The philosophical argument against wearing a helmet

By | November 2, 2016

There have been a few insightful articles written recently about helmets.

Here’s an interesting one that talks about why a girl commuting on a Dio in Pune decided to invest 4000 bucks to pick up an LS2. Although I don’t agree with the choice of the lid, rest everything else is spot on.

Here’s another one written by someone with far more motorcycling experience than me, that tries to answer a number of common helmet related questions. Again, the gist of the article is correct, but one specific section is not. The writer feels that comfort is not a part of safety but something entirely separate, and that SHARP’s inclusion of comfort in the final rating is a mistake. Here’s an excerpt from the article.

Of these SHARP is considered the most well-rounded standard. It incorporates things like comfort in addition to safety and protection. I disagree with this approach. Helmets should be certified for crash performance alone. If any other attributes are assessed they must, in my book, go into a different rating. I cannot imagine buying a helmet that gets a superb overall rating because it has average crash protection but outstanding comfort. That’s crazy!

This argument is incorrect on 2 levels.

First, the SHARP rating does not include comfort as a factor in deciding the number of stars a helmet gets, that is based solely on how it performs in the impact tests, hence the author’s basic assumption is false.

Second, this belief that safety and comfort are unrelated is wrong. A proper fit, comfort of use, and safety in operation are three sides of a crash security triangle. An uncomfortable helmet is more likely to be a bad fit, which means that it is more likely to either entirely come off during the impact, or not provide the optimum amount of protection when you really need it. Here’s what SHARP has to say about this topic.

It is important that a helmet fits well if it is to provide its best protection – studies estimate that between 10 and 14% of fatal injuries occur when the helmet comes off in an accident. This is why the SHARP website includes a video that offers advice on helmet selection. Comfort is also important and should be considered when making a purchase. An uncomfortable helmet can distract you when riding and a poor fitting helmet may offer reduced protection in the event of an accident. The safety rating is a third criterion that can help make this important purchasing decision. Other factors may influence the purchaser but SHARP offers no opinion on what are largely subjective assessments.

In any case, the point of the discussion till now is this: Helmets are awesome, and everyone should get one. The recent crash and death of a teenager at Kari has raised a lot of important questions about helmet safety, but the major issue with that conversation is oversimplification.

Yes a young guy lost his life while wearing an MT helmet, in what appears to be a rather slow crash. However, the obvious deduction everyone seems to have made from this tragedy is that MT helmets are bad, or that the ones being sold in India are fake. This has also started some debates about the old cheap vs. costly helmet question, however most of the people taking part in these debates don’t appreciate how intricate the art of helmet safety is, what doesn’t help is the fact that a cheap helmet for me might be extremely costly for someone else.

The number of variables involved in a helmet being able to save your life in case of a crash are numerous. Here’s a look at some of them.

  1. Helmet quality, design, impact absorption ability.
  2. Retention system’s ability to keep the helmet on your head throughout the crash.
  3. Proper fit that helps the helmet perform as designed.
  4. Helmet’s behavior with respect to multiple crashes. A helmet that has taken a major impact once may not be able to provide the same level of protection in case of a second hit.
  5. Helmet’s behavior with respect to time. A helmet may lose its ability to save you in case of a crash depending on how long it’s been in use.
  6. Speed, angle, force, and type of impact.
  7. Any changes to the basic design of the helmet, like GoPro mounts and cameras attached to the helmet etc.
  8. G-forces subjected to the brain through the crash.
  9. Protection against penetrative objects, as demonstrated by Massa’s crash in F1.
  10. Safety against neck and spinal injuries.

You could write whole books about each one of these points. For example, there’s an ongoing debate between hard vs. soft helmets. Some people believe that helmets that are soft may subject the brain to less G-forces by destroying themselves during a crash. Other believe that hard helmets may cause more severe brain injuries, but will save the skull against penetrative objects.

For example, in the photos of the helmet that the unfortunate teenager wore at Kari, you can clearly see that the shell is cracked open. Some people feel this was bad, shells are supposed to be sturdy and unbreakable. Others feel that this is the way the shell is supposed to work. The energy absorbed by the shell that forced it to crack was thus not transmitted to the brain.

