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Bicycle Helmets for the 1996 Season

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Summary: Our review of helmets for the 1996 season, researched at the Interbike trade show in Philadelphia in October, 1995.


Interbike's east coast show in Philadelphia in early October (1995) featured most of the major helmet manufacturers, few of the smaller discount helmet producers, and some advances in helmetry being marketed in the 1996 season.

Something New - Straps. Styling, Standards and Hype

Overall the biggest news was that manufacturers are beginning to address the strap adjustment problems that have been consumers' number one complaint in recent years. Fitting is just too fussy with the current suspension systems, and "strap creep" (loosening of adjustments while riding) has been a real problem since straps became glossier and thinner. Beginning last year we saw manufacturers add grippers in the rear of their helmets to assist in fit, generally improving riding stability whether or not they help in keeping the helmet in position during in a crash. Those are now found in virtually every line. This year many manufacturers have new strap junction pieces, and some are adding rubber o-rings to the buckle to try to control strap creep, at least until the rubber deteriorates. We doubt that the problem is solved yet, but at least competitive pressures are forcing innovation. Visors are increasingly popular. Most are anchored with hook-and-loop and designed to pop off easily in a crash, as they should be, but some are heavy and solidly attached. Standards organizations in the U.S. will have to address that problem, as Australia has already done.

Finishes and colors were similar to last year, with the exception of some brighter graphics on the wilder designs and the sudden rise of matte (flat) finishes. The matte finish can give a helmet an appearance of strength and it looks very professional. Unfortunately, it is a disaster from the point of view of conspicuity, but neon is dead and the industry is forced to provide what the consumer will buy. Everywhere we heard dealers asking about the availability of matte finishes. By spring the supply of matte finish helmets should explode. But there is no offsetting use of reflectorized tape or logos to make the helmets more visible, so the conspicuity problem will become even more acute. There is a trend toward large stick-on letters for logos, of the type that are thick enough to give a raised effect. We have reservations about those on the basis of durability and believe they will cause an unnecessary increase to the sliding resistance of the shell.

Two years ago every serious helmet in the market had a Snell B-90 sticker in it. Last year that began to change, and this year a large percentage of the production (Bell's huge share, for starters) had ASTM certification instead. Snell's stickers and followup testing charges are too expensive in a highly competitive market, and as the country moves to the CPSC's U.S. Government standard the manufacturers are betting that Snell approval is less a factor for marketing. The Snell list still has thousands of models from 74 manufacturers of B-90 helmets, and the majority of those are still on the market. They have certified 160 models from 34 manufacturers to their B-90 Supplement standard, with the rolloff test. But they have certified only 51 helmets from 21 manufacturers to their new, stricter, B-95 standard, and only six from four manufacturers to their N-94 multi-sport standard. The standards game has been changing rapidly as CPSC began requiring by law that all helmets made for sale in the U.S. after March 16, 1995, had to meet one of seven voluntary standards already in the marketplace, including those from Snell, ASTM, ANSI and CSA. In 1997 when CPSC's own standard takes the place of those seven in the laws of the land, we expect that the standards question will resolve down to whose standard denotes a premium helmet, and whether or not the consumer will pay some additional amount for a standard other than that of the U.S. Government. Unless otherwise noted below, the helmets we discuss are certified to Snell B-90 (see list on Snell's home page), B-90S or to ASTM. A helmet that only meets the ANSI Z90.4 1984 standard is a decade behind the times and should be rejected out of hand. We consider a Snell B-95 model to be a premium helmet. Snell's N-94 standard requires tests with impacts on the same spot at lesser force levels prior to the full drop-height test. Snell has the list of helmets meeting either standard.

As the market has gotten tougher, the major manufacturers have turned to advertising agencies to up their hype level. Enthusiasm for the product can help to sell helmets, and that's a Good Thing, but now the market is beginning to insult the consumer with irrational ad copy. There are examples below.

