MIND YOUR HEAD
If there is one piece of riding gear over which a rider should take special care, it’s their helmet. Walk into any major motorcycle retail outlet and you will be met with walls of helmets. It’s lid world, and without a little prior knowledge, you can easily end up with something that fails to meet your motorcycling needs. After all, they all look pretty similar, but in reality, they can differ on all sorts of levels. Do your homework.
The fact is the helmet you choose is going to represent the environment in which you will ‘live’, every time you use your bike. It will have a big say in whether you enjoy the experience and can be a very important factor in how you come out of any accident. It doesn’t get more important than that.
So, let’s consider the elements that should be taken into account for the potential helmet purchase.
WHAT ARE THEY MADE OF?
Let’s get some idea of the construction of motorcycle helmets.
The majority on the market today are constructed from injection-moulded thermoplastic or from fibreglass with or without carbon/ kevlar material for added strength and reduced weight.
Both types, of course, are capable of meeting the essential safety standards.
The purpose of the hard outer shell of a helmet is to prevent penetration by an object that might otherwise puncture the skull, and to provide structure to the inner liner so it does not disintegrate upon abrasive contact with pavement. This is important because the internal foams used have very little resistance to penetration and abrasion.
Inside most helmets is expanded polystyrene (EPS). The density and the thickness of the EPS are designed to cushion or crush on impact to help prevent head injuries. The whole idea is that the EPS absorbs some of the impact, more gently slowing the head than would be the case were the lining to be made of a non-crushable material. Basically, the more foam that is used, the more impact resistance the helmet possesses.
Thermoplastic helmets are generally at the budget end of the scale. This is mainly due to the fact that they are cheaper to manufacture. In keeping with this, manufacturers tend to keep the rest of the helmet at a fairly low-spec as well. Things like removable liners, replaceable cheek pads and top class ventilation are often the bastion of more expensive lids.
Thermoplastic may also have a shorter life expectancy and its chemical composition can be altered with the application of paint or decals. Leave them be on that front; that sexy graphic work your mate’s mate does should remain on the bonnet of his HX panno, not on your thermo lid.
A thermoplastic helmet will serve you well in the protection stakes, and if you are not a regular rider, or on a very tight budget, this could well be the way to go.
Price range for thermoplastic constructed helmets is from around $100 to $400.
The area of added safety offered by composite construction is hotly argued. One view places the theory that, because thermoplastic construction offers a softer outer surface, there is a degree of ‘give’ which absorbs a portion of an impact. While the debate rages and studies seem to arrive at conflicting findings, let’s just say this: there is a strong train of thought that you get what you pay for, and there is no doubt that top-end composite helmets are more likely to have undergone rigorous development by the manufacturer.
It therefore follows the composite helmet is likely to offer a good degree of refinement in all areas. Sitting on the fence? You betcha.
Composite helmets (particularly those using carbon fibre and Kevlar) are usually lighter than those constructed with a higher proportion of fibreglass.
It’s a generalisation, but a composite helmet will often feature a higher quality lining. The EPS is similar to that used in thermoplastic helmets, but you get removable liners that are, in many cases washable. This is nice. It might be your sweat and road grime, but nevertheless it can become decidedly stinky in there after a period of use and the value of an opportunity to sweeten things up with a good tub can’t be under-estimated. Ventilation is usually better in a composite helmet, due once again to the higher prices being asked.
Higher end manufacturers know that people value good ventilation and will buy on a good marketplace reputation in this area.
On a personal note, I’m a bit of a cynic on claims made about helmet ventilation. Open the visor, air comes in, close it and it doesn’t.
I have consistently failed to discern much difference in any of the ‘multi-port ventilation system’ lids I’ve owned. Maybe I’m just insensitive. Composite helmets range from around $300 right through to $1400.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT SIZE
This comes down to simple legwork and trying on a range of helmets. Different manufacturers use different internal shapes and there will be one that suits your head shape. You just have to find it.
Ensure the helmet is not too tight. This is a recipe for headaches and discomfort. If you feel any discomfort at this stage, it will only get worse.
