Why Do I Have To Wear A Helmet?

There are those who would argue against the mandatory wearing of a motorcycle helmet and there are those that would argue in its favour…and there are those who just do what the law requires of them and never question the helmet law rationale.

Whilst both pro and anti lobbyists groups have valid points in their arguments, seldom is there a true factual representation of the purpose and performance of the helmet.

The Pro Lobby will quote about percentage lives saved in the region of 35 – 40%, or helmets save lives, or helmets prevent head injuries, etc. 

The Anti Lobby will quote personal freedom and freedom of choice, reduced vision and reduced hearing, reduced hazard perception, helmets do not save lives, etc.

Between the two opposing camps and the polarised views therein lies the ‘truth’ or rather the facts.

If we consider what is the function of the helmet, how does it perform, what are it’s limitations and how that relates to injuries!

The helmet is made to withstand certain impact forces and depending in which region or country you live in will determine to what specifications and performance standards are met. Each modern helmet is made of a hard outer shell and padded lining, each made of varying materials that have performance qualities which absorb and dissipate impact forces which will minimise those forces being transferred to the head. 

Some helmets are allowed to be sold and worn whilst riding a motorcycle in a particular region, but not in others due to different testing and performance standards. E.g. Some shell only type helmets or helmets that cover the top of the skull only are not permitted to be worn in Europe, whereas they are permitted in certain regions of the USA and other countries.

The helmet when purchased from an approved retail outlet should have met the testing & performance standards of that particular region. When purchasing from a non approved outlet or buying a used helmet, there is no guarantee of any testing or whether the helmet has been damaged in any way.

The price of an ‘approved’ helmet has more to do with comfort, style, design, sound proofing, etc, as they will all have passed a particular standard in order to be sold. Whilst there are differences, there will always be a minimum standard that all helmets will have met, so that the rider can be confident that the helmet will perform and protect in certain conditions.

Any time a helmet receives an impact, the integrity of that helmet is called into question, hence best practice is to always replace any helmet any time it has been involved in a collision or has been dropped from a substantial height. During any collision, the helmet will resist impact forces being transferred to the head, however in doing so the helmet may suffer noticeable damage or hairline damage, which will not enable the helmet to perform in the same way the next time it is required to do so.

Helmets work in two basic ways: To protect the head from lesser impacts & to minimise greater impact forces to the head. Helmets will have a total protective standard at very low speeds, low angle impacts and collisions with low density objects. This protective standard starts to dramatically reduce when speeds increase and impact angles increase and the density of collision objects increase. When these factors increase the structural integrity of the helmet is decreased and more impact force will be transferred to the head which may mean that the helmet may minimise the impact force, however it may not have been minimised enough to prevent minor or severe injury to the head, which may mean a temporary or permanent head injury or a fatal injury.

Depending on the particular helmet design will determine how that affects the rider’s forward and peripheral vision. Designs have changed over recent years with improved peripheral vision, and scratch resistant and anti fog visors. There is a noticeable difference between full and open faced helmets with reference to peripheral vision, with open faced helmets providing more but sacrificing chin and facial protection.

A correctly fitting helmet should be comfortable and snug around the skull and should not move or rotate. Many head injuries occur when helmets do not fit correctly, which result in the helmet moving which either creates a minor head injury or it does not absorb and dissipate the force properly which is then transferred to the head. Helmets that do not fit correctly or which are not secured properly with the retain strap are also likely to, and do actually come off during an accident. The naked head is then exposed to a potential collision which can result in a serious life threatening injury, and this type of injury is a real scenario that sometimes occurs.

When wearing any kind of helmet, there is a barrier form to sound, therefore hearing will be slightly reduced. More expensive helmets will tend to have greater sound proofing qualities but still that should not interfere with the rider being able to effectively distinguish between exterior sounds. However a rider should use a combination of a 360∘scan with use of mirrors and shoulder checks to compensate for the slightly diminished hearing.

If we consider probabilities rather than certainties then the helmet ‘may’ protect, with a high probability, from low impact forces e.g. Up to approximately 20mph. The protection probability starts to reduce thereafter as speed increases. If a collision occurs at 60mph then the impact force to the head is minimised but an injury may still occur and this may prove to be a fatal injury.

At higher collision speeds, with solid objects and at a higher angle, not only severe head injuries, but also injuries to neck, spine, internal organs, limbs or injuries resulting in catastrophic internal or external blood loss. Therefore a temporary or permanent life altering injury or fatality may occur to another part of the body other than the head.

What is the probability of having an accident and what is the probability of a head injury if the helmet is not worn? 

In general terms when comparing the accident statistics and the number of motorcycles in use and the number of road miles travelled then the actual percentage probability of being involved in a motorcycle accident is in the very low percentile…somewhere in the region of less than 1% This figure will vary slightly depending on region and country, numbers of motorcycle use, licensing requirements and training, infrastructure quality and traffic densities etc. i.e. there are many other factors involved. However, accidents do happen in many thousands each year in every region, so although the percentage probability is low, the actual numbers are very high.

