Things that changed our lives: Helmets

The crash helmet, skid lid, bone dome, whatever you want to call it, it’s been part of any rider’s wardrobe in this country since 1973. But it wasn’t always like that. And it wasn’t always pretty.


Since the introduction of Bell’s open face helmet in 1954, little has changed in basic construction techniques over the past fifty years. Look inside any modern crash helmet and you’ll still find a polystyrene, energy-absorbing inner shell and a hard, fibre-glass laminate or ABS outer shell to resist hard impacts and abrasion.

From leather or sheepskin helmet caps at the turn of the last century helmet technology slowly progressed to cork covered in leather. Using tree bark as head protection might seem slightly nonsensical in today’s day and age but, back then, man made materials like epoxy resins and fibreglass just weren’t available. Commercially produced glass fibre didn’t appear until 1936.


Th e first fibreglass helmets adopted the rigid outer shell approach. Put simply, you can either build a helmet with a deformable outer shell or inner shell. The helmet’s end purpose is to defer the energy of an impact away from the head, much in the same way as a crumple zone in a car. So some part of a helmet’s construction needs to be deformable.

Enter the polystyrene inner shell. It’s designed to do its job once and once only. In an impact incident the polystyrene cells compress to spread the loadings and reduce the forces acting on the skull and brain. It’s for this very reason that a helmet is really a one-crash item. Once the inner shell has absorbed the impact it’s toast. Time to buy a new one.

Some helmets use just a single density of foam to form the inner shell but most high-end helmets will use multiple layers of different density polystyrenes, particularly in different areas of the helmet where loadings vary according to the shape of the shell and the shape of the head.

Polycarbonate lids take the opposite approach. The flexible nature of the material allows the outer shell to act as the energy absorbing part of the helmet’s construction. This technique lets the helmet’s designers specify a much harder inner shell.

Various methods of fastening have been tried over the years. Chin cups, press studs, belt and buckle, seat belt type buckles, strapless (GPA in the eighties) and the D-ring.

The D-ring has prevailed as the ubiquitous helmet fastener for two principle reasons, one: it’s cheap and strong and two: nearly everyone knows how to fasten it (apart from the very young). But more importantly, everyone knows how to unfasten it. This is most important when emergency workers and doctors are on the scene.


Yes, T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence crashed his beloved Brough Superior on a country lane near his cottage in Dorset. He lost control of the V-twin SS100 after swerving to avoid two boys on push-bikes who were obscured by a dip in the road. After spending six days in a coma, Lawrence died.

One of the doctors trying to save him was neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns. Profoundly affected by the experience, Cairns began research that would eventually lead to the use of crash helmets by both military and civilian motorcyclists.

Before this epiphany, helmets had only been worn to protect riders against wind and rain, much like those worn by early open cockpit biplane pilots. The military link probably goes back further. Helmets have been worn in warfare as early as Egyptian times and the link is patently obvious. When you need to protect your head, you wear a helmet.

Since the early leather skull caps, motorcycle helmets progressed using military technology. Cork helmets aside, the first lids to offer serious protection drew their style and construction from the first jet fighter pilot’s headgear. ‘Jet’ helmets were made from fibreglass, trimmed with flame-retardant leather and shaped to allow goggle and face mask use (not that oxygen starvation was much of an issue for bikers). The first jet-age helmet was Bell’s much copied 500 in 1954. It’s probably more famous for being worn by Steve McQueen than the technological advances it pioneered.

It wasn’t until 1967 that the full-face helmet made an appearance and the basic design has changed little since. Bell-Toptex inc launched their ‘Star’ model to an initially sceptical world audience but the idea quickly caught on, particularly in racing circles. Despite unfounded fears of decapitation the full-face helmet caught on a and stuck around.


