From the GNW Safety Officer
Riding in Cold Weather
The type and brand of helmet you choose is a personal decision. So, I will not be telling you what you should get. I just want to provide the facts as I researched them so that as an informed consumer, you can decide what is best for you regarding safety, comfort and price.
This may be obvious, but here is a ranking of helmets from least protective to most protective: ½ helmet or brain bucket ¾ or open face helmet Modular helmet Full-face helmet
Your chin has the highest percentage of impact during a crash, twice as likely as the next area, which is your forehead. Which is then followed by the back of your head. Therefore, the ½ and ¾ helmets provide the least amount of protection. The ½ helmet also has the greatest chance of coming off your head during an impact. But they are the lightest and easiest to put on and off and they let you feel the wind while riding.
The modular helmet does provide protection for your chin like the full-face helmet, but it has some weaknesses since it incorporates a hinge and a latching mechanism. This typically adds to the weight and price of the helmet, and it has the possibility of opening in an impact. But it adds the flexibility of not being enclosed in the helmet without taking it off. The brand (really meaning quality) of helmet is more important in this category than the others.
The full-face helmet is considered the safest helmet for the level of protection it provides and is typically the only helmet allowed at track days, if you ever decided to work on your cornering abilities. If you look at professional racers, even auto racers, they only wear a full-face helmet. But it is the hardest to put on and take off.
Do you need to replace your helmet, and if so, when? The general rule of thumb is to replace your helmet after a major impact or every 5 years. But where does that recommendation come from? Is it just an attempt from helmet manufacturers to get you to buy a new helmet? Is it from the manufacture date or the purchase date? In order to address these questions, we need to understand what makes up a helmet and how it provides protection.
There are 3 major components in a helmet:
!- The outer shell – protects against abrasion and penetration of objects but also spreads the force of the impact over a larger area, allowing the helmet to handle a greater shock.
2- The energy absorbing liner – usually some type of expanded polystyrene or EPS (think Styrofoam) that crushes during an impact to slow the head to a gentle stop. The foam does not decompress after it is crushed, and that area cannot provide protection a second time.
3- The liner and comfort pads – used to adjust the fit and includes the retention system that keeps the helmet on your head during an impact.
Since the energy absorbing foam is a one-use item, your helmet needs to be replaced after an impact with your head inside it. It does not need to be replaced if you drop it or if it rolls off your motorcycle seat. However, if you drop it with a heavy item, like a full metal water bottle, that may compress the foam, you should also consider replacing it.
Now, the 5-year recommendation does come from the helmet manufacturers but also from testing organizations like Snell. And not surprisingly, also insurance companies. It comes from the standards that the insurance companies impose on racing organizations and racetracks.
It turns out that helmets do wear out and break down and lose some degree of their effectiveness over time – but not simply due to age. The energy absorbing foam, glues and resins in an untouched helmet will slowly deteriorate on its own, but most of a helmet’s deterioration comes from three factors: amount of use, maintenance practices, and initial build quality. Hair oils, sweat, cosmetics such as hair spray, as well as normal “wear and tear” all contribute to helmet degradation. Also, the comfort padding or the retention system can become loose due to heavy use. The five-year rule is just a very general approximation of the amount of wear that takes place over that amount of time. A helmet used for a daily commute in hot weather will wear out sooner than a helmet that is only used on beautiful Sunday mornings.
Helmet maker Arai’s warranty reflects this as well – 7 years from the date of manufacture, or 5 years from the date of purchase, giving a 2-year window for helmets to make their way from the warehouse to the user. All helmets should have come with a tag indicating the date of manufacture.
However, there is no evidence that a well-maintained, undamaged helmet will “suddenly” lose its protective ability at the five-year mark. As with anything, deterioration is gradual, and at the five year mark the consensus is that the average helmet, under average use, will likely need replacement.
Additionally, Snell indicates there will be a noticeable improvement in the protective characteristic of helmets over a five-year period due to advances in materials, designs, production methods and the standards. Thus, the recommendation for five-year helmet replacement is a judgment call stemming from a prudent safety philosophy.
To summarize the answers to the questions:
If your helmet drops to the ground from your hand, off a seat or handlebar of a motorcycle, you do not have to replace it. The real damage comes when the helmet contacts an object with a head inside. However, frequent dropping or spiking a helmet on any hard surface may eventually degrade the helmet's performance. Similarly, if the helmet falls to the ground at highway speeds unoccupied, damage to the helmet may degrade its protective capability. If you suspect your helmet may be compromised, replace it. If the helmet has been involved in an impact while in use, replace it. Even good helmets cannot provide adequate protection the second time.
Helmets do wear out over time. The five-year rule applies to five years of use, not five years in existence. While a helmet will deteriorate to some degree just sitting in a warehouse, that degree is negligible and need not be counted. But I also agree with the recommendation to not go past 7 years from the date of manufacture.
The five-year rule is a general approximation on how often a helmet should be replaced, and certainly it is never a bad idea to replace it sooner than later. But ultimately, when to replace your helmet is a judgment call on your part, and it has as much to do with the amount of wear as it does with its age.