Should Motorcycle Helmets Be Banned?

When it comes to the motorcycling community there is a general split of opinion between those who blindly believe that the helmet law should be kept and those who believe it should be repealed…and the middle ground is categorised by those who might generally believe wearing helmets is just a sensible thing to do.

Motorcycle injuries and fatalities can be a highly emotive issue and whenever motorcycle protection is discussed, it is either hailed as life saving or had no tangible benefit to the rider…usually those who later or instantly succumbed to their injuries.

In 1973, the UK implemented the mandatory wearing of motorcycle helmets for motorcycle and scooter riders and those of the Sikh religion are only exempt due to wearing of their religious head wear.

The law was much vilified and criticised at the time by many quarters and even to this day the Motorcycle Action Group commemorate the passing of Fred Hill who refused to comply with the law repeatedly. He was eventually imprisoned many times for unpaid fines and he later died in prison of a heart attack.

Some will say that the wearing of a helmet interferes with the rider’s vision and hearing but also acts as a barrier between the rider and the environment…which is viewed as a vital connection for the biker to maintain focus whilst riding.

Others will say that is merely a case of freedom of choice. The rider has the ultimate responsibility to make the choice whether they should wear a helmet or not, regardless of potential repercussions.

There is an undoubted benefit to wearing helmets of course. They have high protective performance at low speed impacts or low angle impacts or glance blows or sliding contact…however just as with any other kind of protective equipment, their performance dramatically reduces with higher speed impacts with solid objects.

Unfortunately as with most protective equipment, many riders will believe that the protection will save their life or minimise the extent of injuries, but the actual window of noticeable protection only really occurs at lower speeds. Anytime there is contact with a solid object, it is merely chance whether injuries can be survived…and let us not forget that the helmet protects only the head and not the rest of the body.

Wearing a helmet can cause hyper flexing of the neck during a crash and many fatal injuries are centred on internal organs rather than head injuries. When injuries are survived, many riders who were wearing protective clothing and equipment will hail their performance however they fail to recognise the impact dynamics which ultimately determined whether the injuries would be survivable or not.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, motorcycle clothing protects at low impacts and resists gravel or road rash. Boots, gloves and helmets act in a similar manner and their protective performance profile dramatically reduces as speed increases.

So the question is why wear a helmet in the first place if there isn’t any net safety benefit at higher speeds. Well actually there are lots of benefits to be had. The helmet will make the ride more comfortable and will shield the rider’s head from wind, rain and the cold and may offer some noise reduction which will help to reduce fatigue and improve concentration levels. However, the biggest benefit is really down the loading the chance bet. Even at higher speeds, if the helmet is grazing the ground, this will normally protect the rider from serious or fatal head injuries. At slower speeds it will resist smaller impacts and it offers some barrier even at higher speeds. Whether it functions to save your life is up for debate at that point and usually you are in the hands of the gods.

If the law was to be repealed in the UK, the overwhelming majority of rider would still wear helmets. Partly because of conditioning but also because of preferences too. There would also be a number who would try it out or just so at slower speeds and the percentage that would never wear a helmet would likely be small especially after future incidents would claim the lives of non helmet wearing riders.

Whilst there is a safety conundrum to consider, there is also the right to be able to make ones own decisions. However not wearing a helmet may incur a head injury during a crash or any flying debris whilst riding…injuries that may never have been incurred if a helmet had been worn, thus placing a greater burden on the emergency and health services.

The question is whether logically the law could be repealed and could our society trust motorcycle riders to ride wisely without helmets. It would be unfathomable to think that this would ever happen and perhaps rightly so…regardless of the impact of personal freedoms or any reduction in connection the rider may have with the riding environment.

Both arguments hold water and both have limitations too, however whilst I would agree that at lower speeds or in urban riding there might be a better case for not wearing them, it is at higher speed riding that the risk outweighs the personal infringement of freedoms. Sometimes the law must be in place to protect us from ourselves or from those who know no better.

It is the ‘What If’ that we must all consider…and whether we as a society are happy to take onboard this risk and the consequences of not wearing helmets too. There are many countries and states around the world that do not have helmet laws and there are not noticeable differences in accident statistics or injury rates either. The case for not wearing a helmet is a compelling one especially if the helmet does not protect at higher speeds and even if it makes for a closed coffin in the event of death. However the counter case for wearing a helmet is equally if not more compelling too.

The question is whether helmets should be banned? The continuation of that question should be…what is the benefit to motorcycling or to riders if helmets are banned? Whilst riders are able to ultimately exercise a quasi freedom of choice and potentially the connection with the riding environment might be improved slightly, there isn’t a safety benefit that is so stark that it becomes a compelling argument.

Pro ban lobbyists may offer up better vision and hearing that will improve hazard and accident avoidance but there is no getting away from the fact that any kind of impact to the head is likely to cause serious injury. So the point of the helmet is really to offer much better protection as slower speeds than riding without one.

If this was to ever be seriously considered by politicians, they would have to factor in the pros and cons of both arguments and regardless of position, there is no escaping the fact that the helmet will help to prevent or minimise head injuries in many cases…so for that reason alone, the law should not be repealed although I do maintain sympathy for the counter argument.

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