Where to Draw the Line on Lids

From Issue: 
VOL. LVIIIV No. 2
helmets
 
Here at the Canada Safety Council, we are accustomed to encouraging people to wear helmets. Whether it’s for recreational activities like hockey, quadding or tobogganing, or for workplace applications as personal protective equipment, the consensus is that helmets save lives. So, when asked by the media or members of the public, we never miss an opportunity to encourage helmet use.
 
But what about wearing a helmet in the car? This idea was brought to us by CSC member Jack Kowalski, who operates an adventure jet boat company based in Montreal. Kowalski is the self-styled safety advocate behind the website www.drivingwithoutdying.com, a pet project he has been working on since 2007. He asks: if helmets save lives, and head injuries are the primary cause of death in motor vehicle collisions, then why not wear a helmet in the car?
 
If the idea strikes you as ludicrous, you’re not alone. Perhaps it’s because we have accepted the risks of driving as commonplace, the typical reaction to Kowalski’s idea is dismissal, disbelief… and laughter.
 
After eight years wearing helmets in his own car and encouraging for others to do the same, Kowalski has grown accustomed to this resistance. He points out it’s the same reaction safety advocates encountered when they first proposed helmets in every other application.
 
Kowalski is possibly the world’s most ardent advocate for helmets in the car, but he is quick to point out it wasn’t his idea. Leather helmets for automobile racers first came into use in the early 1900s, albeit for the purpose of holding up goggles to keep dust out of drivers’ eyes. Racing helmets have been used in the race car circuit since the 1950s. And in Australia, a helmet for ordinary motorists was even taken to market.
 
The “motoring helmet” was designed and sold by the Australian auto parts company Davies Craig in the 1980s. The accompanying manual anticipated the hurdles this product would encounter gaining general acceptance: “Wear it and don’t feel self-conscious,” the manual urges. “Driving even for the most proficient is dangerous…Ultimately, motoring helmets will be commonplace, but in the meantime, you will be a leader whilst those who may consider your good sense misplaced, will follow.”
 
Thirty years on, the Davies Craig Motoring Helmet appears condemned to the trash heap of failed product ideas. These days, the only people still talking about the motoring helmet, besides Kowalski, are cycling proponents who argue, tongue-in-cheek, that should cyclists be compelled by law to wear helmets, then so too should motorists.
 
In 2000, the Australian Federal Office for Road Safety funded a study into the development of an ultra-light head-protection visor that the inventors reasoned might be more acceptable to motorists than a full motoring helmet. The project appears to have stalled out at prototype phase. 
 
The impetus for the visor development was a 1997 study, also commissioned by the Australian government, looking into how interior padding beyond the usual dashboard airbag might reduce head injuries to the occupants. Academics in the fields of public health, biomechanics, and engineering examined 353 crashes involving 476 car occupants who sustained head, neck or facial injuries. They categorized those injuries and determined that the use of a softshell bike helmet would likely have reduced the severity of head injuries in 28 per cent of minor head injuries, 40 per cent of moderate head injuries and 26 per cent of severe head injuries. The researchers went on to conclude that padding the head with some kind of protective head gear is likely to “be considerably more effective than padding the car in improving the outcome of brain injury, including preventing the injury altogether in some cases.”
 
But in calculating the estimated benefit of using protective head gear, the study authors considered it to be only a “slight possibility” that there could be an increase in injuries resulting from “added mass or reduced headspace.” That assumption concerns CSC’s General Manager of Programs, Raynald Marchand. “Most helmets are for applications where the body is unrestrained,” Marchand observes. “Where the body is restrained, as with race car drivers, the additional weight of the helmet adds to the risk of injury in the event of a collision. That’s why racing helmets are anchored to the vehicle seat.”
 
But the way Kowalski sees it, the human body wasn’t designed to move at the speeds we now routinely travel, and our skulls are simply insufficient protection for the goods inside. “People don’t realize if you get hit in the exact right spot, you're dead,” he says. “So you got to put the odds in your favour. Drive defensively, wear your seatbelt, and since we all have garages full of helmets, just pick one and wear it. Any helmet will do.” 
 
Kowalski believes it will only be a matter of time before his idea gains traction. “It’s going to work,” he insists. “People are going to start doing it.”
What do you think? Would you wear a helmet in the car? Do you think it’s a bad idea? Share your thoughts by emailing media@safety-council.org, tweeting us @CanadaSafetyCSC or posting your comments to our Facebook page.