Opinion: Cruising for a bruising

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?

Would you recognize Prince William underneath that helmet? No – nor would anybody else.

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.

Riders at the Sturgis rally in South Dakota don’t usually believe in All The Gear, All The Time.

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.

If you’re going to ride a Honda Rune, you probably do want something that disguises you, like Prince William’s helmet.

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.

Say what you will about Tom Cruise, he does look pretty cool on a motorcycle.


  1. While I am in favor of a mandatory helmet law for motorcycle use on public roadways, I also consider exemptions, for whatever reason, including religious, to be extremely hypocritical.

    Hypocrisy though, is rife within modern day “safety culture”. Recently, I witnessed a co-worker get a rap on the knuckles for having forgotten to bring his steel-nosed boots to a job site, yet the company thought nothing of the unrealistic schedule which caused said co-worker to drive several hours over an unfamiliar road in the dark to reach the work site … a drive which was MUCH more potentially unsafe than not wearing steel-nosed boots.

  2. From what I understand, a Sikh can where a Patka under his helmet (small piece of cloth worn like a doo rag) fulfilling the tenants of his religion, while still allowing him to be protected. So why are certain Sikhs pushing for helmet law exemptions so that they can where turbans? What does it say about a religion that puts a public expression of faith above the health and safety of its believers? And I’m not just talking motorcycle helmets. Where do hard hats on construction sites fit in? Part of being devout is that it involves making sacrifices to your lifestyle in favour of your religion. If that means you don’t choose to ride a motorcycle or work in a job that puts you at physical risk, so be it. Those are your choices, along with the choice of how you chose to interpret the rules of your religion.

    Clearly this is more about politics than religion. Doug Ford stands in front of a group of Sikhs in Brampton and campaign promises to exempt them from the helmet law to get Sikh votes. More zealous (read political) Sikhs demand exemption on religious grounds when it appears that other more moderate Sikhs find a way to fulfill their religious tenants without putting their life at greater risk.

    Personally, I think there should be one law for all, regardless of religion. And if that law did not require me to where a helmet, I still would be in a full face or modular every time I went out.

  3. We have to ask ourselves what and how far do we let others dictate to us. Where will you draw the line and say no. At the end being a Christian will be illegal.
    Its all the freedoms that are taken away that will speed up that day and make it acceptable.

  4. “A quick death is much cheaper to the medical system than a lingering recovery.”
    Seriously ?
    Doesn’t society as a whole have a responsibility to protect certain segments of the population from themselves ? We have seatbelt laws, gun control laws, speed limits and impaired driving laws – these exist because otherwise stupid people will cause undue harm to themselves and (likely) others – more than they do already.
    Please quit beating this horse – its dead, just like ‘Loud Pipes Save Lives’.
    End of rant – next….

    • Although I don’t believe it’s smart to ride without a helmet… yes, a quick death does cost less than a lingering recovery, that’s just a fact.

      And no, society does NOT, in fact have a responsibility to protect the population from themselves, because each person is responsible for evaluating their own acceptable risk level­.

      Making Society decide what’s acceptable risk would open the door to all kinds of abuses and oppressions to the minority by the majority.

      • “Although I don’t believe it’s smart to ride without a helmet… yes, a quick death does cost less than a lingering recovery, that’s just a fact.”
        Of course its a fact – its just a facetious, flippant thing to say.
        “Making Society decide what’s acceptable risk would open the door to all kinds of abuses and oppressions to the minority by the majority.”
        The majority IS responsible for the minority when the minority is too stupid to take care of themselves. We do it already under all kinds of circumstances. Its called civilization.

    • The point being that a common argument FOR helmet laws is the FINANCIAL cost to society of caring for people after they fall off their bikes. For that financial argument, the fact that a rider who dies is cheaper to society than caring for a seriously injured rider is completely relevant.

      Of course, what the people arguing in favour of helmet laws really believe is what you said – that society has a duty to protect people from themselves. On that basis, I’m looking forward to the outright criminalization of free climbing, BASE jumping, and a lot of other activities that are statistically even more dangerous than riding. And I’m we will all enjoy and approve of the government rules and regulations intended to keep us from ruining our health with the wrong diet, too much booze, or lack of exercise. Welcome to your mandatory physical education classes, comrade! OK, that’s a little over the top.

      Personally I believe we as a society have an interest in, and since the roads are pubic property, a right to, make certain rules and regulations to prevent people from being injured unnecessarily. Requiring people to wear helmets is an arguably minor imposition which should have little effect on their ability to enjoy motorcycling.

      But I do worry about a slippery slope. A concern to avoid or prevent road injuries can quickly turn into something like this “Vision Zero” bullshit, the goal of which is to completely eliminate road deaths and injuries in some area. Totally unrealistic, of course, since nothing is ever completely safe. How about Vision Zero for deaths caused by medical malpractice? What? Not realistic?

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