Bicycle Helmets for the 1996 Season
This is history!
Summary: Our review of helmets for the 1996 season, researched at the Interbike trade show in California in September, 1996.
OverviewInterbike was back to full size this year, after a period of dueling trade shows ended. Almost every manufacturer and importer we know of participated in the show, and some new ones we had not met.
AwardsOur award for Smart Helmet Idea of the Year goes to the new and currently unknown Taiwanese helmet manufacturers who have introduced helmets certified to Snell B-95 made of PU (expanded polyurethane) foam at retail prices even in bike stores that should generally be well below $20.
We had a tie for our award for Dumb, Dumb, Dumb Helmet Idea of the Year. One award goes to Bell, for their new "Evo Pro" throwback. It appears to us to be a marketing department design, and we recommend strongly that consumers not buy it. The second Dumbo goes to a number of manufacturers of "super ventilated" helmets with the oversize vents. If you have a specific problem for which you must have more ventilation than a standard helmet provides, these could be your choice. But for most people, the huge vents mean that there is less foam in contact with your head in a crash, and that means that all things being equal the foam that does contact your head has to be exerting more concentrated force on your skull in the smaller areas where it hits. The U.S. standards do not test for that, and the magnesium headforms we use are never fractured by point loading. For years we have been pushing at ASTM for tests similar to the Australian standard to start getting at that problem. So oversized vents may mean less protection. You already suspected that. We recommend steering clear of those helmets.
If you are buying a new helmet, be sure to check out the June issue of Consumer Reports timed to hit the newsstands on May 19th. CU provides actual comparative crash ratings, which you don't get anywhere else. But they may not rate the helmet you are considering, so look for a Snell B-95 certified helmet first, than a Snell B-90 or ASTM certified helmet second. And above all, find one that fits you well if you want to get all the protection you are paying for. For toddler helmets, check out PTI's Barbie model, which meets the very difficult new Canadian child helmet standard and still meets the adult ASTM standard, a combination that signifies a superior helmet for hard impacts that still delivers a "softer landing" for your child.
HelmetsHere is the lineup for 1997. Our list of helmet manufacturers has addresses and Internet URLs for them.
Note: Sorry, they went out of business later in 1997.
Aria Sonics continues to produce some helmet models from Expanded PolyPropylene (EPP), a material which can make a helmet just as protective as the Expanded PolyStyrene (EPS) used in almost all other U.S. helmets this year, and which has the advantage of being multi-impact. It recovers after a crash and the helmet can still be used, confirmed by test lab results which Aria Sonics has provided us. That makes it ideal for multi-impact sports such as aggressive skating, but other manufacturers have been slow to pick up on EPP due to its technical characteristics, requirement for new molding equipment and cost. At present the Aria Sonics EPP helmets are mostly sold to law enforcement agencies, due more to marketing and police department graphics than the unique characteristics of the helmet's materials. Aria Sonics has also added a cheaper line of imported helmets, and may be the price leader in the market if you need a tractor-trailer load of helmets at less than $5 each.
Aria Sonics products are no longer available
Avenir showed adult, youth and toddler models mostly in the $25 to $30 price range. All are listed as ASTM certified, and one is said to be Snell B-95 certified. The youth and adult models have rear stabilizers and visors. White is the only bright color. Their entry in the "most vents" sweepstakes is a 17 vent model, called appropriately enough the Ventilator.
Bell is the biggest, with perhaps 70 per cent of the world market for bicycle helmets. The last Consumer Reports tests in 1993 showed that Bell has the ability to produce the best helmets on the market, even though the top-ranked one had already been dropped from their line when the article appeared. So we have been disappointed with their subsequent top of the line helmet innovations, which have had design features that seemed to us to come straight from the marketing department and no advance in safety that we can document, since Bell has settled for ASTM certification on all their models while companies like Giro have been certifying their best helmets to the Snell B-95 standard. We are thankful that last year's "hard core technology" models are biting the dust, probably victims of high production costs and limited market acceptance. We can only hope that the new Evo Pro model does the same. It features an exterior where strips of plastic alternate with strips of uncovered EPS foam, a partial throwback of almost a decade to the days when Bell and others produced helmets with no shell. We have often noted the importance of a smooth, hard, rounded shell to minimize the sliding resistance of a helmet, a feature shown in lab tests to reduce peak accelerations in a crash and reduce strap forces on the neck. But product differentiation requires that your helmet not look like all the others. We hope this one dies soon! Bell's Image Pro, which ranked just below their best model in the Consumer Reports tests, is still in production, joined by several other molded-in-the-shell models that might be good choices based on the construction method. There are also less expensive models with two-piece construction, with a reinforcing ring. Rear stabilizers appear on all adult Pro models, and there are visors included or available. Colors remained dull this year. Toddler models have a new buckle with a shield to prevent pinching the neck, a simple innovation that responds to a frequent parent complaint about the usual Fastex brand buckles. Bell did not show their discount store line of BSI helmets, their price leaders. They did announce at about the time of the show that they will produce later in 1997 a new helmet design in extra extra large size. We had asked a lot of manufacturers to do that, but only Bell stepped up to the plate to take on this profitless task. We applaud Bell for that decision and don't like having to pour cold water on the top helmet from a company that retains a long-standing commitment to community service.
