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24th June 2005

Opinion: Helmets

Why do you wear protective headgear? NVNL considers convention, compulsion and compliance...

It's a rainy Cornish Saturday and I'm having a well-earned sit down while I weigh up another knotty Norton problem in what remains of my mind. A splendid lunch has been consumed in most convivial company at Louis' Tearooms, Kit Hill. The list of spring flowers in bloom is getting ever longer, and I am about to enjoy the latest edition of Jampot, the AJS & Matchless Owners' Club magazine. Bizarrely I am a paid-up member of this club although I do not now own an AJS or Matchless, nor have I ever owned one. However I have the intention and can only trust that one day I will have the money to buy a late forties G80 or equivalent, back lane pottering for the use of. In the meantime I enjoy the club magazine and the ride-ins to the Piers Café at Otterham Station.

Club gatherings and similar institutions are not my glass of single malt and I was surprised to be reminded recently that I attended any organised motorcycle-based gatherings at all before the AJSMOC ride-ins. But the evidence of my past sociability caught up with me recently on the RealClassic website. The teatime-tale slot on Wednesday 20/4/05 was given over to Rogue's Gallery V. Below evocative pictures of Sgt Woodie and his Jack Russell Terrier was a brilliant photo of Quaffmeister's Dad looking every inch the 1950's serious-minded father on a Vincent outfit. And below that… the big reminder of an all but forgotten side of my character, a press clipping from The Grauniad newspaper dated 28/7/80.

...on the right

The clipping has a couple of photos of a Motorcycle Action Group rally in Hyde Park in London held on Sunday 26th. One of the pictures was of future RealClassicist Dave Barkshire in helmet, goggles, horns and chains. I don't remember seeing Dave on the day, but I was at the rally. Another startling memory came to me - I was a member of the Association of Motorcyclists Against Discriminatory Legislation (AMADL), snappy name, snappy bunch of dudes and dudesses. Obviously I am less of a sociophobe than the myth of myself would have me believe. Anyway, with regard to the helmet law, I despise compulsion in many if not all its forms and I reserve the moral right to injure myself in anyway I see fit. I know I do not have the legal right to ride bare-headed any more but I started riding when helmets were optional and I started driving long before seat belts were compulsory.

The seat belt thing is something I've never made an issue of, cars are not libertarian items in my view; useful, wouldn't be without one but they don't excite me. Although hacking around Thruxton in a Ferrari has a lot to recommend it. But the helmet law still gets my goat.

Around the time Frank Westworth was using his newly acquired Driving Licence to explore Somerset on British half-litre cooking singles and CB350Paul was yinging round Herts, Beds and Bucks on the Japanese quarter-litre of the day (or possibly something around fifty cee cee and pedal-equipped) I had my first Meriden twin and can remember distinctly and with a shudder standing in a very long, very wax-scented school corridor staring at a Government poster, the import of which was that we were all entitled to ride Harleys and look like sanitised greasers as long as we toed the line by wearing crash helmets. I thought the freedom I had only just become old enough to enjoy had been taken from me. Probably this was correct to some extent.

...on the left

On the first day of June 1973 they changed the law, I was already riding but too young to vote and the timid control freaks of the day had devoted considerable resources to spoiling some of my fun. My guess based on observation is that the compulsory wearing of crash hats is very largely complied with, not least by me. After all I may be bonkers but I'm not a complete twit. Over the intervening three decades and more I've only been stopped by the police for riding without a helmet four times. In France the coppers chatted to me for a bit and sent me unfettered on my way (see also 'Numbing of Parts'), in Norfolk I pleaded guilty by indignant but respectful letter to Kings Lynn magistrates and paid the £15 fine. It may be that AMADL had supplied a form letter for this purpose and I just adapted it for my particular circumstances.

But on Sunday In The Park With Goat Maison in 1980 I was stopped twice. The first time was as we were queuing to ride out of the Royal Park, I was in a huge throng of bikers on my despatching bike, an SR500, helmet-less, bike and documents all in order (Papers? you haf papers?), nothing in my pockets, nothing up my sleeves, in other words: ready for a pull.

The coppers just told us to put our hats on, so we did.

It was a very neat trick on their part, they got the psychology pretty spot on.

Another abiding memory from years later, Mrs NVNL and I were attending a garden party at Buck Palace, as we filed through the building to get to the garden a poor chap in front of me wearing top hat and morning suit was admonished by one of the footmen - 'Hats off indoors, sir.' The hatted and hapless gent produced one of the deepest blushes I have ever seen. He'd forgotten to observe convention at a most conventional British institution, a Royal Garden Party.

Anyway back to the Helmet Rally scene a few years earlier and on the north side of the park we all rode off along the Bayswater Road with our hats ON like good little boys and girls. Somewhere shortly after I must have removed my helmet because the next thing I remember was being pulled over, helmet-less, outside the Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane by a bike cop. I pleaded guilty to Marylebone magistrates by indignant but respectful letter and paid the £10 fine.

Completely Random Classic Stuff

Dave Barkshire says we were addressed at the MAG rally by a seasoned and venerable campaigner, Fred Hill; I don't remember that at all but do have another very clear memory from back then of a Legalise Cannabis Campaign lobby of Parliament, protesting what must be one of the least observed bans of the last eighty years. We were addressed by a very dapper Marcus Lipton in a morning suit but hatless as we were indoors. I was stunned that this 'straight-looking' 'old' geezer held the same views I then did on the subject of social intoxicants. Mind you, on our way to meet the coltsfoot-smoking Marcus Lipton, a High Tory member (OW Hunt?) in a pinstripe suit said he wanted to set the dogs on us. A kindly policeman escorted the barking backbencher gently away, because the MP had forgotten to observe the convention of showing respect for the electorate in the precincts of the Mother of Parliaments. Happy days.

So, wear what you like and take the consequences, I'm off to test my new clutch tomorrow and I shall be wearing all the protective kit I can muster. Cry havoc and let mesh the cogs of Meriden. I like to think I'm wearing the helmet to comply sensibly with convention rather than because the law compels me, but the element compulsion does irritate me. Risk averse nonsense, as if laws carved in stone could ever order me. Pah!

Is there life between the three on the right and the two on the left? Yes, thankfully...

Big thanks to MZ Mark for the 'Helmet Ban' poster, taken from page 24 of an unspecified edition of 'Motorcycle Mechanics'


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