The Motorcycle Helmet Law in the UK – Background
Forty years ago, the “Motor Cycles (Wearing of Helmets) Regulations 1973 (S.I., 1973, No. 180), dated 7th February 1973”, was enacted – the statutory instrument came into operation on 1st June of the same year.
On April 5th 1973, the order for this regulation was debated in the House of Commons, with members from either side taking opposite views. Many considered this as a gross infringement of personal liberty.
However, during World War II, Dr Hugh Cairns, a consulting neurosurgeon to the British Army, recommended mandatory helmet use for British Service dispatch riders, who carried instructions and battle reports between commanders and the front lines via motorcycles.
This recommendation was accepted by the British Army and crash helmets became compulsory for all army motorcyclists on duty from November 1941.
Cairns first became concerned about helmet use after treating the war hero T. E. Lawrence—otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia—for a fatal head injury suffered during a 1935 motorcycle accident.
Lawrence of Arabia, Sir Hugh Cairns, and the Origin of Motorcycle Helmets – Click Here – pdf 825kb
On 31st May 1956, a motion was introduced into the House of Commons “(Helmets to be worn by Drivers and Riders of Motorcycles). After a lengthy debate, this motion was withdrawn.
New Clause.—(Helmets to be worn by drivers and riders of Motor Cycles.) - Click Here
However, six years later in 1962, in the Road Traffic Bill of that year, there was proposed (on Report) a new clause to give the Minister power to make an order such as the one (wearing of helmets), that had been made and was before the House.
Road Traffic Bill - Click Here
Evening of 1973
In the gallery at the House of Commons on that evening in April 1973, were motorcyclists listening carefully to the debate.
MP Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire South) opened the debate:
“I beg to move, That this House takes note of the Motor Cycles (Wearing of Helmets) Regulations 1973 (S.I., 1973, No. 180), dated 7th February 1973, a copy of which was laid before this House on 14th February. Perhaps I should say a word about the form of this motion. It started life as a Prayer against the statutory instrument requiring those riding on motor cycles to wear crash helmets, but before time could be found for it to be debated the 40 days applicable to a Prayer had run out.
(NB: known as an Early Day Motion – EDMs against statutory instruments are known as ‘prayer’ and generally the only type of EDM that leads to a debate.)
Accordingly, my motion has been transformed into one to “take note” of this statutory instrument.
That is the procedure to be adopted, but I assure the House that the last thing I want to do is to take note of this instrument. Since I consider that an important question of principle arises here, having moved that motion, I shall ultimately vote against it and invite my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite to adopt the same procedure of principle with me and to vote against taking note of this instrument, that being the only way in which at this stage after the 40 days have passed the House can indicate its dissent from the course that has been taken. (…)”
Enoch Powell was noted for his oratorical skills, and for being a maverick. He was a champion of this cause, his powerful intervention in the House of Commons in relation to his opposition to the compulsory wearing of helmets by motorcyclists argued in favour of individual freedom. Although he was not the only MP to oppose this regulation, he was certainly the most eloquent.
Herewith are excerpts from Powell’s intervention in the House of Commons that evening:
“We are told, first, that avoidable accidents—and nearly all accidents are in one sense or another avoidable—increase the cost imposed on the National Health Service. That is a fallacy, because the cost is not determined by the demands on the NHS but upon the supply, by what we decide from year to year to spend upon the Service. But then it is said—and the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss) said it in a previous debate—that it shifts the resources of the NHS from one sort of case to another. Of course we could enter into endless consideration of the reasons which brought patients to be treated under the NHS—all manner of avoidable accidents, unwise courses of life, unwise behaviour of every kind. Are we to make all these criminal offences because the consequences might be to divert the use of resources inside the NHS?
At other times the argument is broadened. We are told that every one has people who are dependent on him— most of us do—or linked with him humanly in one way or another, and that therefore we ought to create a criminal offence in order to punish a person for endangering the support or affectionate feelings of those with whom he is linked, or to prevent him from doing so.