The point of this monologue is this: Helmet safety is an extremely complex issue that can’t just be defined by the few experiences you had and the many assumptions you made during your brief riding life. The fundamental problem is that crash-test dummies are great to tell you about bone fractures and lung ruptures and spine injuries, but they can’t tell you much about how a brain would function after it has been subjected to a particular amount of acceleration/deceleration inside the skull.

The reason for this lack of knowledge is obvious, nobody wants to sit in a controlled environment, with probes and electrodes attached to their heads, and then see what happens if they go head-first into a wall, waiting to tell the scientists all about it later over some beer.

The brain is an exceptionally intricate organ, and so is its safety. Science is continuously working to improve the ways we protect it, but the current technologies that are used to understand the brain, to create helmets, and to test them, have a long way to go.

If your question then is, which helmet should I buy? The answer is not simple. Costly helmets are more likely to save your life, but there’s no guarantee. Fit and comfort are extremely important, for which you’ll need to test the helmet first before buying, which might be hard for the costlier helmets. I’m saving up for a Shoei next, but I’m also bugging my friends so I can try their different Shoei models before I eventually order one online.

You’ll have to research, spend time, effort, and money to get the helmet that you’ll trust with your life, and even then there’s no guarantee it’ll work flawlessly.

Which brings us to the title of this article, why a lot of people oppose mandatory helmet laws, and could there be a philosophical argument in their favor, since as far as I’ve researched, there’s no physical, biological, or logical argument that helps their case.

Let me reiterate that, there’s nothing scientific that you can say to me that’ll conclusively prove that mandatory helmet laws are bad, in any conceivable way. Most of the arguments either misconstrue available data, give completely illogical and often contradictory reasoning for this behavior, and finally, resort to the hilariously stupid “I don’t want the government to tell me what to do” argument.

However, could there be a philosophical reasoning that could convince people that not everyone should be forced to wear a helmet? Yes, there could be, but it’s already a huge controversy in itself.

The right to Die.

Let’s say you are out on a ride. The scenery is beautiful, the clouds are fluffy, and the corners are epic. You are having the time of your life, when suddenly you find a rider crashed by the side of the road. You stop to help.

He isn’t hurt much, it wasn’t a major accident, he just pushed too much and laid the bike down gently. You help him pick up the bike, brush the dust away, and he happily gets back on the saddle, ready to ride again. At that moment, you notice something strange, something you missed till now somehow.

Dude! You aren’t wearing a helmet!
Yes, I know. 
Well, why not? 
Well, why should I? 
You just crashed! It was nothing but luck that you didn’t hurt your head. 
So?
It could happen again, and next time you might not be so lucky. 
So?
You could die!
Ah, that’s alright friend. It’s my life, and I have a right to end it when I please.

If you are like me, someone who supports Euthanasia, this is the end of the road. There are no further major arguments you can make, apart from a few secondary ones which we’ll discuss in a while.

First, let me share an experience I had during my latest trip to Himachal a few weeks ago. Me and my brother-in-law were exploring some remote locations close to the Bhakra Dam, on an Activa. We had been denied direct access to the dam due to some “terrorist high-alert” bullshit, and we were determined to have some fun regardless of government stupidity.

While riding on one of these trails, we spotted an unbelivably beautiful spot, a place from where you could see for miles in every direction, the kind of place where one sits and contemplates the meaning of life. The only problem what that it was a rather dangerous place to be, with steep sheer drops on 3 sides, and just a narrow patch of earth to sit on.

There was no question in my mind that I was going in. I understood the risks, and decided this one was worth the rewards. As soon as I stepped onto the top, I heard a loud voice from behind me.

It was an old local guy. He was transporting some grains back home on his cycle, noticed me climbing up what clearly looks like a suicide point, and shouted. I turned back, and the following conversation ensued.

What are you doing up there?
I’m taking photographs.
Why are you taking photographs?
Because it’s so beautiful.
Why are you taking photographs?
Because I can.
Where are you from?
I’m from around here.

Then he seems to have lost steam for a while, and kept quiet, although he didn’t budge from his position, kept watching me all the while I was there. This meant that I wasn’t able to just sit down and absorb the view, and had to come back down when I was done with the photos and video.

