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Motorcycle Helmets

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All About Helmets

cat crap anti-fogAnti-Fog: There's a lot of anti-fog products on the market. I've tried a few of them, and none were all that impressive, although some are dramatically expensive. Foam shaving cream makes a decent anti-fog, put some on your shield on the inside and then wipe it down with some soft kleenex. This will last a couple weeks. Alternatively, there's an inexpensive product called (no kidding, I can't make up stuff this good) Cat Crap that's highly regarded among riders. Also available at many sporting goods stores, about $3.50.

Why do we wear helmets? Protection from wind, bugs, cold. Protection when we're sliding somewhere where we wish we weren't. Protection from a hit on the head. Protection from penetration (see sliding above). How important are these? My father-in-law was an optometrist, he told me that most all the motorcycle riders he examined had micro-scars and embedded sand all over their eyes. Bugs? I've been nearly knocked off a bike when hitting a desert beetle the size of a golf ball at 80mph. Hitting your head? I know of at least two cases where helmetless people stopped at an intersection, tipped over their bikes, hit their head on the way down, and died.

I've owned a lot of helmets over the years. I've also done a bunch of research into what makes a good helmet, in terms of crash protection. Here's what I've learned.

Executive Summary: Buy a half or full-face helmet that's 1) Snell certified, 2) comfortable, and 3) attractive. Within those constraints, spend whatever you're comfortable with. More expensive helmets may be more attractive and/or more comfortable, but they are no safer than less expensive Snell certified helmets. Buy a new helmet at least every five years. Destroy helmets that are significantly older than five years. Wear your helmet most of the time, especially on short trips close to home. Avoid the new flip-open helmets, as the hinge mechanism compromises the protection of your temples and eye sockets. At the time of this writing (7/04) no flip-open helmet has been Snell certified. Here's the official list of all currently Snell certified helmets.

Snell certificationThe Snell foundation is an independent non-profit helmet testing lab. William "Pete" Snell was an amateur road racer who died of head injuries in an auto crash in 1956. He was wearing a leather helmet at the time. The Snell Foundation was founded and funded in 1957 by friends and family of Pete Snell. The lab was originally directed by Dr. George Snively, a medical doctor, engineer, and amateur road racer who was interested in helmets and head protection.

Dr. Snively was quite serious about his job, and did it exceedingly well. Originally, the Snell institute got a bunch of cadaver heads and dropped them to find out how brains got hurt. Then, they started trying to understand how to protect brains. On the basis of this research, standards were created - no more than so many G's of force for so many milliseconds, that sort of thing. It quickly became clear that helmets would have to be made of fiberglass and other synthetic materials, not leather. It also became clear that amateur and professional road racing was not a big enough market for these new helmets. Fortunately for everyone, motorcycles were a big enough market.

Snell certificationIn the 70's, Dr. Snively started driving helmet development - the three most advanced companies at the time were Bell Helmets, Arai, and Simpson. Dr. Snively would tell them about a new set of standards he had in mind, and challenge them to meet it. When one manufacturer succeeded, he would quickly tell everyone else that it had been done. When two manufacturers succeeded, he would release a new set of standards, hence "Snell 1968", "Snell 1970", "Snell 2000" etc. Since about 1985, the Snell institute has maintained that all Snell helmets were now good enough, that is if you were in a crash while wearing a Snell helmet and died from a head injury, there were almost certainly several other body injuries that would also have killed you. They have continued to update the Snell standards, but the recent updates have been more minor.

helmet cross section diagramTo get Snell certification for a helmet, the manufacturer must sign a contract with the Snell foundation and pay for testing. The contract allows Snell to purchase up to 10% of their total helmet production at retail, test them to destruction, then be reimbursed for the retail cost of the helmets and the testing. The contract allows the helmet manufacturer to put Snell certification stickers in the helmet. If there is no numbered Snell sticker inside the helmet, it's not a Snell certified helmet. It's just that simple. The latest certification is M2000; the previous outdated certification is M95.

