As I was making my exit from a dinner party and about to pull on my full face motorcycle helmet, the dinner host, a man in his sixties whom I had just met that evening commented, “you know helmets give you a false sense of security and you are better off not wearing them.”
The dinner party, and the remark, took place several years ago when I was living in Honolulu, a city in a state where motorcycle helmets were optional. It wasn’t unusual to see motorcyclists navigating streets and highways in flip-flops and/or helmet-less. I remember that I was so surprised by his warning that I didn’t know how to respond. While I could sympathize with complaints about restrictions to vision, discomfort, and loss of sensation, it had never occurred to me that anyone could consider that wearing a helmet could be a hazard while riding. In fact, friends that thought I was taking unnecessary risks by riding a motorcycle as my sole means of transport always reconciled the worry with, “well at least you wear a helmet”. Was I misguided about my efforts to protect my head? Was there truth to this distrust of helmets? Or was it an obsolete notion reminiscent of motorcycle helmet technology from decades ago?
Delving into the history of motorcycle helmets reveals that a tragic accident suffered by T.E. Lawrence, the original “Lawrence of Arabia”, in 1935, eventually led to his death after several days in a coma. His passing inspired the work of Hugh Cairns who published a study in 1941 to evaluate the potential for helmets to reduce head injuries. The commercial popularity of helmets became more evident after a number of early patents disclosing improvements to helmets for motorcycle riding were published in the late 1950s and throught the 1960s. For example, one of the earliest patents, U.S. 2,991,478, describes the addition of ear flaps while U.S. 3,548,410 teaches the addition of a face shield. Numerous studies showed the effectiveness of helmets in protecting riders and in 1966, the Highway Safety Act was passed that required states to mandate the use of helmets in order to receive federal funding for highways. However, this mandate was not necessarily well-received by motorcycle enthusiasts and two years later, Michigan revoked the mandate, the first of a cascade of repeals across the country.
This resistance to the motorcycle helmet mandate appeared to arise primarily from riders interpreting the regulation as governmental intrusion on their enjoyment and freedom while pursuing what many considered to be a hobby. Safety concerns did not seem to be an especially important factor in the objections to helmet requirements. However, a study published in 1973 may have fueled a more safety-oriented argument against helmet wear.
An Aug. 18, 1973 issue of the Evening Independent, the first daily newspaper reporting from St. Petersburg, Florida, included an article claiming that motorcycle helmets “may be preventing serious head injuries but also may be causing fatal neck injuries.” (read the article here: Evening Independent article) This was a statement from the National Transportation Safety Board relaying findings based on fatal motorcycle accidents in New York. The study cited “a 75% increase in the proportion of serious injuries to the neck” of riders protected by helmets. This increase was attributed to the 2-3 lb extra helmet weight causing neck strain, and encouraged a reduction in helmet weight and rigidity.
The results of the study have subsequently been debunked as a myth by researchers at John Hopkins University (John Hopkins study). Nonetheless helmet manufacturers have focused efforts towards lightweight helmets with improved protection since the Evening Independent article, as shown by the patenting of helmets designed with new materials or new configurations that reduce weight without compromising the strength and impact absorption of the helmet (U.S. 7,062,795, U.S. 4,038,700, U.S. 5,088,130). It seems that, while the 1973 article may have had the unfortunate effect of turning some individuals away from head protection, the report may have ultimately helped to initiate major improvements in motorcycle helmet design.