How Lawrence of Arabia’s Death Led to the Use of the Crash Helmet?

TE Lawrence Crash Helmet (1)

T.E. Lawrence, known around the world as “Lawrence of Arabia,” died on May 19, 1935. His death, 6 days after a tragic motorcycle accident, seemed an inglorious end to the life of a man who had achieved near-mythical status in his brief 46 years on this earth. It probably would have pleased him to know that even in death, Lawrence continued to inspire others and ultimately saved the lives of countless others.

Thomas Edward Lawrence (August 16, 1888 – May 19, 1935) was a many of many talents. An acclaimed soldier, officer, archaeologist, diplomat, and writer. Winston Churchill said of him, “I deem him one of the greatest beings alive in our time… We shall never see his like again.”

The heroic man met his end due to a motorcycle accident. He was riding a Brough Superior SS100 near his home in Dorset, England. Due to a dip in the road, he was unable to see the two young boys riding bicycles directly ahead of him. He swerved and applied the brakes. The move saved the lives of the boys, but it would cost him his own. Lawrence’s body flipped over the front of his motorcycle, causing massive head injuries.

Lawrence loved his motorcycle. He named it “Boa” or “Boanerges,” which means “Son of Thunder” in Aramaic. He wrote, “Boa and I took the Newark road for the last hour of daylight. He ambles at forty-five and when roaring his utmost, surpasses the hundred. A skittish motor-bike with a touch of blood in it is better than all the riding animals on earth.”

Lawrence lingered in his hospital room for six days before succumbing to his injuries. One of the physicians who attended him was Australian neurosurgeon Hugh William Bell Cairns (June 26, 1896 – July 18, 1952). Lawrence’s death deeply affected Cairns. He began to accumulate data concerning head injuries suffered by motorcycle riders.

His initial research lasted six years. In 1941, he published his findings in the British Medical Journal. His article, “Head Injuries in Motor-cyclists – the importance of the crash helmet,” was the first comprehensive study on the subject. His study found that in the 21 months before the beginning of World War II, 1,884 bikers had been killed on British roads. Of the cases Cairns studied, two-thirds suffered head injuries. Once the war began and air raids necessitated blackouts throughout the country, 2,279 motorcycle riders died between September 1939 and June 1941. This was an increase of 21%, even though gasoline rations brought about a significant decline in the amount of traffic. Only seven of the patients treated by Cairns had worn crash helmets; all of them survived. He wrote, “In a number of cases the fatal outcome might have been avoided if adequate protection for the head had been worn.”

Despite these telling numbers, the public was less-than-enthusiastic about embracing the use of crash helmets. One place where Cairns’ recommendation was embraced, however, was the British military. Anything that could save lives at a time when soldiers were needed to defend the nation was worth a try. It was, up to that point, losing two soldiers each week due to motorcycle accidents. In November 1941, the British military made it compulsory for military motorcyclists to wear helmets while on duty.

Fatalities in British army from motorcycle accidents / crash helmet use

In 1946, Cairns published a follow-up study. He reported, “After the crash helmet was made compulsory in the Army there was a considerable sustained fall in the total death rate of motor-cyclists in Britain”. He concluded: “…there can be little doubt that adoption of a crash helmet as standard wear by all civilian motorcyclists would result in considerable saving of life, working time and the time of hospitals.”

In 1973 – more than 30 years after Cairns’s initial 1941 report – use of motorcycle crash helmets became compulsory for everyone in the United Kingdom. Cairns had died twenty-one years earlier from cancer. Little could T.E. Lawrence have suspected that his death — and the physician who attended him — would lead to countless people being spared the same tragic end.

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