Motorcycle helmet law
Road safety statistics | Motorcycle fatalities | Bike accidents | Sikh religion | UK law
If you ride a motorcycle on the road in the UK, by law you have to wear an approved crash helmet. Unless, that is, you're a member of the Sikh religion, in which case you're exempt—provided you wear a turban. If however you're not a practicing Sikh, like other motorcyclists you must wear a crash helmet.
Is this a fair and reasonable law? Well, we'll come to that in a few paragraphs, but first some facts.
As of December 2019, UK law states that helmets worn on the roads must comply with at least one of the following safety standards:
British Standard BS 6658:1985 and carry the BSI Kitemark
UNECE Regulation 22.05
An European Economic Area member standard offering at least the same safety and protection as BS 6658:1985, and carry a mark equivalent to the BSI Kitemark
However, there's a grey area here inasmuch as ancient crash helmets are still considered by many as legal, provided they were legal at the time they were manufactured and issued.
So if you've been wearing the same helmet since the 1960s or whatever, you can lawfully continue wearing it. That's the general (if dubious) consensus, anyway; a consensus that, as far as we know, has yet to be tested in a British court.
Presumably, the acid test is whether or not a Kitemark (established in 1903) is visible. Our jury's out on this question pending more information. But we ought to mention that if you're looking for even basic helmet protection, you need to upgrade to something new.
Introduction of the helmet law
The UK crash helmet law came into force on 5th April 1973. There had been previous attempts to introduce such legislation. These attempts followed years of grumbling about the dangers of not wearing a lid; grumblings that dated back as least as far as 1935 when T E Lawrence famously crashed his Brough Superior and died of head injuries.
But it wasn't until the 1970s when back bench words turned into front bench political deeds and the necessary (or is that unnecessary?) legislation was enacted.
The law requiring UK drivers and front seat passengers to wear seatbelts was introduced in 1983 (a full 10 years after the "crash helmet law"). In 1991, that seatbelt law was extended to rear seat passengers.
The common suspicion is that saving the lives of a relatively small number of motorcyclists was never really the issue with regard to the introduction of the helmet law. The belief is that the real target was British motorists.
However, the government (goes the thinking) recognised that there would be an unfeasibly/unacceptably large outcry against introducing a compulsory seat belt law, and so the legislators either tacitly or overtly agreed that any social objection needed to be softened up, if not neutralised.
Hence the initial targeting of the smaller motorcycling community which had (and still has) a higher death rate in percentage terms, but suffers considerably fewer fatalities in absolute terms. And so once the principle of compulsory safety equipment for some road users was established and written into law, it was socially and politically easier to widen the scope of that principle to include motorists.
Naturally, there was an outcry from the biking community, over 80% of whom voluntarily wore lids anyway (or 88% according to other sources). It was an outcry that continues to this day. That led directly to the founding of the Motorcycle Action Group (MAG) which, without success, has campaigned long and hard for the repeal of this law (although MAG does claim success on many other issues).
Objections to the helmet law
The principle grievance regarding the helmet law was, and is, one of fundamental human rights; specifically, does the government have any moral imperative regarding the introduction of rules designed to protect people from their own wilful and habitual actions, expediency, stupidity or indifference? In short, is it any of the government's business?
Some think not, and we agree. Logically, if the government is seriously interested in mandating safety laws that save the maximum number of lives, it also needs to look more closely at alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, the boxing profession, rugby, football, base-jumping, swimming, cycling and (of course) war—and not necessarily in that order. And there are many other human activities with a mortality rate higher than that of bikers.
However, some would say that the government is already on course to outlaw, or regulate, many other forms of currently acceptable human behaviour. This was something that the much-maligned and widely misunderstood Conservative politician Enoch Powell (image right) warned us of. And it was Powell who argued vociferously and passionately against the proposed compulsory helmet law and its impact on individual freedom of choice and expression.
Meanwhile, you might ask; "If the helmet or seatbelt laws are indeed morally justifiable, why do the laws apply only to bikes used on the public highway?" In other words, you can do whatever the hell you want to do on a motorcycle provided you do it on private land. Ditto for driving cars. But it makes little sense to ignore off-road antics, etc, if the object of the law is to prevent injury and/or death. And yes, enforcing such a law when motorcycles are on private land could be tricky. We recognise that fact. But then, the law of murder has to be enforced wherever the crime takes place. In short, problems with enforcement should not of themselves inhibit the construction of laws (although enforcement has to be taken into account).
As for Sikh exemption, it's hard to see why a relatively small religious group in the UK should enjoy special treatment when a much larger secular demographic is discriminated against. But then, it's long been recognised that "faith groups" (i.e. people with an irrational belief in an omnipotent deity) have enjoyed preferential treatment in numerous ways in all walks of life.
Certainly Sydney Bidwell MP (Labour, Ealing-Southall) had very biased views regarding this religious sect, members of which (quelle suprise!)populated a large part of his West London constituency. Bidwell was the politician largely responsible for the Sikh exemption by arguing (fatuously) that Sikh soldiers had served the Empire so well during various wars that special dispensation should be afforded them and their religious practices—never mind that millions of others had also served the military well but would henceforth be riding the Queen's Highway under a slightly different set of rules.
