It’s the num­ber one piece of pro­tec­tive kit for any rider. But what goes into a bike hel­met? And what’s the cur­rent state of the art? We check out lid science…



It’s worth look­ing af­ter the old bonce and its con­tents, es­pe­cially if you’re go­ing to do some­thing dan­ger­ous. Not that rid­ing bikes is dan­ger­ous – ohhh nooooo. Rid­ing bikes is per­fectly safe (de­spite how it looks when Bruce is putting in one of his ‘spe­cial’ fast laps). It is, of course, the falling off and hit­ting things at high speed which is the bug­ger. So – we need to pro­tect our brains above all else, when we have a bit of a bike crash.

It’s fairly ob­vi­ous stuff this: you can bash your arms and legs about a bit and sur­vive. You can even give your torso and ma­jor or­gans a proper pum­melling and make it out the other side: burst ribs, punc­tured lungs, torn spleens – all se­ri­ous stuff, but fix­able by mod­ern medicine. But any level of dam­age to your brain, and you’re in big trou­ble. At the risk of mak­ing all you lovely read­ers de­pressed, I’ll just say that bang­ing your head is a bad thing. So it’s in your in­ter­est, and for the sake of all those folk you hold dear in your life, to in­vest in the best hard hats avail­able.

Way back when

Be­fore we get into the nitty gritty of what’s the best hel­met to buy, and all that malarkey, the in­quis­i­tive among you might like to know how mo­tor­cy­cle hel­mets came about. There was some in­ter­est in hel­mets in rac­ing as far back as 1914, when prim­i­tive head­wear was toyed with in the 1914 TT. But the defin­ing mo­ment for bike lids is of­ten said to be the death of leg­endary Bri­tish Army of­fi­cer T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Ara­bia), in 1935. Lawrence, who’d sur­vived var­i­ous First World War com­bat an­tics in the Mid­dle East, suc­cumbed to head in­juries af­ter he crashed his Brough Su­pe­rior near Ware­ham in Dorset. His doc­tor, Sir Hugh Cairns, was pretty pissed off by Lawrence’s death, and de­voted the rest of his ca­reer to im­prov­ing the safety of mil­i­tary dis­patch riders, by im­prov­ing hel­met de­signs. Gawd bless him.

Fast for­ward a few decades, and in the early 1970s, hel­mets be­came com­pul­sory from 1973 on­wards in the UK. By then, fi­bre-glass outer shells with EPS lin­ers had been around for a while, re­plac­ing the cork, leather and other mad­ness they’d been us­ing in the early days, Ja­panese firm Arai had ac­tu­ally been mak­ing these ‘mod­ern’ con­struc­tion lids since 1958.

Ad­vances in ma­te­rial science also meant cheaper, lighter hel­mets could be made from new ‘ther­mo­plas­tic’ ma­te­ri­als like poly­car­bon­ate. Pro­duc­tion meth­ods can use moulds, with au­to­mated cast­ing, which is much faster than the labour-in­ten­sive tech­niques for lay­ing-up fi­bre­glass and car­bon fi­bre com­pos­ite ma­te­ri­als. Adding holes for a vi­sor mech­a­nism and an EPS liner was a sim­ple job. Nowa­days – well, the ba­sic out­line of a hel­met re­mains much as it ever was. A strong outer shell, with a shock-ab­sorb­ing liner, which de­stroys it­self in a crash, crush­ing down to soften the blow and save your brain.

Ma­te­ri­als and de­sign have moved on mas­sively though. Pre­mium outer shells use the lat­est in com­pos­ite man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­niques to give ul­ti­mate strength and stiff­ness where needed, while sav­ing mass. In­ner lin­ers use dif­fer­ent den­si­ties of EPS, to fine-tune the im­pact re­sis­tance for dif­fer­ent ar­eas of im­pact.

What goes into a lid?

As al­ready high­lighted, there are two parts to a hel­met – a strong outer shell, plus a shock-ab­sorb­ing in­ner lin­ing, made from ex­panded polystyrene (EPS). The outer shell’s job is to pro­tect your head against pen­e­trat­ing sharp objects – a foot­peg or brake lever are ob­vi­ous con­tenders – and it also con­tains the softer lin­ing, pro­tect­ing it from abra­sion dam­age and hold­ing it to­gether un­der im­pact.

The in­ner lin­ing has a more com­plex job. It’s de­signed to crush dur­ing an im­pact, slow­ing down your head more grad­u­ally than if you just head­but­ted the ground di­rectly. It’s this process of slow­ing down – de­cel­er­a­tion – which can cause the dam­age to your brain. In the early days of hel­mets, there was just one ho­moge­nous layer of EPS, but mod­ern de­signs use vary­ing den­si­ties of lin­ing ma­te­rial, so they can tune the im­pact ab­sorp­tion to dif­fer­ent parts of the hel­met. That means a bet­ter fit, less weight and im­proved pro­tec­tion.

One thing to look for when buy­ing is the num­ber of shell sizes. Cheaper brands use fewer shells to cover the fi­nal head size, to save money on shell moulds and pro­duc­tion. So one shell might have to cope with XXS, XS, S, and one will do M, L, XL and XXL. That means some sizes have more or less than the op­ti­mal amounts of liner, mak­ing for a some­what poorer fit, and po­ten­tially more mass than is es­sen­tial on the smaller sizes. Bet­ter lid de­signs use a broader range of shell sizes, so that the com­plex, ex­pen­sive outer shell is bet­ter-suited to the fi­nal size the cus­tomer gets.

Fit for pur­pose

As Eelco van Beek from Arai Europe told us: “The shape of the hu­man head has not changed, there­fore nei­ther will our hel­mets. Form fol­lows func­tion at Arai and we will never com­pro­mise the main pur­pose of a hel­met: pro­tect­ing the wearer’s head.” It’s hard to ar­gue with Arai’s logic, though peo­ple, amaz­ingly, are proven sta­tis­ti­cally to quite of­ten pur­chase a lid that doesn’t even fit them prop­erly, which pretty much voids all the graft and man-hours pum­melled into mak­ing a hel­met, er, safe. So how do you go about mak­ing sure your new pur­chase is the right fit for you?

Well, there’s only one way to get a hel­met that fits prop­erly, and that’s to try some on. Gen­er­ally, we’re all over on­line buy­ing and that, but for a safety item like this, where fit is cru­cial, go­ing to a proper shop makes sense. Deal­er­ship staff are gen­er­ally pretty well trained by hel­met firms on how to check the fit of a lid, and they can ad­vise if you maybe need some thin­ner cheek pads, or a slight tweak to the neck lin­ing. It’s a bit of a shitty move to try on lids at a dealer, then buy on­line of course. If the dealer keeps get­ting un­der­sold by a bloke sell­ing hooky lids from his mum’s garage, it’ll shut down in the end, and you’ll have nowhere to try lids on any­way. A few quid to sup­port the lo­cal shop, and get some de­cent cus­tomer ser­vice makes sense in the long run. Mathew Hall from Feri­dax, the UK Shoei im­porter un­der­lined this: “We ac­tively en­cour­age mo­tor­cy­clists to pur­chase in-store, where they can ben­e­fit from com­plete as­sur­ance with Shoei As­sured. Our Shoei As­sured Ser­vice Cen­tres have staff trained by of­fi­cial Shoei Tech­ni­cians, who can cus­tom fit your hel­met, as well as of­fer sound ad­vice.

“Ul­ti­mately a hel­met is a vi­tal piece of safety equip­ment, and for it to op­er­ate to the best of its abil­ity, it must fit cor­rectly. By vis­it­ing a Shoei As­sured Store, you can be con­fi­dent that you will walk away with a hel­met that is cor­rectly sized and will of­fer the best pos­si­ble pro­tec­tion.”

What to look for?

We might be leav­ing the EU but there’s un­likely to be much change in the hel­met reg­u­la­tions here in Blighty. The cur­rent safety stan­dard for hel­mets is ECE22-05, which is the legal re­quire­ment across the Euro­pean Union. In the US, the Snell stan­dard op­er­ates, and while they are com­pa­ra­ble, there are sub­tle dif­fer­ences. Some firms pro­duce lids that com­ply with both Snell and ECE22-05, but the ECE one is the im­por­tant one here. You might also have seen SHARP rat­ings on hel­mets. This is a UK ini­tia­tive, launched nearly 10 years ago now, which aimed to give hel­mets a rat­ing for their per­for­mance rather than a sim­ple ‘pass’ of a blan­ket stan­dard. It was con­tro­ver­sial when it launched – many ex­pen­sive pre­mium hel­mets scored badly, while cheap hel­mets got high scores, lead­ing to crit­i­cism of the method­ol­ogy.

SHARP has now rated over 460 lids, and the Depart­ment for Trans­port is clearly stick­ing to its guns. We could write an en­tire fea­ture (mag­a­zine, prob­a­bly) on the SHARP method­olo­gies and crit­i­cism of it. In­stead, here’s what Arai Europe says (obliquely) about it: “For Arai, stan­dards are a start­ing point, not the end of the line where de­vel­op­ment and re­search are con­cerned.” Eelco van Beek went on: “Tests like ECE and SHARP are tests on fixed points. We test on a larger shell area, like Snell in the USA, as no one knows where a hel­met will get hit. In a real-life ac­ci­dent, you can­not choose the points where you will hit the ground or an ob­ject.”

And Shoei also seemed a lit­tle pas­siveag­gres­sive when asked about SHARP. Mathew Hall told us: “The SHARP test­ing is an ad­vi­sory test im­ple­mented in the UK which only cen­tres around an im­pact on cer­tain parts of the hel­met. Shoei’s phi­los­o­phy of cre­at­ing the best mo­tor­cy­cle hel­met will not be swayed or com­pro­mised to meet a non-legally re­quired test.”

Beware of gim­micks

Spend any time on Face­book, and in-be­tween stalking your school­days sweet­hearts to see if they’re sin­gle, you’ll be swamped by ads for mad stuff, in­clud­ing Kick­starter projects for crazy gizmo-hel­mets. Head-up dis­plays, rear-view cam­eras, in­te­grated Pot Noo­dle

dis­pensers – we’ve seen ’em all. And to be fair, who wouldn’t want some high-tech add-ons (and a fresh Pot Noo­dle) in their hel­met? Well, the hel­met firms it seems. Both Arai and Shoei are cagey as hell about putting elec­tron­ics, sun vi­sors, or the like in­side their lids. They main­tain that safety is the first job of a hel­met, and adding on ex­tra stuff usu­ally com­pro­mises this. As an ex­am­ple – if you have an in­ter­nal flip-down sun vi­sor, it takes up sev­eral mil­lime­tres of space in the fore­head area. That means a few mm less im­pact-ab­sorb­ing liner, so less shock­proof­ing abil­ity in a cru­cial area. You could ar­gue that a con­ve­nient sun vi­sor makes a crash less likely in the first place of course – sun daz­zle can cause crashes which a vi­sor may pre­vent.

“The trend these days is to­ward gad­gets,” said van Beek. “And some of them could be very in­ter­est­ing. How­ever, if you need to take away pro­tec­tion, and there­fore com­pro­mise safety, to build in these de­vices, we strongly doubt that is the right way to go.”

Mathew Hall agrees: “Safety is para­mount for Shoei. While gim­micks may sell hel­mets, Shoei’s fo­cus is on whether they de­tract from the safety of the hel­met. It was for this rea­son Shoei spent many years per­fect­ing the in­ner drop down vi­sor be­fore fi­nally launch­ing on the Neotec – it was im­per­a­tive that its ad­di­tion did not com­pro­mise the in­tegrity of the hel­met in any way.”

Hav­ing said that, many firms of­fer in­ter­nal flip-down sun vi­sors, and Blue­tooth set­ups to link your lid to your phone/sat­nav/in­ter­com. Shoei, Shark and Schu­berth of­fer sleek in­te­grated au­dio sys­tems, that have min­i­mal im­pact on the lid.

The fu­ture of lids

So if lead­ing brands are scep­ti­cal of in­tro­duc­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary fea­tures akin to the kind of stuff you see in Star Wars, what does that mean when it comes to hel­met in­no­va­tion? Are we to just ac­cept that the shape and con­tent of a hel­met is be­yond bet­ter­ing? Ac­cord­ing to Steve Heneghan, who owns Re­ac­tive Parts, that’s cer­tainly not the case. Just re­cently he came across a ground-break­ing hel­met from Cal­i­for­nia, which uses an en­tirely new type of pro­tec­tive lin­ing. The 6D hel­met com­pany uses a spe­cial ‘sus­pended’ lin­ing, called the Omni-Di­rec­tional Sus­pen­sion (ODS) sys­tem, which claims to iso­late your head from shocks and twist­ing bet­ter than ex­ist­ing tech­nol­ogy.

The se­cret be­hind the ODS in­ner liner is that it’s con­nected to the outer shell by a se­ries of small links, which act like a load of tiny rear shocks. These mini ‘sus­pen­sion units’ are made of an elas­tomeric poly­mer, moulded into an hour­glass shape, which 6D claims gives a pro­gres­sive spring rate to man­age de­cel­er­a­tion forces, and also lets the in­ner polystyrene liner move in all direc­tions as nec­es­sary.

The hel­met ac­tu­ally has two polystyrene lin­ers, like a ball in­side a socket, and the poly­mer hour­glass dampers sit be­tween those two lay­ers, de­cou­pling the in­ner liner from the outer, and giv­ing your head an­other layer of pro­tec­tion. 6D’s not just work­ing in bike hel­mets though. It re­cently won an award spon­sored by the Amer­i­can Na­tional Foot­ball League for head pro­tec­tion. With this in mind, it’s only log­i­cal to as­sume that thanks to in­no­va­tions such as 6D’s, hel­mets aren’t go­ing to re­main the same for­ever.

No, that’s not a bird’s nest. Some brands use mul­ti­ple lay­ers of dif­fer­ing ma­te­ri­als to form a shell.

You won’t see these ladies with­out a hel­met in their hands.

Some firms put count­less hours into per­fect­ing aero­dy­namic per­for­mance.

Two heads, three hel­mets. You do the maths.

We all love a good rain­bow.

EPS lay­ers are there to ab­sorb the im­pact.

That’ll be £700, please.

6D are pi­o­neer­ing an omni- di­rec­tional sus­pen­sion sys­tem to ab­sorb im­pact.

Head bang­ing to per­fec­tion. Ven­ti­la­tion is a big part of hel­met de­sign.

This is what a hel­met looks like if you put a chain­saw to it.

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