Something Old - Materials and Pricing

The mainstream material continues to be expanded polystyrene (EPS--picnic cooler foam) although small manufacturers are producing helmets from expanded polypropylene and even expanded polyurethane foam. They claim advantages. It appears that EPP does provide multiple impact performance, and it was expected to be the material of choice for the new Snell N-94 multi-purpose helmets. Instead, manufacturers are working hard to make EPS helmets meet that standard, which can be done by using thicker, denser EPS. Price is one consideration--EPP raises the manufacturing cost by 50 cents to two dollars per helmet. Another is the rebound effect from EPP's more rubbery, less crushing, response to impact. The rebound takes place during the crash sequence after the data for Snell-style tests has already been recorded, but it is significant and nobody knows what the effect could be in the field. EPS remains an ideal crushing foam with almost no rebound, and for that reason alone is probably still the material of choice for a single-impact helmet. General Electric's GECET variant, a combination of EPS and a resin, still seems to be the hallmark of premium helmets. One manufacturer who is just putting a first helmet on the market is using expanded polyurethane (EPU). While others have used EPU before, it has its own special problems and requires a fair amount of technical skill that would be beyond most ordinary commercial foam shops, requiring the manufacturer to do the foam molding. We have not seen test results from EPU helmets.

Pricing is discouraging for the dealer. While competing with mass-merchant stores selling helmets for under $10 retail, the best prices the dealer sees from their suppliers start at $8 per helmet, usually plus shipping. Dealers typically double the wholesale price, so their prices will be almost double that of the discounter. It is no wonder some dealers are resentful at Bell for putting the Bell brand on their discount line, formerly know as BSI.

Others have complained about being stuck with high-priced inventory as prices have dropped in 1995. Most are resigned to the competitive situation and understand Bell's move, however. The dealer has to convince the consumer that the higher style and higher quality helmets they sell, along with the services they provide, are worth the extra cost.

Something Borrowed, Something (Matte) Blue: The Lineup

Adidas showed helmets made for them by Pro-tec. They will retail in the $30 to $35 range and should appeal to anyone who wants a lifetime warranty and a huge Adidas logo on the side of their helmet rather than the lesser known Pro-tec brand name. Their Multi-Sport Helmet is designed for bicycling, roller blading and inline skating, and may be the Pro-tec I100B or I100S which are Snell N-94 certified, but is not listed separately by Snell on their September 28, 1995 list.

Avenir has a Corsair EPS helmet retailing for $30, a $40 GECET adult helmet with rear gripper and visor, and their $50 VSR Comp GECET with visor. Their helmets all have a small but very bright die-cut rear reflective tab.

Bell now claims 70 per cent of the world bicycle helmet market, and showed primarily their Pro series designed for bike shops at bike shop price points rather than their cheaper discount store line, which dealers do not want to see. Bell's line has been improved for 1996 by dropping all but two of their old "Hardcore" (BSI trademark) helmets with hard foam inserts around the vents. The sales staff said that Hardcore helmets were very expensive to produce (read "unprofitable"). Consumers should still avoid the Avalanche Pro and the Razor Pro models. The rest of Bell's line is improved by adding a new flip tab on the strap junction which may make fitting quicker. Pulling on the straps moves them through the new fitting, however, indicating that they may not solve the strap creep problem. Bell has added a rubber o-ring to the buckle to help hold the strap better. Bell's top of the line helmets are inmolded, a manufacturing technique which in the past has produced very good performance. They have a very high quality appearance with matte finishes, but no reflective surfaces at all to offset their low conspicuity. Some have visors with Velcro attachments, but Bell's literature says you can use snaps or even screws if you want to. One prototype had pegs on the visor which plugged into holes in the shell. One helmet apparently designed for street hockey had a full face protector resembling a catcher's mask. We would be surprised if the snaps on the rear of the sample we saw would meet the ASTM standard for projections from the shell. If so, we need to revise the standard. Bell has two different rear gripper attachments, including one that is just hook-and-looped to the line in the headband area, and looks like it would readily detach in a crash. Their permanently fastened gripper is a better design and is used on the lower-end models. The child helmets all have thin shells. Bell's pricing now ranges from super-cheap for their department store line to over $100 retail for their top of the line models. They have a graphic in their sales literature projecting that average helmet prices will drop in 1996 to $15, down from $21 in 1995. Bell's opinion: "If somebody doesn't do something quick, helmets will end up like water bottles: cheap commodity items." Bell lost money last year. They promise the dealer an aggressive new advertising program, including national TV ads, in an effort to win back the dealers who deserted them when they put their Bell brand on their discount store line. Bell now offers a lifetime "nominal fee" replacement program.