In the '80s, the US DOT got into the helmet certification business. Their standards were set in 1971, and the DOT has not substantially revised them since. Also, the DOT does not do consistent testing, so a DOT sticker does not carry the security that a Snell sticker carries. The DOT expects manufacturers to voluntarily test their own helmets and certify them themselves. If it happens that the DOT tests a helmet and the helmet fails, the DOT informs the manufacturer and expects them to voluntarily correct the problem. In all of 2001, the DOT tested 40 helmets total, and 8 of them failed the test. Generally speaking, the DOT requirements tend to protect you at lower speeds, and the Snell requirements tend to protect you at higher speeds. Therefore, meeting both requirements is pretty tricky and results in a pretty good helmet. However, absent the Snell sticker, you can't be certain the helmet even meets DOT requirements. In fact, some manufacturers make "beanie" helmets, popular with certain riders, and put DOT stickers on the helmets even though it's quite obvious that the helmet does not meet DOT standards at all. They do this because several court cases in several states have found that if you buy a helmet with a DOT sticker, then as a rider you're in compliance with the helmet law, even if the helmet does not actually meet DOT standards. There has never been a fine levied against either a dealer or a manufacturer for misrepresenting a helmet as DOT compliant when it is not. Some people think the DOT standard actually offers slightly better protection than the Snell standard, and this may even be true. Unfortunately, due to the voluntary nature of DOT testing, you cannot be certain that a DOT helmet actually passes the DOT tests. For this reason, I recommend only Snell helmets.

Helmets consist of a hard shell which protects your head from penetration and from abrasion. Internal to the shell is a styrofoam liner roughly 1" thick; this protects your head from impact forces. In a crash, the styrofoam is permanently crushed, so if you hit your head with your helmet on, you must consider that the helmet is used up. The helmet may look just fine externally, perhaps just a small scratch, but it likely no longer has impact-absorbing abilities in that area. The next layer in is soft foam rubber and a cloth liner which are important for fit and feel, but offer no protection in case of a crash. The important points a helmet should protect, according to the Snell institute, are the crown of your head, your temples particularly right behind your eye socket, and your jaw. Unfortunately, the best temple protection results in compromised peripheral vision, and proper jaw protection requires a full-face helmet. Jaw protection is not just to protect your pretty chin: as any good fighter knows, the fastest way to give someone a concussion is with a good upper cut. Eye socket protection is critical in an impact. It seems these new flip-open helmets have compromised eye socket protection due to the hinge mechanism.

There is an important source of crash data, the U.S.C. Hurt Traffic Accident Survey. Dr. Hurt has attended over 900 motorcycle traffic accidents and analyzed over 3600 motorcycle accidents from reports. He found that all Snell certified helmets offer the same level of protection in a crash, independent of price. Dr. Hurt was a bit disappointed by this result: he was hoping to be able to tell people that you get what you pay for. The truth is, any Snell and DOT approved helmet offers you as good protection as you can buy. Unfortunately, the Hurt report made no effort to collect information on the brand or type of helmet worn, only if a helmet was worn at all. There is a clear need for a study relating head injuries to accident type and helmet worn. No such study has ever been done. In the absence of such a study, we don't actually know for certain how effective DOT or Snell standards are at protecting people.

It is the conclusion of the Hurt report and my own personal experience that most motorcycle crashes happen close to home. I have never had a crash on a cross-country trip, I've never even tipped my bike over. All my crashes have been to/from work, school, the grocery store and such. So, if you're "just going out for a pack of cigarettes" and think you don't need a helmet, well, all I can say is it seems you're a little confused about your preferred mode of suicide.

Snell institute recommendations are that you should replace your helmet every two years if you race, and every five years regardless. Helmets significantly more than five years old should be destroyed. The components in the helmets that protect you tend to deteriorate with time. The time starts when the helmet is worn - oils in your hair break down the helmet liner in time. If your helmet is older than five years, you may be fooling your wife and yourself, but you're not fooling the laws of physics. Oh, and remember, the laws of physics were discovered by physicists, but we didn't make them: they're God's laws, not ours.

helmet damage

Above is a diagram of where helmet damage was found after motorcycle accidents. Source: Dietmar Otte, Hannover Medical University, Department of Traffic Accident Research, Germany. 35% of all crashes showed major impact on the chin bar and face shield area. This means that if you ride with an open-face or three-quarter helmet, you are accepting only 65% of the protection that could be available to your head, and risking your pretty face.

