The shocking truth: This is why you must wear a helmet

The nation hooted with laughter when James May strapped a colander to his head and biked the length of Vietnam.

The Top Gear presenter could have hurtled across the country sporting a pair of comedy underpants decorated with Jeremy Clarkson’s craggy features for all anyone cared. Developing countries have better things to do than fret about motorcycle safety, right?

Wrong. Official stats show that one motorcyclist dies on the roads of Vietnam every hour of the day, every day of the week, every week of the year. The real figure may be far worse. The latest research suggests the actual death toll on roads may be unreported by a staggering 30%.

In Vietnam the authorities made helmet-wearing compulsory as far back as 2001. The law was widely ignored, so in 2007 it was toughened up, at least 90% of adults now wear them. The ones that don’t are, children. A legal loophole means under-14s don’t have to, and the vast majority don’t. The slaughter on the roads continues.

Like Vietnamese Children many in the UK believed they too should be exempt from the rules. There was a storm of protest in 1973 when helmets were made compulsory. Hell’s Angels claimed it stripped them of their manhood. Mods claimed it was a fashion disaster. Some said helmets were constricting and therefore dangerous. Sikhs argued, successfully, that it was incompatible with their religion, and were exempted.

Many maintained and continue to believe the issue should be a matter of personal choice and freedom. Mr May certainly thinks so. He usually wears one himself but doesn’t think he should have to, and is heartened that the fixed penalty fare of just £30 is so low. He once struck a £100 bet with Mr Clarkson that he couldn’t drive from his Hammersmith home to Piccadilly Circus lid-free without being pulled over by the police. His view is a simple one – it’s my head, it’s my business.

Is it? Victims pay a heavy price, but others count the cost. Every year UK taxpayers cough up around 100 million pounds to cover the medical costs for victims of motorbike personal injuries who have sustained head or brain injuries. Around 80% of all motorbike accident fatalities result from head injuries, according to the DoT. Many thousands of the survivors require lifelong care following their accidents, with insurers paying out hefty sums for loss of earnings and personal injury claims. Why not check out our compensation calculator and see how much personal injury claims are worth.

Stats Speak Volumes

So does wearing a helmet save lives? It’s surprising the debate is still alive, given the evidence is piled high.

  • 362 motorcyclists were killed in 2011
  • Extensive studies in the UK show that helmets reduce the risk of incurring serious head injuries by 69%, and death by 40%.
  • Motorbike accidents account for a modest 1% of the UK’s annual road traffic accidents, but they are responsible for a staggering 20% of all deaths and injuries.
  • Motorcyclists are 40 times more likely to be killed than any other road user per mile travelled.

Are these figures unexpected? Hardly, given the lack of protection afforded to motorcycles – no seatbelts, airbags or crumple zones. Promisingly, fatalities in the UK are decreasing by an average of 10% each year and Scotland accounted for the smallest number of minor incidents – 491 compared to London’s 4,454.

Any Old Helmet Won’t Do

James May’s attitude to helmets hasn’t convinced any politicians and UK law still requires bikers to sport them. In fact each and every helmet sold in the UK must undergo rigorous tests to meet British safety standards. Helmets decorated with the British Kitemark or European equivalent are road safe – strictly no colanders.

Helmets vary in all manner of things; quality, price, shape and size, but the most important thing to check is its fit. A comprehensive study taken from across Europe showed that 12% of helmets were actually lost on impact. What’s the difference between a one-star helmet and a five-star helmet? Nothing, if it doesn’t fit properly.

Those who remain unconvinced by the stats are in for a shock. Since the 1980’s it’s become commonplace for insurers to reduce damages by up to 25% on the grounds of contributory negligence. Although each incident is circumstantial, and more often than not motorcyclists suffer at the hands of reckless car drivers, helmetless bikers will always pay the price. Physically and financially.