The House must perceive how far we shall be taken if we embark upon that course. There is hardly a single decision which a man can take, certainly no important decision, no decision even about what sport to engage in, without affecting potentially the welfare of his family, the interests of his friends and the affections of those with whom he is linked. If we do this thing on such grounds, we shall be laying the basis for a series of new laws which will reach right into every act, every form of behaviour, every choice of the average citizen.
The last and the most beguiling argument—and I imagine it is the argument which operates upon those hon. Members who will reject my argument and that of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South—is that if this crime is created there will be fewer road casualties from this cause. That is the most alarming argument of all that could be used in this House of Commons: that because by doing so we could reduce the number of deaths from a particular cause—not deaths inflicted by other people’s carelessness, not deaths resulting from the omission of precautions which those who manufacture articles or sell them could have been caused to take, but deaths resulting from private and uniquely personal decisions—therefore we can make it a crime to take that sort of risk.
That argument is the most dangerous because it is the most beguiling. When one bastion after another of individual freedom, of independence, is breached, it does not happen in an unpopular context. It does not happen when the reasons for doing so are unattractive. It does so when sentiment and emotion and the feelings of all of us are engaged. None of us likes to contemplate the notion of a young man whose life could have been saved being lost because he was not wearing a crash helmet. Our first natural instinct and reaction, having legislative power in our hands, is to use that legislative power.
But that is where the danger lies. The abuse of legislative power by this House is far more serious and more far-reaching in its effects than the loss of individual lives through foolish decisions. I say just that and I repeat that, as a Member of the House of Commons speaking to the House of Commons. The maintenance of the principles of individual freedom and responsibility is more important than the avoidance of the loss of lives through the personal decision of individuals, whether those lives are lost swimming or mountaineering or boating, or riding horseback, or on a motor cycle.
We are sent here to make laws and to preserve liberties. If we allow this regulation to stand, we shall have failed in the duties we were sent here to perform”.
Motor Cyclists (Helmets) - Click Here
Reduction of Motorcyclist Fatalities
On March 1st, 1976, in the House of Commons, the Road Traffic (Seat Belt) Bill was debated for a Second Reading (and rejected).
On that occasion Enoch Powell returned to the issue of motorcycle crash helmets and used it as an example in order to defeat the proposed Seat Belt Bill. On this occasion, he provided evidence that the introduction of the helmet law made no difference whatsoever in the reduction of motorcyclist fatalities. He argued:
“There is one precedent, and only one in the strict sense, for what we are doing, and it is a significant one. I am referring to the legislation enacted under the previous Administration which made it a criminal offence to ride a motor cycle without a crash helmet. I believe that that was the first instance, and this proposition has not been shaken, when it was made a criminal offence (…).
That precedent in the matter of wearing safety helmets, which this House by about 55 votes to 15 decided to establish, is now being promptly followed. It is being followed within a matter of two or three years. But this will not be the end. These are by no means the only circumstances in which the failure of individuals to take certain precautions in their private lives entails all manner of risk to themselves and, indirectly, consequences which may be tragic upon others. There is the whole realm of sporting activity, such as mountaineering, boating, and so on, where there are precautions which ought to be taken, and which any sensible person will take. We shall be told presently that these, too, have to be regulated. It will not stop there, because it cannot logically stop there.
We shall be told, and rightly, that a man’s habits in life—smoking, the manner in which he conducts his life, indulges himself—affect materially his prospects of survival, as certainly they do. There will, therefore, be increasingly irresistible pressure, once we break through this barrier of principle, to envelop one area of personal decision after another within the criminal law. I believe, therefore, that it is of outstanding importance that, even though this principle has once been breached, it should be reasserted and upheld.
I fear I shall not carry the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South with me on this, but I should not fear to accept the loss of life which might otherwise, by the breaching of that principle, have been avoided. As I said in the debate on the wearing of crash helmets, many lives have been laid down, and are laid down, in order to maintain the essentials of personal liberty in a society living under the law.
Nevertheless, we ought in this debate not to be carried away with the projections and predictions of the Minister. In this context—I am not straying on to the merits—it is instructive to look back at what we were told on the first occasion when we breached this principle—in the matter of safety helmets.
