Motorcycle Helmets and the Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia

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A man whose exploits has become almost mythical, T.E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia as he has become almost universally known, is the stuff of legend. His exploits during the First World War in the Middle East paved the way for an Allied victory in the region, but more importantly instilled in many Arabs the belief that they should control their own destiny and not live under a colonial rule.

There seems little link between the man whose conflicts were devoured by boys in comics and on the big screen, and the motorcycle helmets we wear today. But Lawrence’s indirect influence on the wearing of motorcycle helmets today has probably done more to save lives than any of his daring exploits in the desert.

In addition to being a true scholar of the Middle East and its peoples, and a keen student of history in general, Lawrence was also a very enthusiastic motorcyclist, and, at different times, had owned seven Brough Superior motorcycles. In fact, the final motorcycle he owned is still on display at the Imperial War Museum in London, England. He used it not just for pleasure but as a means of daily transport. There is an account of him riding from Manchester to Winchester, a distance close to 300 miles at the time, to be present at the discovery of an old manuscript of the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table! 300 miles on a Brough Superior with not a freeway in site is all the proof you could need that Lawrence was a committed biker.

Motorcycle helmets however were not on the agenda. In fact they didn’t exist at all at this time, and like every other motorcycle rider, Lawrence went “lidless”

In 1946, just after the Second World War, Lawrence was riding his motorcycle neat his home in England, when he swerved to avoid two boys on bicycles. He went over his handlebars and suffered severe head injuries.

The death of Lawrence had far reaching consequences for all motorcyclists. One of the doctors who worked to try and save Lawrence’s life was the English neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns. He was profoundly affected by what he saw as the nature of Lawrence’s unnecessary injuries and began a detailed and lengthy study of what he saw as the avoidable loss of life by motorcycle riders, particularly dispatch riders, through head injuries. His research ultimately led to the use of motorcycle helmets by both military and civilian motorcyclists.

Would Lawrence have worn a motorcycle helmet had one been available? My guess is yes. He was a brave man who took many risks in his life, but most were calculated risks. Nevertheless, one of his most enduring legacies continues to be one of the least well known, the widespread adoption of motorcycle helmets throughout the world.

So next time you are pulling on your motorcycle helmet, stop. Take a minute to think about the legacy that Lawrence of Arabia’s death has brought all motorcyclists, and be very, very thankful.

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