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The Motorcycle Helmet Law

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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 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.  

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 After a lengthy debate, this motion was withdrawn. 

However, eleven 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.  

In the gallery at the House of Commons on that evening in April 1973, were motorcyclists listening carefully to the debate.  

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.  

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.

The consequence of this exemption was that one man, Fred Hill was to provide impetus to the recently formed Motorcycle Action Group (MAG UK) to call for the helmet law to be rescinded.  

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.  

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...

Read the full in-depth article on Right To Ride

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