The Case for Motorist Helmets

Mikael Colville-Andersen
Nov 24 · 12 min read

Helmets for motorists have been invented — in all seriousness- in order to save lives and reduce serious injury. Almost 50% of all serious head injuries happen in car crashes. Why are motorists not forced to wear them? The science is clear.

Let me be frank. People who naggingly promote bicycle helmets or mandatory helmet laws either privately or publicly — but who DON’T simultaneously support helmets for motorists or even pedestrians — are no friends of urban cycling. They are tiresome pests. Singling out bicycle users with sanctimonious finger-wagging about head gear is destructive to the public health, irrational and unintelligent.

Let’s take a look at motorist helmets. First, I’ll highlight some historical examples of commercial helmets for motorists and then we’ll get to the science about why they are still a good idea.

The Motoring Helmet — Davies Craig— Australia, 1980's

The first model I came across a decade ago was the Motoring Helmet by Davies Craig, an Australian company that makes auto cooling equipment, who brought this product to the market in the 1980’s. We can just let their copy text on the box and in the instruction manual do the talking;

The box reads: “You have made a sound decision to purchase your Davies, Craig Motoring Helmet. Wear it and don’t feel self-conscious. Driving even for the most proficient is dangerous. Ultimately, motoring helmets will be commonplace, but in the meantime, you will be a leader whilst those who may consider your good sense misplaced, will follow.”

From the instruction manual we can learn these important tips:
“Davies, Craig recommends you wear your Motoring Helmet at all times when motoring but particularly at the following, documented high-risk times:

- After consuming any alcohol.
- When other drivers are likely to have consumed alcohol especially 4:00PM to 2:00AM Fridays and Saturdays.
- After dark and during twilight.
- In rain or when the roads are wet.
- During long trips when you may become tired.
- Within five kilometres of your home or destination.
- Christmas, Easter and long weekends.
- If you are aged under 25 or over 60.”

The motoring helmet was available globally and, according to this article, 500 were sold between 1985 and 1987.

The Buco Helmet Hat — USA 1960s

I recently came across the Buco Helmet Hat, produced in the US in the 1960’s by the helmet manufacturer Joseph Buegeleisen Co. of Detroit. “Looks like a hat… protects like a helmet”. As far as I can figure out, Buco primarily made motorcycle helmets but clearly saw the potential in marketing them for motorists. On the ads, above, it says, “…include 10 cents for helmet research report.

Buco Helmet Research Report 1964

If you want a copy now, you can get one, but I doubt it’ll be ten cents. Joe Buegeleisen took helmet research seriously and regales us with tales of Experimental Animal and Cadaver Research in the helmet report. Some of these are still available on the internet if you’re feeling all safety nostalgic.

Tretorn Car Helmet — Sweden, 1960's

At the same time Buco was selling motoring helmets in the States, Swedish clothing brand Tretorn — known for shoes and outerwear — proudly produced this “bilhjälm” or car helmet, starting in 1966. Different models were designed for men and women. In the newspaper clip above, at left, it reads “May 1, 1966 — the car helmet is introduced in Linköping”. In the middle, the magazine cover reads, “80% of traffic injuries are head injuries. Wear a car helmet!

That Tretorn launched their product in 1966 is no coincidence. Like helmet manufacturers before and since, they knew they could capitalise on fear to generate sales. On September 3, 1967, Sweden was going to switch the entire nation from driving on the left side of the road to the right side — from one day to the next, to align themselves with their neighbours in Denmark, Norway and Finland and the rest of Europe. They called it Dagen H — H Day — which stood for Högertrafikomläggningen or Right-hand Traffic Restructuring. There was a great deal of national trepidation at such a massive switch. Despite the government being extremely prepared — the 99% Invisible podcast has a great episode about it — nobody knew what would happen and many feared the worst.

In contrast to the other examples from the States and Australia, car helmets became much more of a thing in Sweden. Popular radio hosts like C.G. Hammarlund promoted them. The Swedish actor Mikael Nyqvist wrote in his 2009 book När barnet lagt sig (Just After Dreaming) that his whole family wore car helmets in the 1960’s as they drove around the country.

