By Jeff Marcus
During World War I, a young British officer named T.E. Lawrence helped to lead the 1916-1918 Arab Revolt against Ottoman Turkish rule, playing a critical role in defeating the forces of the Ottoman Empire. His exploits are immortalized in the film Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole.
His role in the war is fairly well known. What is less known is how Lawrence influenced motorcycle safety.
Lawrence was an avid rider, at a time when very few motorcyclists wore a helmet – a protection invented in 1914 but very rarely used.
On May 13, 1935, he was riding his Brough Superior SS100 on a narrow road near his cottage near Wareham, England when he entered a dip in the road. This dip obstructed his view of two boys on bicycles, which he swerved to miss. He lost control of his motorcycle and was thrown over the handlebars.
Like most motorcyclists of his day, Lawrence, age 46, was not wearing a helmet. He suffered serious head injuries and never regained consciousness. Six days later, he died.
One of the doctors treating Lawrence was a young neurosurgeon named Hugh Cairns. After Lawrence’s death, Cairns conducted an autopsy and discovered that Lawrence had suffered “severe lacerations and damage to the brain” when his unprotected head struck the ground. Had Lawrence survived, brain damage would probably have left him blind and unable to speak.
Cairns’s diary later revealed that it was Lawrence’s death that sparked in him a curiosity to study head trauma caused by motorcycle crashes. His efforts in this area would ultimately spur him to pioneer helmet safety research.
Cairns speculated that thousands of motorcycle deaths in Britain could be avoided if riders’ heads were protected. And, in October 1941, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published the results of his first study, titled “Head Injuries in Motor-cyclists – the importance of the crash helmet.” The study showed that, in the 21 months prior to the start of World War II, 1,884 motorcyclists died on British roads. In the 21 months following September 1939 (when England entered World War II), Cairns found that 2,279 riders died, an increase of 21 percent – despite the fact that gasoline rationing at the time had likely reduced the number of overall vehicles on the roads.
Because helmet use was so rare, Cairns could only study a few motorcycle accident survivors who had worn helmets when they crashed. All of them survived. His research convinced the British Army that wearing helmets could save lives.
In November 1941, the British army mandated that soldiers wear helmets when they traveled by motorcycle, and Cairns embarked on a study of the new policy’s effect. In his 1943 BMJ paper, titled “Head Injuries in Motor-cyclists, with Special Reference to Crash Helmets,” Cairns found that motorcycle fatalities in the Army had fallen from approximately 200 a month to 50 a month, a reduction of 75 percent.
In a 1946 study in the BMJ, titled “Crash Helmets,” Cairns compared Army dispatch riders wearing helmets to civilian riders, who were still generally bareheaded. He concluded: “From these experiments there can be little doubt that adoption of a crash helmet as standard wear by all civilian motorcyclists would result in considerable saving of life.”
Hugh Cairns died of cancer in 1952, so he did not live to see the lifesaving changes that his research helped to bring about. In 1973, the British Parliament passed a law mandating that motorcycle riders use helmets, and, in 2013, the number of motorcycle riders who died on British roads was 331. This was a fraction of the annualized toll on British roads prior to Cairns’ research, despite a huge rise in traffic volume from the World War II era to today.
Years before the NTSB or similar organizations existed, Cairns was already showing how the study of accidents can improve transportation safety. It took the death of Lawrence of Arabia, the career of a dogged and brilliant researcher, and countless subsequent actions to demonstrate the value of a helmet.
This is one story from history we can – and should – all learn from, especially during this month of May, Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month.
Jeffrey Marcus is a Transportation Safety Specialist in the Office of Safety Recommendations & Communications