Giro has a new high-end Helios helmet with about as much vent surface as solid helmet surface. They have also developed a new strap junction piece, which tended to pop open when we pulled the strap, and rubber o-rings on the buckle which may help with strap creep. Their AirBlast model has a rear gripper that separates and refastens below your pony tail, solving a heat and moisture buildup problem for longhairs when the gripper presses their hair down. Giro has new visors made of soft foam, which seem ideal to prevent visor snags from jerking the head in a crash. Giro has matte finishes in their line now, but they use reflective materials only on their child helmets. They will soon market a downhill racing helmet called Mad Max with full face protection. Three of their models meet Snell's B-95 standard: the Express, Fat Hat and Ricochet. Giro's current guarantee is a "nominal fee" replacement program for the first three years.

GT showed two helmets labeled Troy Lee designs with heavy, rigid plastic visors fastened on with screws. These models again point up the need for a visor test in the ASTM standard.

Helmet Worx has been bought by Itek, a major Canadian manufacturer of hockey helmets, and has moved all production facilities to Canada. They are currently producing two models from GECET foam with their unique strap gripper in the back, and pricing of $35 to $45. They are still using Snell certification, and their Headcase X-95 is B-95 certified.

J & B Importers displayed Alpha helmets. They were among the lowest price points we saw at the show, with dealer prices running $8 and up (translating to $16 and up at the retail level) in quantities of 12 or more for Snell-certified helmets, including one B-95 model. Alpha is made in USA, although we do not know the company.

Louis Garneau showed their most complete line of helmets yet. This year the emphasis is on their new LG12, a molded in the shell design with their thin ABS plastic inner shell, their new strap junction piece, buckle and rear gripper. It has ASTM and CEN but not Snell certification, and will sell for $110. They have some snappy-looking child helmets, and a suitably drab lid made of 10 per cent recycled materials and packed in a recycled material box selling at a more realistic price point of $30. They have a multiple-impact helmet made of GECET EPP, the first we have seen, and it is Snell certified. One model has a titanium inner reinforcing ring, another only aluminum. There is a downhill racing model with a hard shell and a chinbar. Garneau has five helmets on the Snell B-95 list (LG-10, LG-44, LG-55, S200 and S202). But their time trial helmet only meets the ANSI standard. For the other models they advertise ASTM, CSA (Canada) and CEN (Europe).

Oryx is an Israeli company which has just begun producing a very interesting helmet made of expanded polyurethane (EPU). There is a large red LED blinker embedded in a hollow in the rear of the helmet. The rear is designed to split and release the blinker in a crash. They said the helmet meets Snell B90S, but it does not appear on Snell's September 28 list. It will retail for about $50 if they can find any takers at that price.

Netti helmets were exhibited by CTEL, an importer. This Australian manufacturer produces an impressive looking line of helmets, many of them inmolded with internal reinforcement and selling at retail prices of $40 to $50, a bit high in today's market for a lesser-known brand. Netti uses reflective tape on their helmets.