Meanwhile, it's not entirely clear that crash helmets actually do save lives. Yes, that's a highly contentious things to say. But there is an argument to be made in its favour.
Whereas it's true that crash helmets offer greater protection in the event of an accident, it's also arguable that a given accident might not have happened in the first place had the rider not been wearing a helmet.
For instance, helmets can be very uncomfortable and restrictive. They often cause problems with peripheral vision. The can be very hot during the summer months (and at other times of the year too) leading to a loss of concentration. They make motorcyclists appear more armoured which inevitably causes some road users to be more blasé about the guy or girl on the bike. Helmets occasionally trap insects, often directly leading to an accident. And then there's the issue of risk compensation.
Put simply, this concept suggests that the safer people feel, the more carelessly—or even more dangerously—they behave. Inversely, the more threatened people feel, the more they adjust their behaviour to offset that risk.
Consequently, you might happily accept a five pound note to bounce up and down on the bottom rung of a ladder with your eyes closed, but you might not be so keen to do the same thing sixty feet in the air. In other words, as you climb that ladder, so you automatically adjust your sense of risk. It's basic human nature.
Therefore, un-lidded riders might well ride significantly slower or more carefully than riders wearing modern crash helmets and body armour. And motorists might well treat such un-lidded riders with more caution (although cyclists might have something to say about that).
So if you want people to be safer on the road, logically you need to increase their sense of threat, not reduce it; hence the old jocular suggestion of putting a spike on every car steering wheel to improve road safety and manners.
So would the repeal of the helmet law actually save lives?
We don't know, and no one does. But we suspect that more bikers would in fact be killed. However, that isn't the point. The point is (a) that the government itself doesn't know the answer to that question either, and is therefore on shaky ground, empirically speaking, and (b) there's still the outstanding question of whether it's morally justifiable to protect people from their own actions, etc.
And yes, you might well show that since the introduction of the crash helmet law, motorcycle fatalities have decreased. Nevertheless, there are other factors here, such as improved braking, better tyre technology, better education for all road users, better lighting, ageing (and therefore more experienced) bikers on the road, and so forth.
However, you might also show that since the introduction of the helmet law, there are more bikers in lifelong vegetative states largely thanks to the ministrations of the NHS and a safety device that saved their lives, but otherwise pretty much left them for dead (and there are all kinds of related arguments here, not least the question of how much it costs to maintain people in long term NHS or social care when compared to the costs of fatalities—and we are aware of how grim the possible conclusions can be).
So should you wear a motorcycle crash helmet or not?
The simple answer to this is that we would, all the time. But that's a personal choice based on the fact that we're all cissies here at Sump and don't want to get our hair mussed. Also, we don't want any kind of head injury, even a small one. So we err on the side of caution. That said, we'd like to have the choice rather than have the nanny state tell us how to dress and penalise us for non-compliance of a law that has little moral underpinning.
Of course, the government might state that it has a moral duty to protect people. But as stated a few paragraphs earlier, that argument doesn't stand up to much scrutiny if you look even casually at other forms of human behaviour or habits that haven't been targeted by restrictive legislation.
And if you accept that the government does indeed have a moral right (or even obligation) to protect us against our wishes, you also have to accept any number of other "safety" items such as reflective vests, armoured jackets, armoured gloves and boots, and so on. Put another way, if you surrender once, it's total surrender.
So should you wear a helmet? Well ask yourself that question, but it's a moot point because you have no choice, legally speaking, if you want to ride a motorcycle on the road.
Could the helmet law be repealed?
We think it's possible, albeit unlikely. The law now has deep roots, and it would require a huge effort and a dedicated and very effective champion to overturn the existing legislation. And currently (as of 2019), there are few libertarians around with biceps of any size.
To challenge the helmet law, it might also be necessary to target the seat belt law. And although there's much evidence that seat belts (like air bags) occasionally cause even greater injuries (and even death), we suspect that most people today are so used to belts and happy with them that the question of freedom of choice simply isn't an issue.
Meanwhile, you might want to consider this; given that the government is well aware that a given number of people will die because they wore seat belts (car fires, driving into canals, etc), there could be scope here for legal challenges that argue that the government has failed, or is failing, in its duty of care. Can you think of any other area of British life where people are compelled by law to do something that might kill them?
Beyond that, the government would need to find plenty of parliamentary time to thrash this one out, and would probably decide that there are more votes to be lost than won. So it looks like GAME OVER for the seat belt law and the helmet law. But then again, it's conceivable that a new age of libertarianism might some day take hold, and if and when that happens, the anti-compulsion lobby will be ready to strike.
So where will you stand?
Check Sump's Classic Bikes For Sale page.
Check Sump's Classic Bike Guides page.
Copyright Sump Publishing 2019. Terms and conditions