American test drive of a Soviet car — 1950's

The 1960’s were one thing. Traffic fatalities and serious injuries were skyrocketing all over the world. I’ve wondered what happened in Australia in the 1980’s to cause Davies Craig, for example, to start producing a new generation of car helmets.

I finally found a clue as to why in this Australian article by Alan A. Parker in 1989. It’s an interesting backward glance to the days when Australia were debating mandatory helmet laws — including, it turns out, car helmets.

“There is an embarrassing silence from the police and the police unions about their willingness to enforce bicycle helmet laws but, in the closing days of 1987, they went public with the proposal that motorists should wear helmets which they regard as a worthwhile change in the law that they are prepared to enforce.”

The Australian police went public in backing motoring helmets and mandatory legislation. A little piece of the puzzle falls into place. Helmets of all kinds were discussed in the 1980's, which explains why Davies Craig, like Tretorn in Sweden, decided to capitalise on the conversation and launch their product.

Alan A. Parker was a passionate cycling advocate and was battling against proposals for mandatory bicycle helmet legislation at the time. He suggested that bicycle helmets should and could be used by motorists and car passengers:

“The design rules for all new cars should be changed so that all new cars come with a complement of bicycle helmets with built-in clips to conveniently store them, on the back seats or under the dash board, so as to minimise the inconvenience to motor vehicle users. It is very difficult to take politicians and car driving safety experts seriously when they know so little about head injuries that they don’t wear a bicycle helmet in their own cars. I have been wearing a bicycle helmet for ten years because it protects me yet I have never seen any of the hundred or so big-mouthed helmet advocates, who don’t ride bicycles, wear a helmet in their car. I wonder why?”

Davies Craig, on the box, say that they had spent three years developing their motoring helmet so the subject must have been topical in Australia for quite a while to inspire a company to invest a lot of money in R&D and production.

The big-mouthed helmet advocates are still out there and still driving without helmets so little has changed on that front apart from the names and faces.

In the decade I’ve been writing about the issue of motoring helmets I have never heard any good excuse why we shouldn’t promote them. From anyone. Even the cycling helmet advocates avoid the issue like the plague. Even though the issue of motoring helmets could be the single-most potent weapon in the bicycle advocacy arsenal.

Almost half of all head injuries happen in cars

I know what you might be thinking. Now we have seat belts and airbags which magically render car helmets obsolete. Unfortunately not. To this day, almost half of all head injuries happen in cars.

Let’s move from the 60’s and 80’s into the new millennium. The Australian conversation about helmets continued through the nineties, culminating with a serious push for head protection for motorists from the Government itself.

A study was done in 2000 at the Road Accident Research Unit at the University of Adelaide entitled CR 193: The development of a protective headband for car occupants (Andersen, White, McLean 2000). The result of the study led to the prototyping of protective head gear.

The RARU (Road Accident Research Unit) headband prototype

Here’s what they came up with. The RARU headband. There was a discussion at the time about increasing the padding inside cars to reduce head injury rates but this headband would give better results.

CASR were investigating the benefits of padding the inside of a car, which is a legal requirement in some jurisdictions. They discovered that although the head may strike any of a number of places in a car, many of which would be difficult to pad, that about half of all serious head injuries occurred to the forehead, side of the head or behind the ears. From these findings CASR embarked upon a project to develop a headband which could protect these areas of the head in a car collision.

The Centre has been evaluating the concept of a protective headband for car occupants. In about 44 percent of cases of occupant head injury, a protective headband, such as the one illustrated, would have provided some benefit. One estimate has put the potential benefit of such a device (in terms of Reduced Societal Harm) as high as $380 million, compared with $123 million for padding the upper interior of the car. This benefit derives from the fact that in a crash, the head strikes objects other than those that could be padded inside the car.

Look at that number. A benefit of $380 million AUD in Reduced Societal Harm for Australia, which far outweighs the benefit of better padding on the upper interior of cars.