Pro Tec had a Snell B-95 helmet, the B-200 B, on display. It has the usual large vents, a rear gripper, and a cloth-backed foam visor. Their I100B Multi-Sport helmet for cycling, inline skating and skateboarding has Snell N-94 multi-purpose standard certification. Their child helmets continue to sell well, although we shudder whenever we see one because the originals many years ago had squishy foam liners that could not even meet the 1984 ANSI standard. Pro-tec's retail price points fall between $37.50 and $50. They offer a lifetime warranty program to "replace any helmet that is cracked or broken as a result of a cycling accident at NO CHARGE." Hopefully that language will not convince a consumer that it is all right to wear a helmet after a crash unless it was cracked or broken. We have a letter in our files from Pro-tec dated 1981 using the same phrase for their old hard shell helmets. Pro-tec's literature has some rather astonishing claims: the first to introduce a softshell, first microshell (microshell is a Bell trademark) to pass and maintain Snell N-94 certification and "first in performance..." Just for the record: Bell and Giro introduced softshells in 1983 and 1986, when Pro-tec introduced their hardshell Breeze model. Snell says they can't tell us which helmet was the first certified to their N-94 standard, but the Star--still on Snell's September 28 helmet list--was the first we saw and heard about, and Consumer Reports ranked the performance of a Pro-tec adult model 15th and a youth model last of the helmets they rated in August of 1994. Curiously, the sales literature fails to mention Pro-tec's most important contribution to helmetry: the internal reinforcing in their soft-shell Mirage model was the first on the market. (Somebody has to say these things or manufacturers will not be careful about researching their claims.)

Troxel's line has been developing over the years, and this year they brought some interesting helmets. The descriptions are another matter. Troxel is among the more socially-responsible manufacturers, but their current ad campaign is given to excess. Their Spirit 2 youth helmet is billed as "designed for multi-disciplines: cycling and in-line skating." We were surprised to see that it is certified only to Snell's B-90 bicycle helmet standard, not to a skating standard. Troxel's Vector model has very large vents and could be expected to be cool to wear. The description says "world's coolest helmet," but the claim is not supported in any way. In fairness, they do not say whether they are referring to temperature or the "cool" that is in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately, the world's coolest helmet temperature-wise is unlikely to have a gripper in the back the size of the Vector's. We lump that statement along with the ones about their titanium-shelled ANSI-only Radius-Ti which is currently featuring in Troxel ads. We understand the concept of image helmets, and hope that the Radius-Ti will continue to not sell well. But it is billed as "the world's fastest helmet," a mystifying claim to say the least. Otherwise, the Troxel line adds a new strap junction fitting which can be tightened with a coin and may hold promise to resist strap creep. They have rear grippers on several models, and the older Diva model for ladies with the world's first pony tail port. They have a new pad material called ScotchFelt which may improve wicking of perspiration to the sides to drip away from eyes, and a new single-tab buckle of their own design which unlike the double tab designs will make it evident to the wearer when a tab breaks that the buckle must be replaced. All of Troxel's visors are mounted with Velcro. Five of their models are made with GECET foam. Most of their models are still Snell-certified, except for the Catalina "entry-level" helmet, which is an ASTM helmet. It all, it is obvious that Troxel has been doing some design work to keep their line fresh and competitive in a tough market.

Vetta had two helmets on view. One was an Antares model from Taiwan with a sloppy shell/liner interface and no standards sticker at all. The other was a Gryphon with a good shell fit and a visor with an l-shaped brace in the center which wrapped under the helmet brow to a hook-and-loop pad. We don't like that design, which could snag when the visor is pulled upward.

Wolf Pro remains among the price leaders in the market. They have ended their association with Renaissance Marketing. Dealer prices start at $8 and go all the way up to $16 for Snell-certified helmets. Add $5 dealer cost for rear LED flashers. (Double those numbers for the retail price.) Some models have grippers in the back.

We are lacking comments on Specialized, Trek, Sport Maska, AST Multisport, Rosebank and several others because they were not at the Philadelphia show.