You shouldn’t do these kind of things. Your parents have given you so much, and you waste it on such stupid actions?
I don’t understand what your problem is. 
What if something had gone wrong?
What could go wrong?
Anything could’ve gone wrong. Who would be responsible in that case?
If I am standing at that rock and I fall and die, I am the one responsible obviously. 

This cooled him down a bit, but didn’t shut him up, and I simply picked up the Activa and we rode away.

Later, I realized something. If I was willing to kill myself for a breathtaking view, it would be hypocritical of me to lecture other people to wear helmets all the time. I don’t know what pleasure they get out of it, but it’s their life, and I have no right to tell them to keep it safe.

However, such arguments have to be dealt on a case-by-case basis, generalizations never work. For example, there’s another similar argument that talks about SaddleSores and other such endurance runs on public roads, like the Kashmir to Kanyakumari Limca record. This discussion is a bit simpler to handle, the grey area is very thin, but still there’s huge controversy over what’s right and what’s wrong.

The supporters of SaddleSores say that it’s nobody’s business how much distance in how much time someone decides to ride, it’s your road as much as it’s mine, and it’s up to me how little I want to rest, and how quickly I want to cover the kilometers, while obviously trying to stay under the speed limits. If I die while attempting to cover a 1000 miles in 24 hours, that’s my problem, and you should have nothing to say about it.

For the opposing side, the first argument is about the speed limits. In a country like India, it’s simply impossible to stay under them when you’re racing against time, not that many care for the limits to begin with. However, the bigger argument is this: Rights and Responsibilities go hand in hand. It’s a public road, you certainly have the right to use it as much as you like, but the objective that you have, and amount of stress you are putting on your bike, mind and body to achieve it, might lead to catastrophic disasters, in which case it’s possible that you’ll take someone else out, crash into someone who had nothing to do with your little speed run, kill someone who didn’t even know what a SaddleSore is.

Here I would like to introduce the Law of Personal Space, which should help clarify the details of such arguments, and a number of others in the future.

The Law of Personal Space states that you are free to do whatever you wish to do, as long as it doesn’t affect someone else’s personal space. 

For example, if you’re a homosexual individual who likes to do what your heart desires inside the privacy of your house, you are awesome and you should keep doing what you are doing. In case you’d like to get married, you should go ahead and do that as well, since who you marry or don’t marry has nothing to do with me.

However, if I’m sitting at a bus stop and you decide to have sex with your partner right there on the bench next to me, that’s a violation of my personal space, not so much because your actions will in any way disgust a heterosexual male like me, but solely because I would not like to start my day with an inadvertent shot of semen sent straight towards my arm, which is a distinct possibility.

With SaddleSores, a distinct possibility is that you get so tired on the bike that you simply doze off, jump over the divider, and plough straight into my car’s windshield, killing me and my wife, in addition to yourself. Your death is irrelevant, since you were prepared for it, mine and my wife’s isn’t, because we were not consulted.

Your action could violate my personal space in certain scenarios, which is why it is the wrong thing to do.

You could say that such arguments pick the worst possible outcome and then build on that, but the undeniable fact remains that those outcomes are still a possibility. There’s no way to predict what will happen and what will not, if it’s possible, you have to go forward with the assumption that it will happen.

With helmets, such arguments do exist, but they aren’t particularly strong. For example, you could say that if you ride without a helmet, the chances of you getting some dust in your eyes, or a bug in your mouth, or a bee in your ears are very high, which would distract you from the road, and hence increase the chances of a crash with fellow road users. However, the counter to this argument is provided very easily by none other than helmet manufacturers themselves, in the form of half-face helmets.

If someone’s wearing a half-face helmet, the chances of them getting some dust in their eyes, or a bug in their mouth, or a bee in their ears are more or less the same as someone who isn’t wearing a helmet at all. In that case, if you wish to force everyone to wear a helmet, it follows that you must also force all those helmets to be full-face, and nothing less.

This quickly becomes problematic. What do you do with modular helmets? Sure they can work as full-face helmets, but with that comes the distinct possibility of opening up the entire front section, thus essentially making it a half-face helmet. What about off-road helmets? Most of them are used with goggles, which don’t improve the bugs in your mouth situation by much.

