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The History of the Motorcycle Helmet

Close up to an attractive woman wearing a motorcycle helmet to illustrate motorcycle helmet history

Motorcyclists may have varying opinions about the mandatory use of helmets, but no one will disagree that the right safety gear can save your life or prevent worse injury, maybe none more so than a motorcycle helmet.  Helmet technology has largely improved over the last fifty or so years, and they provide much better coverage and protection than ever before.

You’ll be hard pressed to find an insurance company that doesn’t emphasize the importance of safety gear, and most importantly a helmet, especially since research has shown that head and medical injuries are largely reduced or prevented when wearing a helmet and other protective gear.  Also, if you’re injured as a rider, even if you’re insured, it may increase the motorcycle insurance cost and monthly premium since it is more expensive to cover additional medical expenses in addition to property loss or repair.

Years ago, when motorcyclists were injured, they had to pay for all costs out-of-pocket — this may have been the start to push the idea of vehicular and motorcycle insurance to slowly develop as a way to help cover those expenses. The motorcycle insurance cost would be offset if the rider ever experienced a crash and had to recoup costs for damage or injury. In present times, it’s mandatory for riders to have motorcycle insurance.
Protective gear for motorcyclists, such as heavy riding boots, pegged breaches, and short coats, started emerging after World War I when motorcycles were used extensively in the military.

It wasn’t until the need for head protection was brought to the public’s attention after the tragic death of the celebrated war hero and famous British soldier, T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Dr. Hugh Calms, the neurosurgeon who saw Lawrence after his infamous motorbike crash and treated him for his injuries, was supposedly so affected by his death that he started to research methods to help protect motorcyclists’ heads.

In 1953, another man also came up with an idea for a helmet. Professor C.F. “Red” Lombard of the University of Southern California developed and also submitted the first patent for a motorcycle helmet that had an internal layer, which was intended to absorb and lessen the impact on the head. However, early prototypes were ineffective.

The earliest enhancements to first helmet designs pertained to the shape and method of keeping it on the rider’s head.  As technology improved, better materials allowed more layers to increase strength and durability while keeping the weight from getting too heavy.  And as computer testing developed, lab tests and experiments allowed manufacturers to provide more information regarding helmet quality and effectiveness.  It would take years of research, experimentation, and new materials to bring about the Kevlar, carbon fiber, and plastic helmets we have today.

Throughout the decades, research also emerged in favor of mandatory helmet laws, also supported by motorcycle insurance companies, to lessen deaths and injuries.  Some studies say that when not using a helmet, brain injury occurs as much as 4.3 times as often.  In 1966, The Highway Safety Act passed in the U.S., and this greatly pushed the movement for states to mandate helmet laws so they could receive federal funding for highways.

Though most states have some type of protective gear law for motorcyclists, it’s still not implemented everywhere, and it will vary greatly state-to-state, so before you head out on a long cross-country ride, be sure you know about them – otherwise you may end up having to pay a large fine.

Also check to make sure that you have adequate motorcycle insurance coverage, you may need to update your policy before traveling on your motorcycle outside of your home state.  Currently, 19 states have laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear a helmet; these are known as universal helmet laws; only three states, including Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire, have no helmet use laws.

Although helmets may not be mandatory, consider that that more than fifty years of research and testing have brought about that strong lightweight design that can stand up to tough impacts, and also to prevent punctures to prevent death and greater injury, Doesn’t it seem to be worth the trouble of strapping it on your head? Come on, the helmet has come a long way!

Do you think current helmet laws are too tough or not tough enough?  Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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