Since the first motorcycle hit the streets in 1885 there have been major transitions in rider gear, motorcycle design and safety laws. Improvements in safety equipment and evolution of safety laws are keeping more riders safe.
Motorcycle helmets became a heated topic of discussion after T.E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia) suffered a fatal motorcycle crash in 1935. The accident prompted research about brain injuries, and Lawrence’s neurosurgeon, Hugh Cairns’ findings eventually lead to the first motorcycle crash helmet. The first patent for a motorcycle helmet was submitted in 1953 by University of Southern California Professor C.F. “Red” Lombard.
The first helmets to be manufactured were made with leather. Though this material didn’t do much for major-impact injuries, it helped protect riders from abrasions and low-impact wounds. In the 1960’s helmets were transformed, and exteriors were made of fiberglass with interiors that were lined with foam or cork.
In 1967 the federal government required states to enact helmet laws in order to increase motorcycle helmet usage. The incentive was that the more stringent the laws, the more likely states were to qualify for certain federal safety programs and highway construction funds. By the 1970’s almost every state had universal motorcycle helmet laws, however in 1976 states succeeded in getting Congress to stop the Department of Transportation from demanding that states without helmet laws are penalized.
There are currently no mandatory helmet laws, and legislation varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Today 23 states that have motorcycle helmet laws that cover all low-power cycles. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia have laws that cover some low-power cycles. Modern helmets are made of plastic, carbon fiber or Kevlar, have flip-up visors to shield the face, and are designed to protect riders from head and brain injuries, as well as scrapes and lesions.
With the exception of the helmet, today’s thick leather motorcycle jacket is the most recognizable characteristic of a rider. Upon the invention of the motorcycle, most riders wore long, heavy jackets. When military personnel began using motorcycles during World War I the long dusters were replaced with short jackets in order to eliminate the chance of them getting caught in the wheels or spokes. Today, there are even some suits that come equipped with built-in airbag systems that inflate in the event of an accident.
Unlike Europe, the United States has not yet mandated safety gear standards when it comes to jackets, pants, boots and gloves.
The improvements in motorcycle design safety over the years are impressive. Current motorcycles have better brakes, greater stability, more responsive steering, more effective controls, airbags, leg protectors, tire quality, improved ergonomics and better reliability than those of any previous decade.
Even with the impressive innovation in motorcycle safety features and technology, we still have a long way to go. Motorcycle rider fatality rates go up year after year, and riders continue to throw caution to the wind when on the open road. Despite state laws, all riders are encouraged to exercise caution, to ride with the flow of traffic and to always wear a helmet.
A special thanks to The Law Office Of Mann & Elias, a Los Angeles motorcycle accident law firm, for making this post a possibility.