“Car crashes remain a significant source of head injury in the community. Car occupants have an annual hospital admission rate of around 90 per 100,000 population. Of drivers who are admitted to hospital, the most serious injury is usually to the head (O’Conner and Trembath, 1994).”

“The benefit of padding the head is that the head is protected from strikes with unpadded automotive components, exterior objects and in vehicles that predate any eventual introduction of padded interiors.” Not to mention smashing heads with other car occupants.

Let’s do some quick and dirty math. The population of Australia in 2000 was 19 million and the population of the US was 282 million. $380 million AUD is $257 million USD.

So scale that $257 million USD up to US population levels — car ownership numbers are about the same — and the benefit to Reduced Societal Harm would be over $3 billion USD in the States if all car occupants wore protective head gear.

The prototype they developed ended up being a headband covering the main impact points to the head in crashes.

“The results from Phase 3 indicate that a headband can greatly reduce the severity of an impact to the head. HIC was reduced by 25 percent […] when compared with an impact with no headband.”

On the middle illustration above you can see the RARU headband prototype covers 44% of impact points usually suffered by car occupants. The researchers go on to recommend further work on the subject:

“The results from Phase 3 indicate that a headband can greatly reduce the severity of an impact to the head. HIC was reduced by 25 percent […] with the use of 25 mm of BB-38 polyurethane, and 67 percent with the honeycomb cardboard prototype, when compared with an impact with no headband.”

“We recommend that further investigation is made into materials of a honeycomb structure to find a material of the correct crushing strength and durability. We also recommend that prototypes be developed further to be included in a testing program that would include other vehicle structures tested over a range of velocities.”

They clearly went with the headband design to make it more attractive and accessible. They knew it would be a hard sell. A standard bike helmet, readily available on the market, would massively increase the area of protection and not require any further prototyping.

Legislation for health warnings on cars would be rational

Not surprisingly, the research fizzled out after this. In order to float this boat you would need solid legislation to force Big Auto to comply but Big Auto wouldn’t touch this with a ten foot pole and would — and probably did — lobby their way out of it. They would effectively be forced to advertise the fact that their products are incredibly dangerous and that would suck for sales. So there is little chance that I can count on their backing for my proposal for health warnings on cars, like on cigarette packaging. The car is the Sacred Bull in society’s china shop and nothing is being done about it.

On the flip-side, the US bike helmet industry, in particular Bell Helmets, actively participated in the hearings in the 1990’s that the led to the mandatory bike helmet legislation in the Australian state of Victoria — and later the other states. They even flew down a vice-president to take part. They knew there was MONEY to be made. Maybe not as much as they had hoped since cycling levels plummeted after the Australian states voted for mandatory bike helmet laws. Whenever some populist politicians looking for some quick press proposes a helmet law, Australia is held up as the ultimate example of killing off cycling with helmet promotion and legislation.

The headband idea and the science that led to it didn’t get much press, except for small mentions like this BBC article in 2003.

I speak about the rationality of legislating motoring helmets in my keynotes around the world. The initial reaction is laughter and fair enough. But once you tell the story and present the science, you can see how people realise it makes sense. A man named Jack, in the photo above, has been running a personal campaign for car helmets in Montreal for years, on his Driving Without Dying website. Read his 10 reasons why you should wear a helmet in cars. This guy is rational.

On the right is a satirical poke at the Danish Road Safety Council who incessantly campaign for bike helmets, reflective clothing for cyclists and pedestrians and who have been supporting a car-centric world view for decades. Like I said at the top, singling out cyclists for helmet wearing if you’re a “safety” professional or even private citizen is quite ridiculous.

The health benefits of cycling are twenty times greater than any risk. More people die on stairs in America each year than dying while cycling. Gardening is more dangerous than cycling. A great many things are more dangerous that cycling. Driving is an epidemic, with over 1.2 million people a year killed in or by cars. Obesity and lifestyle illnesses are slaughtering obscene numbers of people around the world and the numbers are rising every year. Let’s be rational and intelligent.

TED x Talk by the author about the science of bike helmets

Mikael Colville-Andersen

Written by

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade