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…
THANKS TO INNOVATIONS SUCH AS 6D’S, HELMETS AREN’T GOING TO REMAIN THE SAME FOREVERFOREVER.
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.