When buying a helmet, the most important thing is to get a Snell and DOT certified helmet which fits and feels good. The helmet should be a bit snug when brand new, as it will pack down a little bit to fit your head. For this reason, it's not a good idea to loan out your helmet - it will pack down to fit lots of heads, and wind up not really fitting anyone. Also, I personally would rather loan out my underwear than my helmet - I put my face in my helmet. To buy a helmet, I recommend you go to several motorcycle dealerships and accessory shops, and try on as many different brands and models as you can find. There's a good chance someday you'll wear your helmet for 12 hours or more, so it had best be comfortable.

Helmets are now made by about a hundred companies. I have personally owned about 40 helmets by a lot of different manufacturers. On this basis, I have formed some clear opinions.

The most comfortable helmet I ever owned was a Simpson. It looked like Darth Vadar, which at the time I liked. It fit wonderfully, and was extraordinarily quiet.

Shoei helmets tend to have very brittle paint that will chip for almost no reason. Many people find that Shoei helmets are too tight in the forehead area and can cause headaches.

I have never owned an Arai helmet, but everyone that I know who has one loves it. This is a good thing, because they cost four times as much as any other helmet. You can easily pay up to $700 for an Arai helmet.

I have owned a lot of Bell helmets, and liked all of them. I have owned several HJC helmets, and liked most of them. I currently ride with a KBC VR-1 helmet and like it. Previously I rode with a KBC TK-8, before that an HJC CL-12, before that a Bell M2. You can easily get a Bell, HJC or KBC Snell and DOT certified full-face helmet for about $110 on the internet. The one-step-up $150 models often have noticeably more comfortable interiors and better ventilation, but are no safer in a crash. There are other manufacturers who make inexpensive Snell helmets, but I don't have experience with them.

I have never owned one of these new flip-open helmets, most notably the HJC, Nolan, and Schuberth. None of the flip-open helmets have been submitted to Snell for testing. I now believe this is because the manufacturers know that the helmets will fail the test. I have heard several stories now about people crashing in flip-open helmets and getting eye socket damage and concussions - in one case, a personal friend of mine. My friend had what seemed to be a relatively minor side impact on his head - the helmet was barely scarred at all. However, at the hospital he fell into a coma for three days, and was confused for another couple of weeks. He required two surgerys to repair his eye sockets so that his eyes would stay in his head. Frankly, his story really shook me up and I started investigating these helmets much more closely. I was not impressed with what I learned.

The shell of the flip-open helmets apparently work just fine. I have no indication that these helmets tend to open in a crash and expose your face. However, the hinge mechanism in flip-open helmets takes up space that in any other helmet would be shock- absorbing EPS styrofoam protecting your temples. The hinge mechanism intrudes into the impact-absorbing liner in the temple area. If you hit the side of your head on the ground (quite common in a fall) the hinge mechanism can hit your temple hard enough to break your skull. As they say in Ghostbusters, this would be bad.

I spoke at length with the people at the Snell institute about this topic (7/04). They have never had a flip-open helmet submitted to them for certification, and therefore have never tested one, nor have they paid much attention to them. They found my statement, that flip-open helmets can cause temple damage, quite interesting. I learned from them that essentially all helmet manufacturers have in-house testing facilities and do a very good job of this. They named three companies in particular who do a superlative job; all three make flip-open helmets. I was told that the manufacturers can perform the Snell certification tests just as well as Snell can, so they know well in advance if they are going to pass.

Snell and DOT testing is performed with a magnesium dummy head in the helmet. The magnesium head has one accelerometer located at the center of gravity. This means the accelerometer cannot test for twisting forces, and it can only record the average impact force on the head, the force averaged over the entire surface of the magnesium head. There is no way this device could record a sharp impact on a small area, such as might occur if the hard plastic hinge mechanism hit the magnesium skull. The Snell and DOT tests have separate tests for the shell, to see that they resist penetration by sharp objects. The tests are not designed to record if a small hard object already inside the shell hits your head. So, it turns out that Snell and DOT tests are not very sensitive to an impact from a hinge mechanism.

None the less, it's interesting that only one of the flip-open helmets have ever been submitted to Snell for independent testing. Some of the companies that make these helmets pay to have essentially all of their other street helmets certified, but not the flip-open in particular. I find this exceedingly suspicious. There is one Snell-certified modular helmet now (5/10), the Zeus 3000. If you must have a modular, this is the one.