When you make a decision, you have to look at not only the direct impact of it, but the numerous indirect ones too. If the end results of your decision end up contradicting your basic assumptions, you are in trouble.

Some people make this interesting argument against mandatory helmet laws, that letting people ride without helmets is awesome, because that way evolution will quickly remove all the stupid members of the gene pool, and what you’ll be left with would be only the intelligent ones who’ll always wear helmets. This argument ignores the fact that not wearing a helmet has to do with much more than just stupidity, and a process as slow as evolution can never be trusted to help with any issue that needs immediate solution.

The end result is this.

If you wish to make helmets mandatory, you must also make it mandatory that all helmets should be full-face. If you can’t do that, you can’t force people to wear helmets, at least not on philosophical grounds. 

If there is any moral to this entire article, and I’m not really sure that there is, it could be that people tend to look at things as either good or bad, black or white, this or that. Generalizations and oversimplification doesn’t even work for something as exact as science, how the hell do you expect it to work for something as chaotic as life?

No matter what issue you are talking about, thorough research, full use of your brain, and most importantly, the ability to look at the world from someone else’s perspective is essential. It naturally follows that this tendency to share random stuff you find on the internet, the very basis of this “viral” culture that we’ve started, is flawed on so many different levels.

No matter how much trust you have in your own opinions, trust me, you are wrong far more often than you think you are.

  • Deadpool

    Still one of the best articles on this site.

  • Vaibhav

    Nice blog!!

    You could also take the philosophical argument to another level. Why should we focus on safety so much and so little on the experience? Is the sole purpose of entire human endeavor just not to die? Or not to get hurt? When in fact the only truth in this whole wide world is that “everyone dies”. Why don’t we give enough importance to how the experience is being affected by whatever we do?

    If I say that I don’t like wearing helmet because it makes my head heavy and restricts my vision and generally spoils my ride experience, then why is it not a good enough argument against mandatory helmet wearing law?

    If I say that I don’t like walking towards my bike in full body armor as if it is going to attack me, then why is it not a good enough reason against using heavy and cumbersome riding gear?

    To me the experience of cool air hitting my torso while riding in a hot and humid afternoon than protection from the possibility from a crash that I may or may not have sometime in future.

    I think as a society we are slowly starting to put safety ahead of the experience and the freedom to experience. I don’t like that.

    • Akhil Kalsh

      That makes sense, there certainly has been a movement to curtail certain pleasures of life in the name of “think of the children” argument.

  • Doga

    One may have the right to die, but what about the healthcare costs incurred if you don’t die but become a vegetable? Or may be recover after a lengthy treatment?

    I think riding without a helmet can be declared a safe practice and not mandatory but should jack up the cost of insurance for someone declaring so as well as making access to public hospitals chargeable at full rate if someone were to be admitted who exercised his right of freedom to die!

    • Akhil Kalsh

      Makes sense.

  • GaribNawab

    Nicely put Akhil. This applies to other riding gear too. I hate it when some riders keep lecturing people about how they should always wear AGATT, and then these same riders ride recklessly putting everyone in danger. Some people I know feel that wearing an expensive helmet and riding gear makes them invisible and they’ll be safe no matter how badly they crash. Wearing full riding gear doesn’t make one superior than others. Riding defensively, staying calm and not doing stupid shit is more important than wearing a helmet or a jacket.
    It reminds me of an article I read about a comparison between the number of accidents on ABS equipped vehicles vs non ABS vehicles. It said that people who owned ABS equipped vehicles, in general, were overconfident and hence crashed more often than what was expected. No amount of technology or riding gear is gonna save you if you do stupid things.

    • Akhil Kalsh

      🙂 True. I’ve personally thrown a lot of expletives at people who ride without riding gear, but then again it’s none of my business if you’d like your bones to be pulverised. I do feel superior to such people, I’d like to think I’m more intelligent and am setting a better example to impressionable youngsters, but on the other hand so many of my actions, both on and off the bike, are entirely stupid.

  • Hemant

    Nice article. True that comfort and safety should go hand in hand. Have just purchased a new helmet and awaiting desperately it to break in. It’s certainly discomforting to ride with it initially.. helmet should be comfortable to make it safe and feel confident.

    • Akhil Kalsh

      True.