This Italian company showed several aero-style models with deep vents in the lower rear section, distinguished by some really bright colors, their own fit-adjustment system, and rear stabilizers. They showed an extreme aero model worn by Tony Rominger, probably for marketing atmosphere since it was not certified to any standard and therefore can't be sold here. Their downhill helmet looks BMX-style with a big chinbar, and their skating helmet is cut low in the back, with the pro model sporting the same deep vents in the lower rear. The only standard indicated is CEN.
Byke Ryder showed reasonably priced toddler, youth and adult models, some in bright colors. They do not have rear stabilizers or visor. All are ASTM certified.
This Italian company showed an extensive and expensive helmet line including a BMX/downhill model (the V1, an old Bell designation) with fiberglass/kevlar shell and face protection, another downhill with a slimmer chinbar, an off-road helmet (the B-95, sure to be confused with Snell's B-95 standard but not certified by Snell), a ZX-R areo-style road helmet with very long vents on the sides, a Magnum road helmet with smaller vents, the Evolution road model, two child helmets and their L.A. for inline skaters, with considerably more coverage in the rear. Cratoni has some unique features: colors for one. They were almost the only line with wild, highly visible color schemes in every model. They have a rear stabilizer with a convenient dial adjuster, and one model with vent screens to keep bees out. Their Evolution and kids Fox models bring back an old idea from the popular Bailen helmet of the 70's: a single adjustable ring to fit the helmet so that "one size fits all." We are not sure how stable it would be in a crash, but it might solve some fit problems and would be useful for swapping helmets among family members. Cratoni advertises most of their helmets as ASTM certified, except for one youth helmet and the Evolution with the adjustable band.
Edge has BMX helmets designed by Troy Lee with bolted on visors. Hopefully nobody actually uses the visors. They put louvers in their vents and count each opening as a vent. They also advertise "more head coverage than any available mountain biking helmet."
Louis Garneau continues to impress us with the extent and quality of their line. The lower piece they bond onto their helmets is made of polypropylene to permit venting, and on their better models they cover it with a lower coating of ABS plastic as well. Their Bumper has 27 vents, and very little foam in contact with the head, so we would avoid it. The Bondex CX has extended back coverage and might be optimal for inline skating, while the Titanium has an internal reinforcing ring of trendy titanium. All adult LG models have rear stabilizers, and the more expensive ones have visors. Adult colors are all dark, but there are a few bright child models. The Bugs model is a downhill racer that looks like they grafted an exoskeleton to a normal helmet, complete with the trendy kevlar and carbon fiber reinforcing. All of Garneau's line has ASTM certification now, and three ( are Australian-certified as well, indicating that at least they have been tested for point loading. Several are Canadian CSA-certified, but the child helmet is not, so we have still not seen any helmets meeting the new, stricter, CSA child helmet standard that should ensure softer landings for little heads. Garneau's pricing tends to reflect the trendy designs.
Giro is now owned by Bell, but you wouldn't know it from the product lineup. Their upper niche helmets compete with Bell's Pro line, and come off looking very good by comparison. Giro now has two models with extreme ventilation: last year's Helios and a new Exodus RL. (See our comments on extreme vents above--don't buy one of these unless you need that feature more than you need maximum crash performance.) Giro has other worthy models, including three with Snell B-95 certification (Express, Fat Hat and Ricochet). They all have extended rear coverage and mostly have rear stabilizers. Many have visors. They have two models "designed exclusively for in-line skating." A few bright colors are creeping back into the Giro line, hopefully a harbinger of more to come. Giro still occupies the high end of the market, with some prices in the eye-watering range. They will not be producing their XXL helmets for super big heads this year, but only because they destroyed the molds--Giro President Bill Hannemann thought enough of the idea to check.
