Feature: Helmets

Date 17.3.2014

Presented by
  • Motorcycle Trader

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PUT A LID ON IT

Skid lid, crash hat, brain bucket, call it what you will, a helmet is on the must-have list and can cost anywhere from under 100 bucks to over a grand. For some it’s a grudge purchase, while for others is an opportunity to express their personality.

The good news is that, particularly over the last decade, the choice of helmets has mushroomed while the prices have, if anything, fallen. Oh, and the available quality has lifted a notch, too.

Having said that, you can also go completely retro, to the point of buying styles and materials used 40 years ago. Anyone who rode in a real ’70s helmet would pay a lot of money not to repeat the experience, but apparently that’s what some of the cool kids are doing. Anyway, let’s go shopping…

STYLE AND FIT

For the road, your basic choices are full-face, open-face and an adventure-touring hybrid. Then we move on to off-road/motocross styles. All come in a wide range of variations. So which one for you?

That will depend entirely on the riding, the bike and look you’re trying to achieve. They’re often not complementary. For example, an open face looks the part on a cruiser, but can be a liability at highway speeds, unless you’ve got a windscreen to ward off the rocks, rain and whatever else gets in your face. That said, I’m a fan of this style of helmet and use it frequently.

Full-face is probably the easiest choice if you’re just starting out on the road, because it offers maximum sealing and protection from the elements (which becomes more important the higher the speeds and the longer the distances) and will always be handy to have, even if you move on to something else.

This is where walking into a real live shop with a variety of helmets on offer, and someone to get advice from and bounce ideas off, has huge value. Plus, if you’re new to this, you can get someone to show you how to put the helmet on (there is a trick to it) and do it up. Online shopping is great for some things, but this isn’t one of them.

When it comes to fit, some helmets and brands will suit your head shape and others won’t. That’s because different brands use subtle variations in the shape of their head moulds. What you’re looking for is something that contacts the whole surface area of your scone, more or less evenly, with no pressure points.

It should be a firm fit all round. Do the chinstrap up tight – as tight as you can without risking strangulation. You should not be able to rotate it on your head, either vertically or horizontally. A firm and well-fitted helmet will protect you, while a poorly fitted one can cause you pain and sometimes simply depart the scene when you need it most.

IS IT SAFE?

For a lid to be legal, it needs an approval label that mentions the basic safety standard, which is AS1698 aka AS/NZ1698. Any visor should have a sticker mentioning AS1609. Four different organisations now offer legal certification and they each have a different logo. They are: SAI Global, BSI, Global-Mark and TUV-RA. Those standards ensure what you’re buying passes basic safety tests and that the helmet will at least be functional.

Beyond basic legality, a number of groups have, over the years, attempted rating systems. In Australia, the long-established Crashlab, out of the Road and Traffic Authority in NSW, has been working on a two-pronged approach, covering protection and comfort. The latter is controversial as it is tied to individual fit, however the criteria make sense and provide a useful baseline. (See our links list below for the details.)

In the UK, there is a Department of Transport-sponsored scheme labeled Sharp, which looks at protection only. It has some 300 helmets in its database – but only full-face road types – while Crashlab lists 60 models across full-face, open-face and adventure touring. It seems you dirt folk are on your own…

Here is the safety rating system used by Crash Lab in NSW:

1 star = Meets AS/NZ Standard;
2 stars = Average;
3 stars = Above average;
4 stars = Good;
5 stars = Excellent.
And on the comfort side of things:
1 star = Poor;
2 stars = Average;
3 stars = Above average;
4 stars = Good;
5 stars = Excellent

A TALE OF TWO LIDS

Call me slack, but for the majority of my riding I stick with middle-of-the-range to upper-end Shoei brand helmets. The reason? They’re a well-constructed and, most importantly, I know their particular lining mould suits my head.

However, RXT (via importers Moto National in Queensland) recently supported our Seven-Up learner rider series by supplying a bunch of helmets for our new recruits. One of the lids ended up landing in my garage and has become a welcome addition as my spare. I’ve used it on quite a few occasions over recent months.

So, my main riding helmet is a Shoei XR-1100 and the spare is an RXT Sprint, both manufactured in 2011 and delivered in 2012. They’re very different in price: $750 full retail for the Shoei and $120 for the RXT. The shell for the Shoei is a sophisticated multi-layer fibre-reinforced construction, and moulded plastic for the RXT, while they weigh approximately 1900 grams versus 1600.

Although both helmets are the same size (internally), the Shoei has a bigger shell. I take size XXL and the Japanese maker is one of the very few (Arai is another) which makes different shell sizes for larger noggins – most get by with more or less internal padding across the range.

Weirdly, the Shoei gets a three-star protection rating with the local crash lab, while the UK folk give it the highest five-star score. The Sprint also gets a three-star local rating, with the actual scores showing up as 59.1 (Shoei) versus 55.7 out of 100. In fact, the cheaper helmet outscores the Shoei in a couple of criteria.

In the comfort ratings, the XR-1100 earns three stars and the Sprint two, with the numbers stacking up as 55.1 versus 45.1.

There’s an easily identified difference in the feel of the product, which is not represented in the scores. Both offer quick-release visors, removable liners and extensive venting, but the Shoei materials are better quality with superior fit and finish. This becomes abundantly clear when you wear them. The RXT has more noise and simply doesn’t feel as nice to pull on. It’s also more crowded for headspace – which may only be an issue if you have a big skull.

That said, the RXT is a perfectly acceptable helmet that offers stunning value for the dollar. I’ll stick with the luxury brand, but it’s nice know that you don’t have to spend a bomb. I just wish something that good had been available when I started riding.

LIVING WITH IT

How long your lid lasts will depend largely on how much it’s used. I keep at least a few helmets in the garage at home, with the most-used full-face getting exercised at least a few times a week for at least an hour – often longer. In that situation, I’m replacing it every two years. For less frequently used gear, five years is probably enough and anything that reaches 10 is definitely past its use-by date.

Not only does the exterior suffer, but the foam lining compresses and loses its integrity – nothing lasts forever, least of all in the relatively exposed and hostile environment that is motorcycling.

You may read or hear that a helmet that’s been dropped – even if it’s just slipped from the seat of your bike – is a write-off. Rubbish. Yes, I’ll instantly toss something that’s had any sort of knock in a real crash (no matter how minor), but a light drop is not the end of the world.

When it comes to cleaning, avoid solvents as you’ll probably damage the shell. Water and detergent will do. A quick once-over with household spray wax will do wonders for its appearance.

Oh, and don’t be tempted to chuck the removable liner in the washing machine, as you might not recognise it once the spin cycle has finished with it. Just a quick sponge or rinse by hand will do.

NOW WHAT?

Like motorcycles, helmets tend to be specialised. So you may well end up needing or wanting at least a couple of different types to cover the spectrum of your riding.

You don’t need to spend a fortune, but it is important that you get a decent fit – something you can really only do in a pukka motorcycle store. And, remember, they are in fact a consumable item with a use-by date, so don’t even think about buying second-hand.

So, what’s your favourite colour…?

USEFUL ONLINE LINKS:
Australian test site: Crash.org.au
UK test site: Sharp.Direct.gov.uk
MC Council of NSW advice: Roadsafety.mccofnsw.org.au/a/74.html
Australian standards: ProductSafety.gov.au

*****

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