Fred Hill died from heart failure in Pentonville prison aged 74. He was halfway through a 60 day sentence for refusing to recognise the 1973 compulsory helmet law. Fred had been jailed a staggering 30 times before for exercising what he saw as a basic right to ride his motorcycle dressed as he saw fi t. Fred’s shortest sentence was just 24 hours, which the court decreed could be served in the police cells. A sympathetic desk sergeant advised Fred that he wouldn’t be even be locking his cell and recommended to his prisoner: “When no one’s looking, just bugger off Fred.’”

Other officers were less sympathetic with one burly PC bringing a ludicrous assault charge against Fred back in 1978 when Fred was 68. The case collapsed in farce with the cop blubbing in court as the issue had caused him such stress.

A haughty woman magistrate once tried to talk down to Fred, a retired maths teacher and former WW2 despatch rider by berating him for his lawlessness. Fred reminded the woman that if it hadn’t been for others of her sex breaking the law years ago she would not now be sitting where she was. That earned him another seven days in jail. One man’s stand against the 1973 helmet law spawned a whole movement.

MAG (Motorcycle Action Group) backed Fred throughout his campaign. This riders’ rights organisation has never been against voluntary helmet use it simply resents people being criminalised for exercising choice. Fred stood resolutely for the core principle of MAG which is, if people are not harming anyone then leave them alone to enjoy motorcycles without trying to protect them from themselves.

It’s worth noting that there was no reduction in fatalities following the introduction of the helmet law in this country. In the USA a federal helmet law was passed in 1967 but 31 states have now repealed helmet laws for adults.

Ian Mutch MAG President and founder member


It’s a marvel of super-computing and the packaging is pretty remarkable but at 8% of overall body mass, it’s a heavy old thing.

On average, the human head weighs between 4.5 and 5 kilos and considering it’s only attached to the rest of the body by an area the size of your little fingernail, it doesn’t do rapid deceleration very well at all.

Neither does the brain. Even though it’s cushioned by a thin layer of cerebral fluid brains don’t take kindly to being pummelled against the inside of the skull.

Much safer to encase this fragile lot inside a colourful layer of polystyrene and fibreglass.


Th is is the government’s attempt to bring some continuity and consistency to helmet crash testing but it hasn’t been without its detractors. Using extensive European crash data to determine five specific impact test zones, SHARP’s initial set of results in November 2008 uncovered some surprise results.

Those companies who scored well were understandably pleased. You can guess how the other half felt. The results also pointed out that more money doesn’t necessarily buy you more protection.

Helmets are rated in a star system, five being the best.


Since 1973 you must wear a safety helmet when riding a motorcycle on the road. It is also law that the strap must be fastened. All helmets sold in the UK must either comply with: British Standard BS 6658:1985 and carry the BSI kitemark or UNECE Regulation 22.0. Any standard

accepted by a member of the EU which offers a level of safety and protection equivalent to BS 6658:1985 and carry a mark equivalent to the BSI kitemark.


Must have a BS4110 mark or the new EC Regulation 22 type 05 mark. A 50% tint is the darkest you’re allowed by law and even then it will be marked “for daylight use only”. Black or mirrored visors are illegal, Strangely, sunglasses are legal.


Sikhs who wear turbans don’t have to wear crash helmets if they ride motorcycles or scooters. In accordance with the Motor-Cycle Crash Helmets (Religious Exemption) Act 1976 passed by the British Parliament in 1976, Section 2A


It’s documented as one of the fastest crashes of all time and Shinya Nakano walked away. Nakano’s factory Kawasaki rear tyre broke up on lap 13 and spat him up the start/finish straight at Mugello at over 200mph.

“I didn’t feel anything – no vibrations, nothing”, said Shinya. “When I got highsided I thought I was going to die. I saw the wall coming and I just thought ‘oh no, not the wall’. I thought about Kato’s crash. Then when I stopped rolling I could feel my hands and my feet and I remembered everything, which is why I could race at Barcelona. If I’d lost my memory that would have been much more scary. But getting back on the bike at Barcelona was by far the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in racing.”

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