Although every motorcycle accident does not result in a fatality or result in a fatality caused by a head injury, there is a high probability that during the accident the head will have a collision of some kind. If a helmet is not worn then even a collision at 15mph or less may cause a severe head injury or fatality. Indeed anecdotally, the majority of motorcycle riders, that I have attended in over 10 years of responding to motorcycle accidents, there has been contact made with the helmet. Either there has been a scratch, scuff, some marking or a noticeable damage that has resulted in either the rider having a head injury or not having a head injury.

In these instances, if the rider had not been wearing a helmet, then undoubtedly the rider would have suffered a head injury of some kind which may or may not have been fatal.

In summary, there is a relatively low probability of having a motorcycle accident and high probability of sustaining some kind of injury. There is a relatively low probability of suffering a fatal injury, however there is a high probability of sustaining an impact to the head if involved in an accident which may result in a head injury. The severity of that head injury will increase with speed and whether a helmet is worn or not. Life altering injuries or fatal injuries are not limited to those to the head, but to other parts of the body also.

What about personal choice and accepting responsibility for the consequences of potentially being involved in an accident. 

This is a point difficult to argue against! Riders, by and large accept the risks involved, however are not necessarily totally aware of the potential consequences.

It might be argued that at much slower speeds, the probability of having an accident reduces, however the highest percentage of accidents do occur in urban areas, although the highest percentage of serious injuries or fatalities occur in rural or semi rural areas. Even if involved in a low speed accident, the impact forces will be greatly reduced, therefore the requirement for protection will be less. This argument works well for general clothing and other parts of the body, unfortunately the head is very susceptible to damage from low impacts so it does require more protection.

It might be argued that by accepting the risks and consequences, a rider has the right to choose how they manage these risks and consequences. Again, this notion is hard to argue against, however a rider and other road user are perceived as the risk managers but the consequences move far beyond that and affect not only the rider, but also family, friends and society and community. Whilst an individual incident is largely  determined by the risk management of individual road users at a particular time, the risk management of the road is determined by local and state authorities…in terms of road infrastructure and safety policy, etc.

As an individual, a rider can improve their riding skills and hazard perception and adopt defensive riding practices which will reduce the probability of having an accident…but still accidents can happen! Sometimes a situation can unfold that a rider cannot avoid, regardless of skill and experience. How often have you heard of a rider who had…‘years of riding experience’, ‘was a fantastic rider’, etc. and still had an accident. Sometimes it is not the rider’s fault, it might be the result of a series of actions by another road user that caused the accident.

Many times the consequences are considered in terms of a recoverable injury or fatality which have social, financial and emotional implications. However, many accidents result in permanent life altering injuries to the body: loss of limbs, spine, torso, head, etc. Even injuries that are temporary may require lengthy periods of treatment and rehabilitation.

The social cost and burden on family, friends and society may mean that the ‘rider’s right to choose’ has resulted in a financial cost and burden of care on either the state, local authorities and family members. 

Whilst any rider has the right to choose to operate within the rule of law, Do they necessarily have the right to operate in a way that creates an unnecessary burden without taking precautions?

This is probably where the argument is less black and white! I suppose whether we agree with the road laws or not, the intention is that these laws are to protect all road users and to protect us from ourselves and to protect society as a whole!

The purpose of a helmet is to protect the rider from a head injury, however it will only work up to a certain point…it has a performance limit! The purpose of a mandatory helmet law is to protect the rider and society from the potential consequences.

Wearing a helmet should be considered as part of a safety package, along with padded jacket, padded trousers, boots, gloves, etc. The riding practices will determine the probability of being involved in an accident and the protection ‘may’ minimise injuries and the further consequences. The helmet is considered of particular importance due to the relative fragility of the head.

Should wearing a helmet be mandatory? Even with ‘real‘ facts there will be those who are against the helmet law, but do not necessarily disagree with the facts. The freedom is a more compelling argument than the realisation of any consequences. Even as I have written this, I have struggled with these polar arguments.

I have in my past ridden without a helmet…and it was a fantastic sensation and enjoyed every freedom loving minute of it, with all the associated superlatives. I have ridden off road without and I’ve had accidents, but luckily suffered no head injury…and it was luck! I have ridden on the road…but luckily did not have an accident!

Would I ride without a helmet again? I would not, but that is based upon accident and injury probability, my own personal comfort, and my experience of dealing with motorcycle accidents.

Do I think the wearing of a helmet should be mandatory? Yes I do! I believe in a safety package, I believe in taking necessary steps to protect myself from myself and from the consequences of an accident. The wearing of a helmet should not be seen as an infringement of personal choice or freedom, but moreover should be seen as something that protects you as an individual and the consequences for all and protects your future choices with a capacity to make them!

Are you convinced? Do you believe the facts and the probabilities? Do you believe a helmet will affect your freedom and freedom of choice? Does a helmet protect you and your freedom?

Does the freedom of choice outweigh the risk of consequence? For some it will, for some it will not!

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