The Evolution & History of the Modern Motorcycle Helmet

Any motorcycle rider whose life has ever been saved by a helmet has Lawrence of Arabia to thank.

T.E. Lawrence was a British Army officer who earned his nickname for his role in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turkish Empire. He was involved in a motorcycle accident that resulted in severe head trauma, leaving him in a six-day coma before he passed away from his injuries. His neurosurgeon, Sir Hugh Cairns, was dismayed by the numerous deaths of motorcycle riders, particularly military messengers, and began studying a way to protect them from the kinds of head injuries that killed Lawrence. The result was the motorcycle helmet.

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Cairns was eventually able to persuade the British government to make helmets mandatory for military riders. Not long after, wearing a motorcycle helmet also became civil law in the United Kingdom, and it remains in effect today.

As for helmets themselves, they’ve gone through quite an evolution and numerous iterations since they were first invented.

Motorcycle helmets manufactured in the early part of the twentieth century seemed to focus more on style than safety. Often made of leather, they were thin and soft, not providing much protection from impact. Advertisements touted their ability to keep hair from getting dusty or grimy over any true safety features.

In the 1960s, helmets made with fiberglass shells and cork lining became popular, and offered a bit more protection than their predecessors. These helmets, while they did offer protection around the head, did not have any parts that wrapped around the face, any faceplates, or any eye shields. This still left motorcycle riders vulnerable to face and head injury from frontal impact.

It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that facial protection was added to motorcycle helmets, and became popular. This was due in large part to motorcycle and car racers like Kenny Roberts and Mario Andretti, respectively, wearing them in race events, and touting the helmets’ increased safety.

In 1981, the same company that designed the Porsche 911 also designed and manufactured a motorcycle helmet. It came in a fiery red, and advertisements pointed out how its aerodynamic design diminished drag better than other, more traditionally shaped helmets.

Today’s motorcycle helmets have the added benefits of science and government safety standards. Their construction is more advanced than ever, using the strongest and most shock-absorbing materials to protect the wearer from impact and head injury. Most contemporary motorcycle helmets are full-face, and include a visor to protect the eyes as well.

The U.S. Government has established standards with which motorcycle helmet manufacturers must comply, and which increase the likelihood of helmets saving riders’ lives in the event of motorcycle crashes. Helmets that comply with government safety standards have labels affixed at the time of purchase to let riders make informed buying decisions.

In addition, the Snell Memorial Foundation, a non-profit organization, conducts helmet safety testing, and publishes reports about their findings. The foundation was established in 1957, and remains an impartial consumer advocacy entity, helping to promote and encourage the continued improvement of motorcycle helmets, thereby increasing rider safety.

Helmet laws vary from state to state in the USA, but are a requirement in many parts of the world, like the UK. Helmet usage is a controversial subject for many riders who either swear by them or believe they impede their senses making the rider more dangerous on the road. Regardless of your personal opinion on safety, it’s difficult to deny that wearing a helmet can often mean the difference between life and death in the event of an accident.
Before you get on a motorcycle—or allow any of your loved ones to do so—consider wearing a helmet. It may just save your life.

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Noble McIntyre is the senior partner and owner of McIntyre Law, and a noted Oklahoma motorcycle accident lawyer.

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