The then Minister said: Our estimate”— that is the estimate of the Minister’s predecessors— taking all these figures into account”— that is taking into account the proportion of people who were already wearing crash helmets— and bearing in mind that there are no longer people of 16 years of age riding the larger motor cycles, is that some 300 to 400 deaths and serious injuries would be saved each year. One half of these casualties would involve teenagers.”—[Official Report, 5th April 1973; Vol. 854, c. 771.] It was under that advice, under the impression that the number involved was 300 or 400 a year, that hon. Members, in a thin House, decided in favour of the crash helmet legislation.
We can now apply a fairly rigorous test to the fulfilment of that prediction. On 29th November 1974, the Minister’s predecessor gave me the comparison between motor cycle casualties—deaths and serious injuries—in the 12 months before and the 12 months immediately after the wearing of crash helmets became compulsory. It is here that one has about as straight a comparison as one could hope to get, if one bears in mind the growth of traffic and the estimate, which was stated in the answer to my Question, that the number of motor cycle riders rose between those two years by 12 per cent.
Having noted that, we can make the comparison of the outcome with the prediction. The number of deaths, all ages, for the year before was 505; for the year after, the figure was 506. Of those under 20 years of age, the figure for the year before was 236, while for the year after it was 235. Let us consider the number seriously injured. The number of seriously injured, all ages, was up by 12’3 per cent., while for those under 20 the figure was up by 24 per cent. comparing the year after with the year before. If one takes both figures together, which I think is statistically objectionable, for the statistic of death is a statistic of a different category from the statistic of serious injury, one finds that the number of killed and seriously injured together was up by 11.6 per cent.
In other words, so far as one can judge the matter at all by the out-turn, the legislation had no effect whatever upon deaths and serious injury among those riding motor cycles. If it be said, however, that there is significance in the fact that the number of deaths remained static instead of rising by 12 per cent., and if we suppose that that effect was due solely to the wearing of crash helmets—which I think is clearly an extreme assumption—the number of deaths and serious injuries saved in a year was not 300 to 400, but 40.
So, with the best will in the world, the calculations which were genuinely intended to give the best possible guidance to the House, the advice which we were offered when we decided to establish this precedent, have turned out to be repudiated and refuted by the outcome, however generously interpreted.
I hear someone ask whether 40 lives are not worth saving. Of course they are; but I want to know what I am losing at the same time. If, to delay those 40 deaths, I have to assent to a proposition being established which can be applied successively in one area after another of personal behaviour, then I say, as hon. Members in this House and in generations gone by have said, that in the end the principle is what we are here to uphold, and we must not be distracted by the appeal to figures of casualties looked at in isolation.
I do not rest upon the statistics, though my own belief is that the estimates which the Minister with entirely proper intentions and entirely sincerely has been advised to give will probably be found to be grossly exaggerated. As legislators we are here considering what will be the cost in the future of legislation which makes it a criminal offence for a person to endanger himself in circumstances in which thereby he directly endangers no other person whatsoever. That is something which I believe the Legislature should not do”.
Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill - Click Here
Religious Exemption of Sikhs
Moving onto the Religious Exemption of Sikhs to wear motorcycle helmets, during the debate in the House of Commons in January 1975, the MP responsible for this bill was Sydney Bidwell MP for Ealing-Southall who argued that:
“In battle time the Sikh has never been called upon to discard his turban in favour of the war hat or tin helmet worn by other soldiers under battle fire. It has been known for bullets to lodge in the hair of Sikhs. No one would care if at that time a Sikh was not wearing a tin hat. So far as I know, right up to the present time the long hair and turban are freely accepted in the three branches of the British Armed Services. I cannot imagine that the true Sikh is ever told that his services are no longer required in any shape or form.