Your head should slide in relatively easily and touch the top of the inside of the helmet. The brow should fit comfortably, the cheek pads should be snug but not making you look like you’ve had a nasty industrial accident. Does the vision line feel right? Look right and left, ensuring your peripheral vision is sufficient.
With the helmet on, shake your head from side to side, there should not be a great deal of movement and the helmet should move comfortably with you. If it slides on your hair, try a size down.
Ensure the securing straps are easily accessed, pull them tight enough for the helmet to feel firmly in place, but not so tight that you feel choked.
Now, walk around, go outside and if you have a bike handy, sit on it with the helmet on. Look around the bike and forward and to the rear.
You’ll then get a taste for how the helmet will feel in the real world.
If you wear glasses or sunnies, put these on. Some helmets allow these to be easily put in place, others can push the arms or lens frames against the face and this will drive you batty over time.
For a helmet to be legal for use on Australian roads, it must have an AS1698 sticker. This means that it has met the standards set down by the Australian Standard. (Your visor must have a sticker as well).
This means the helmet has undergone and passed testing for strength of the retention system (usually a strap to the lower jaw area that holds the helmet in place), resistance to penetration, impact absorption and offers sufficient peripheral vision.
The simple fact is, if the helmet does not have this sticker, it is illegal to wear. It may well have approval from overseas testing agencies (ECE 22.05 Europe, DOT FMVSS 218 USA are two you may come across), and you can indeed import these helmets, but you can’t wear them legally without AS1698. It’s a trap for young players.
A good rule of thumb here is to buy from a reputable outlet. The internet is a very good place to shop, but you can get burnt on this front. There is nothing like the tangible feel of the lid in your hand and the sticker is either there, or it’s not.
FULL FACE VERSUS OPEN FACE
worms. The feeling offered from an open-face helmet while riding is sublime in its simplicity. Base your argument on emotion and it’s a hands-down win for the open-face.
Once again, debate rages here. Many feel there is a significantly increased risk of facial injury if you’re involved in a crash while wearing an open-face helmet.
An Australian university study of bike crashes found that “after adjustment for BAC (Blood Alcohol Content), there was no significant increase in risk associated with wearing an open-face helmet compared to a full-face”.
See the full report at www.monash.edu.au/muarc/reports/atsb174.html
You can decide for yourself on that front, but what cannot be disputed is that open-face helmets fail to protect you as well against the elements as a full-face helmet.
Cop a bee/wasp/locust/stone/rain/hail in the face and you’ll sincerely know about it.
If you choose to go the open-face route, it is imperative you wear eye protection. Many will suggest a good pair of sunnies will do the job, but that’s a load of old cobblers. Many sunglass brands come with glass lenses and the result of a stone-strike is not worth thinking about. Buy good quality, purpose made goggles. Hey, Biggles was pretty cool and you won’t look like Pirate Pete in your dotage.
There’s no doubt a full-face helmet removes you from the experience to some extent. It can feel claustrophobic, itchy, the visor fogs up in winter and there’s the stink factor that we cover elsewhere. In fact, if you wanted to create an unpleasant environment, you’d come up with the full-face motorcycle helmet. The Man in the Fibreglass Mask.
You get used to it and you don’t even notice these shortcomings after a while. And, when Bertie the Christmas Beetle decides to end his lifelong struggle and smear his person across your visor at 120km/h (he was doing 20 and I was doing a nice legal 100, officer), you’ll be exceedingly pleased you have a full-face job on. Trust me.
- Be absolutely sure of the fit – relatively tight with no discomfort.
- Recognise that different brands fit different head shapes.
- Never buy a used helmet. They can hide dangerous damage.
- Buy the best quality helmet you can afford.
- Try lots of helmets on.
- Ventilation should be plentiful and easy to activate with a gloved hand.
- Look for an easy visor adjustment. We recommend clear visors.
- If you ride both dirt and road, you will need two helmets. Dirt helmets are designed for lower speeds and are of much lighter construction.