I recommend you avoid flip-open helmets if safety is a concern. Side impacts to your head are quite common in motorcycle accidents. The temple area is the weakest part of the skull. Injury to the temple area can cause substantial brain damage and substantial vision impairment. If you have a side impact in a crash I believe flip-open helmets will likely cause temple fractures and concussions far in excess of what you would have from a full-face or open-face Snell helmet. I believe you're safer in an open-face helmet than in a flip-open.

Update 8/07: I continue to receive emails from riders who have had temple damage while wearing flip-open helmets. It seems perhaps there is a particular brand that has this problem; none the less I stand by my position that the convenience of the flip-opens is not worth the risk of eye socket damage, concussion, and multiple surgeries.

Bell HelmetWalmart is now selling Bell full face helmets for $80. These are DOT, not Snell helmets. This is good to know in an emergency, e.g. having your helmet stolen on the road (happened to me twice, once in Philadelphia, once in Mission Viejo), or if you pick up a cute hitch-hiker. Ok, I know that last one never happens, but we all dream, don't we?

Motorcyclist Magazine in depth article on helmets and helmet standards.

Snell v. DOT. Guess who wins, the scientists or the bureaucrats? Head Protection Research Laboratory. Snell Memorial Foundation.

The history of the motorcycle helmet

from "The Edge" vol 3 no1, the magazine of the Motorcycle Rider's Association of Western Australia (MRAWA)

It all started with T. E. Lawrence.....

Until the war ended in 1919, Lawrence was virtually unknown to a British public numbed by the horrors of European trench warfare. At that time, an American journalist, Lowell Thomas, toured Britain with a lavish lecture series outlining his accomplishments. His romantic accounts of Bible-land victories rapidly transformed T.E. Lawrence into a popular hero. "Lawrence of Arabia".

After a brief spell at the conclusion of hostilities, during which he unsuccessfully advocated and promoted Arab independence (1919-1922), he returned to Oxford and a fellowship at All Souls College. There Lawrence began work as an author, and he produced the hugely acclaimed Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In 1923, after assisting Churchill as an advisor and being instrumental in the creation of the Kingdom of Trans-Jordan (later Jordan), he drifted into a perilous state of mind. He joined the Royal Air Force under an assumed name and 12 years later retired to Clouds Hill in Dorset.

Lawrence loved speed. His motorcycle (one of many)-a Brough Superior, given to him by his friend, George Bernard Shaw-had power and acceleration that outstripped its handling and braking characteristics. On May 13, 1935, he rode his motorcycle through the South Dorset countryside. He wore no helmet, which was not unusual except during a race. As he returned to his cottage, he swerved to avoid two boys on bicycles and pitched over the handlebars, landing in front of his machine and fracturing his cranium.

He was taken to Bovington Camp Military Hospital in a coma, where the best specialists in the country were rushed to save him. One of them was the young neurosurgeon Hugh Cairns born in Port Pirie, South Australia. Lawrence died 5 days later, without regaining consciousness, at the age of 47 years. This motorcycle accident was to have major ramifications for thousands of future motorcyclists. Hugh Cairns was profoundly moved by the tragedy of this famous First World War hero dying inexorably at such a young age from severe head trauma. Having been powerless to save Lawrence, Cairns characteristically set about identifying, studying, and solving the problem of head trauma prevention in motorcyclists.

During the Second World War, Cairns recognized the unnecessary loss of life among the dispatch riders of the British Army, even before the actual start of hostilities. In 1941, his first and most important article on the subject was published in the British Medical Journal. He observed that 2279 motorcyclists and pillion passengers had been killed in road accidents during the first 21 months of the war, and head injuries were by far the most common cause of death. Most significantly, however, Cairns had only observed seven cases of motorcyclists injured while wearing a crash helmet, all of which were nonfatal injuries. His 1946 article on crash helmets charted the monthly totals of motorcyclist fatalities in the United Kingdom from 1939 to 1945. The obvious decline in the number of fatalities took place after November 1941, when crash helmets became compulsory for all army motorcyclists on duty. His article concluded:

"From these experiences 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"

It was not until 1973, 32 years after his first scientific article on the subject, were crash helmets made compulsory for all motorcycle riders and pillion passengers in the United Kingdom.