As citizens of the Commonwealth, many Sikhs from the middle 1950s onwards have come to the United Kingdom. They are hard working and are winning their way in British society. In the past, because of native prejudice and misunderstanding, they have had to struggle for the right to wear the turban, particularly at work. We have overcome objections to the right to wear long hair and the turban, notably in transport in the Midlands and in London. Some factory cases have been fought and overcome. Uniformed caps and helmets are not enforced against the Sikh’s religious belief”.
In November 1976, Her Majesty the Queen gave her Royal Assent to a Bill to exempt turbanned Sikhs from having to wear crash-helmets when riding a motor-cycle: The motorcycle Crash-Helmets (Religious Exemption) Act, 1976.
Motor-Cycle Crashhelmets (Religious Exemption) Bill - Click Here
Fred Hill was born in Yorkshire and spent the war as a dispatch rider before becoming a Mathematics teacher after the war.
Ian Mutch now President for life of MAG UK wrote about Fred Hill and explained his reasons for refusing to wear a helmet and the price this “freedom fighter” paid.
“(…) Fred’s involvement with MAG and the anti helmet law campaign began in 1976 after the Sikhs gained and exemption from the law. There were those at the time who were uncertain about Fred’s motivation, fearing that it might be racist, born of the resentment that an immigrant minority were enjoying preferential treatment. Those who met Fred, heard his speeches, and got to know him a little, were re-assured that this was not the case. If Sikhs did not have to wear helmets then nobody should have to although he rarely ever made any reference to the Sikhs’ preferential treatment.
While Fred’s personal campaign was passive, it was absolute, in that Fred never wore a helmet and never paid a fine. In consequence, huge number of summonses began falling through his letter box, when a journalist from the motorcycle press went to interview him in his home in Hayes, Middlesex.
Fred produced a sizeable suitcase packed with summonses that he kept as souvenirs, all unpaid. It was his refusal to pay the fines, rather than the helmetless riding offence, that led the courts to imprison Fred, the charge being the more serious one of “Contempt of Court”. Although he was always polite to the authorities that pursued and imprisoned him, Fred was totally unimpressed by people in high positions, and was never intimidated by them. On one occasion a woman magistrate was endeavouring to chastise Fred for breaking the law, to which criticism, Fred, implicitly referring to Emily Pankhurst and the female emancipation movement, replied, “if it hadn’t been for a woman breaking the law, you wouldn’t be sitting there now madam”.
Fred was sentenced to a total of 31 prison sentences over the eight year course of his campaign, sometimes for as little as twenty-four hours, rising to a maximum of two months, his final spell which he half completed in London’s Notorious Pentonville prison”.
Who Was Fred Hill? - Click Here
Forty Years On
Forty years on, all riders (except Sikhs) are required to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle in the UK and in fact in most countries throughout the world. Generally it is accepted that in a crash scenario helmets help to prevent injuries.
Few people of principle remain from those days in 1973 when the imposition of mandatory helmet use was felt to be unnecessary because the vast majority (88%) of motorcyclists wore helmets anyway and it was felt that this was an abuse of legislative power and removed the freedom of liberties.
The introduction of the helmet law in the UK was a defining moment for motorcycling because it established precedence for “safety” legislation for this form of transport. The latest of which has recently (2012) been enacted into law via the European parliament through the requirement for ABS brakes and mandatory headlights for these vehicles.
Trevor Baird was the General Secretary of MAG UK. He resigned in 2008 and in his farewell speech to the Annual General Conference that year, said:
“(…) the principle of MAG’s objection to the helmet law is not an umbilical attachment, but a philosophy that underpins MAG’s existence. Thus, every action we have taken, every action we should take, centres around this one fundamental principle. It’s not about whether you wear a helmet or in fact any form of protection, it’s about whether you choose to do so. It’s a way of life that I share with my friends and fellow riders.
The culture of safety and security eats away at everything we do and dinosaurs like myself, find it harder to explain that each of us must stand up and be counted. Helmets, protective clothing, leg protectors, electronic safety devices may or may not save us. Our wits and God’s favour might. But in the end, we must have the right to live our lives as we see fit, respecting our fellow man, but in freedom”.
Lawrence of Arabia and the Helmet Law - Click Here
Elaine Hardy, PhD