So Tom Cruise doesn’t like to wear a helmet in his movies, as we showed this week. It’s not really a surprise, given that he looks really cool squinting into the wind, and the Tom Cruise brand kinda relies on getting his face out there.
You’d better believe he wears a helmet when he’s not filming, though. Celebrities love motorcycles and full-face helmets because they give them the anonymity to travel without attracting attention. Princes William and Harry can ride around the UK with impunity behind a dark visor on their Triumphs and Ducatis, and nobody in California is ever sure who’s on those $100,000 bikes cruising Hollywood Boulevard. Tom? Keanu? Or George on a Vespa?
In any case, they have no choice in the UK and California, where the laws require every rider wears a helmet. It’s the same in Canada, of course, where legislation has locked down mandatory helmet use in every province and territory for decades now. There was a brief exemption in B.C. and Alberta in 1980, when provincial judges ruled compulsory helmets were “Big Brother legislation” and contrary to the Bill of Rights, but it lasted only a year.
Back then, it didn’t help the helmetless riders’ case that in Edmonton, it took less than a month before a bare-headed rider died on the road.
The Edmonton Journal reported that 21-year-old Alan Kirby McLeod might well have survived after hitting the back of a truck if he’d been wearing his helmet. “There’s also a chance he could have been paralyzed from the neck down and lived his life as a vegetable,” said Bill Buchanan, his 23-year-old step-brother, adding that he could have lingered in pain in hospital for weeks.
Yeah yeah – who knows. The facts are these: You’re far more likely to survive hitting your head against something if you’re wearing a helmet than if you’re not. Hockey and football players know this. What’s more, motorcycle helmets do not restrict your hearing or impede your vision – in fact, they help your hearing by cutting down on the blast of wind noise, and visors protect your eyes. And you will be far more comfortable at any kind of speed while wearing a helmet than if not.
However, travel south of the border and it’s an entirely different story. There, in 31 of the United States, it’s not compulsory to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle. You’re allowed to make a stupid decision if you want to. As Buchanan said back in 1980, of his recently-dead step-brother, “It’s up to a person to wear a helmet or not.”
In fact, there’s only complete freedom from helmet laws in three of the states: Iowa, Illinois, and New Hampshire, where you don’t even need to wear a seatbelt in a car and you’re welcome to Live Free Or Die. In all the others that permit bare-headed riding, there’s a requirement for a minimum age – anywhere from 18 to 21 – and in a few states, only if you have medical insurance.
And that’s the thing: medical costs. If you crash into something on a motorcycle, it makes no difference to anyone else if you’re wearing a helmet or not. The only people it affects are you and everyone who’s ever loved you, or who cares about you for some reason. This is why the current financial arguments against Sikhs being allowed to ride without helmets in four Canadian provinces (and the UK, since 1976) are often invalid. Critics say they should be forced to pay for additional insurance in order to not drive up everyone else’s health care costs, but if somebody falls off a bike without a helmet, they’re far more likely to just die, as Alan Kirby McLeod did, than to spend months in recuperation. A quick death is much cheaper to the medical system than a lingering recovery.
No, I don’t have any statistics to back this up, though I’m sure somebody does, and you’re welcome to add them to the comments below (though we’ll just delete anything that’s non-constructive or racist). I do know, however, that after Florida repealed its helmet law in 2000, requiring all helmetless riders to have at least $10,000 in medical coverage (and to be at least 21 years old), more than half the state’s riders ditched their lids and the death rate promptly jumped 71 per cent. For motorcyclists under 21, riding illegally without helmets but desperate to appear mature, the death rate leapt by 300 per cent.
My own views on all this are well-known, and I’m not going to tell you to wear a helmet unless I love you or care about you. I’m certainly not going to tell Tom Cruise to wear a helmet, even if he’d listen. He’s got a pretty face that looks good on camera – as long as he doesn’t fall off his bike, of course.