it? That’s what we’re going to explore here in this history of motorcycle helmets. We’ll follow the path of the laws through the years, along with the effects of those laws – from both sides. It’s an interesting controversy. And the fact that it’s still not settled, gives it even more significance.
The first motorcycle was reported to have been invented by Gottlieb Daimler in 1885. We don’t think it was built for speed – not like motorcycles today. And with speed not being a factor, nobody really thought of motorcycle helmets. But as people developed their need for speed, motorcycles were made to go faster.
Between 1931 and 1953, the American race for the fastest motorcycle was run by two competitors – Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycles. But as the speed of motorcycles increased, so did the number of accident fatalities. It was only then that University of Southern California (USC) Professor C.F. “Red” Lombard developed a motorcycle helmet designed to absorb the shock of an impact. Along with the layer of comfort padding in a helmet, this helmet also had another outer layer of padding that not only absorbed, but spread out the energy created by impact.
In 1953, Mr. Lombard applied for a patent for his helmet. This was the beginning of the development of the modern-day motorcycle helmet. The standard had been set, and helmet manufacturers quickly followed Lombard’s lead.
Since the first motorcycle helmet was introduced, safety agencies, many of them government, recognized the need for head protection for riders. The number of head and neck injuries was increasing, and the use of helmets had been proven to reduce this number. So the safety agencies lobbied for mandatory helmet laws.
One safety agency that wasn’t government-aided was the Snell Memorial Foundation. It was formed in 1957, in memory of William “Pete” Snell, a sports car racer fatally injured in a racing accident. His friends and widow formed the Foundation for the purpose of providing independent motorcycle helmet testing, with no bias to the government or the manufacturer. Their testing focused on performance, rather than materials and design. They’re now recognized and respected as the world leader in helmet testing. Every good helmet has a Snell sticker in it.
In 1958, the California Highway Patrol set an example by requiring their motorcycle officers to wear helmets. These examples weren’t limited just to America. For instance, in Australia, on January 1, 1961, the world’s first mandatory motorcycle helmet law was introduced.
Then the safety agencies really got into the act. In 1966, the American National Safety Standard for Motorcycle Helmets was introduced, requiring performance standards for helmets that manufacturers were obligated to meet. The following year, the U.S. federal government introduced the Highway Safety Act of 1966 that required states to have mandatory helmet laws if they wanted to receive federal funds for highway maintenance and construction. This plan had its desired effect – by 1975, 47 states had complied.
In 1974, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) introduced their Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 218 (FMVSS 218) for Motorcycle Helmets. These strict standards were mandatory for helmet manufacturers and every helmet was required to have a DOT-approved sticker inside. In 1997, the USC Head Protection Research Laboratories (HPRL) lobbied the government to upgrade the FMVSS 218.
But in 1975, for some reason, Congress withdrew the requirement and, within 3 years, half the states had repealed their laws. The number of motorcycle injuries and fatalities again rose sharply. What seemed to have been forgotten is that motorcyclists are injured or killed in over 80% of accidents. A motorcyclist is 21 times more likely to be killed, per mile driven, than a car driver. Wearing a helmet would reduce that risk by 29%.
Let’s take Louisiana, for example, one of the states that repealed their helmet law. In 1982, they reinstated mandatory helmet use, and the number of motorcycle deaths was immediately reduced by 30%. Those figures were reflected by many other states when they followed suit.
Throughout the controversy over mandatory helmet laws, helmet manufacturers did what they could to provide better protection to riders. In 1967, the first full facial helmet was introduced, providing improved vision. Stronger and lighter helmets were developed, giving motorcycle riders more comfort and more protection. In the 1970s, technology created an increased use of energy-absorbing materials and better eye protection.
But with all this new technology, there were still those who thought they were becoming more and more restricted by the new motorcycle helmets. “Freedom” was their cry, and they believed they had the Constitutional right to choose whether they should or shouldn’t wear a helmet. They argued that it didn’t affect anyone else if they were injured or killed in a crash. Well, they were wrong about that!
Many studies were done, measuring the effectiveness of motorcycle helmets, along with the effects of motorcycle crashes. The results emphatically proved that those who chose not to wear a helmet hadn’t considered a number of factors. For example, motorcyclists with head and neck injuries didn’t carry health insurance, probably for the same reasons they didn’t wear a helmet. So those bare-headed riders’ hospitalization costs were paid for by the taxpayer. And that doesn’t include the social ramifications of their accidents, involving family and friends.
Some other interesting statistics surrounding motorcycle helmet use were issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). They estimated that over $13.3 billion was saved between 1984 and 1999 from helmet use. And they said that another $11.1 billion could have been saved if all motorcyclists wore helmets. Another fact stood out – only 2% of all vehicles are motorcycles, but 8% of crash fatalities are motorcycle riders.
Now, only 3 states have no mandatory helmet laws. Many states require only minors (17-21 years old) to wear helmets, but this is hard to enforce. Only 20 states and the District of Columbia have all-rider mandatory helmet laws. What’s the message there?
Another sector of motorcyclists is increasing in number – what’s known as “Rubies” (rich urban bikers). This category of riders also has an increasing number of motorcycle fatalities. As people get older, they feel a stronger need for freedom, which includes the freedom to ride their motorcycles without a helmet. Again, the results speak for themselves – no helmets, more deaths.
In the U.S., the federal government can’t make national helmet laws because it’s under the jurisdiction of individual states, according to the Constitution. However, Canada doesn’t have that structure, so they have been able to institute a national mandatory helmet law. And it’s done its job. In 1973, there were 903 motorcycle fatalities in Canada. In 1997, with mandatory helmet laws in place, there were only 120. Does that prove the point?
Another positive development in Canada came in 1974, when the Canada Safety Council (CSC) introduced a Motorcycle Training Program called “Gearing Up”. It’s a voluntary program, but by 2001, 19,000 motorcycle riders had completed the course. 70% of all newly-licensed motorcyclists take this training program. In Quebec, motorcyclists are required by law to take the training program. In Ontario, training is voluntary, but there are incentives for those who chose to take it. So it seems that Canada is setting the best example. Keep up the good work, Canada!
That’s the big question these days for motorcycle riders – should you wear a helmet? The statistics lean heavily towards saying “Yes”. There will always be those who feel that their freedom is under attack, no matter what they’re doing. It’s up to the government to regulate those people. And, as we’ve seen, some state governments choose not to do that. And the results in those states speak for themselves.
But our job here, in this history of motorcycle helmets and their governing laws, is just to present the facts. The decision is yours. You do have that freedom (well, in some states, you do). But if you don’t want to end up as a statistic, you should follow the Canadian example and wear your motorcycle helmet. Happy riding!
Gareth Marples is a successful freelance writer providing valuable tips and advice for consumers. His numerous articles offer moneysaving tips and valuable insight on typically confusing topics.