GT is a full-line bicycle and accessories company, and they have an extensive lineup of helmets. They modestly proclaim their Machete to be "the best looking helmet ever developed." Some GT helmets have shell holes that do not correspond to vents in the liner, looking perhaps cooler than they are, but touted by marketing as an improvement in ventilation. (Nobody is testing vents now, so who knows.) GT says they invented the Ponytail Port, which we first saw on a Troxel helmet, but again, who knows. Almost all of their colors are dark, but white is GT's best seller, indicating that marketing may be missing a trend away from the dull stuff. There is a Troy Lee design in a micro shell, with breakaway visor, and a Troy Lee BMX helmet with the visor screwed on and ready to yank your neck in a fall.
This Australian company has three smooth, well rounded designs. They have a rear stabilizer and optional visors. Worth a look because they meet Australian standards, which unlike U.S. standards do test the visors and have a point loading test in addition.
Headstrong (formerly Renaissance Marketing) blew the bottom off the helmet price scale in 1994, and brought millions of cheap, decent quality helmets that met performance standards to the mass market at unheard-of low prices. CEO Dale Friedman was at the Anaheim show, as was their ace manufacturing consultant, Blue Goulding. Their line is headed up by a Goulding product in an attractive and conspicuous red, white and blue. There are helmets for adults, kids and toddlers, a multi-sport skate helmet certified to Snell's tough N-94 standard, some with lighted panels, and some really eye-catching color schemes. Some other models are Snell B-95 certified. There are also ski helmets. Headstrong announced something called "Thin Skin" technology, described in their literature as a new inner foam making the helmet significantly thinner, but it wasn't ready by show time, and we have not heard anything about it since. The entire line is priced to sell at less than $30, and there are some for the bargain basement. With a lifetime impact replacement guarantee, Headstrong is still among the price leaders, although the new Asian helmets with Snell B-95 certification seem to be a better buy this year.
Hermes is a Vancouver company that specializes in adding shells with custom corporate logos to a basic line of Troxel helmets. They showed three models, including one with Electroluminescent lamps which can be integrated with the logo and were described as flexible, micro-thin, battery powered and waterproof.
Alpha and Flashtec are the house brands of J & B importers of Miami, which distributes a wide range of bike components. They have toddler, youth and adult models, all certified to Snell B-95, the toughest bicycle helmet standard in the market, so they are also certified to ASTM by Snell. The low wholesale prices indicate dealer pricing should be $20 or below. At those prices you don't get rear grippers or visors, but these are Snell B-95 helmets at good prices.
These Malaysian-made helmets are Snell B-95 certified, and covered with Buggs Bunny, Sylvester, Tweety, Porky Pig, Roadrunner and other familiar cartoon characters. The adult versions have a built in rear light.
This company showed two BMX helmets billed as the "Trash Can Lid" and the "Skid Lid." The Skid Lid was said to be ANSI certified, which if true would make it the first helmet with that name to meet the ANSI standard. We would avoid this one, since the ANSI standard was administratively withdrawn two years earlier and never was a strenuous test to begin with. Not to mention the name, a holdover from an early 80's helmet that would not even meet the ANSI standard.
This Italian company has a line fitted with a single band fitting device similar to the old Bailen helmets of the 70's. The size is adjusted with a dial in the back where the band drops down to become a stabilizer, and the device is claimed to end fitting problems. Since it's from Europe, there are even some bright colors.
One of the surviving Australian manufacturers after the shakeout in their market, Netti showed a line of six models for infants, children and adults for 1997, including some with rear stabilizers and visors. Price points were a bit optimistic at $50 for the upscale models and $35 for the child helmet, but they had one model that will retail for $20.
NIC showed a line of Snell-certified helmets with both adult and child models. They also had a BMX helmet with a fiberglass shell and chinbar protection.
OGK is a Japanese manufacturer who has sold here since the 70's. Their current line is Snell B-95 certified, snazzy looking if you like the aero shape, and includes the QamaQaze downhill model with full face protection. They have a hot yellow available for the super-vented model, but it lists for $120.
Razorback has a line of BMX helmets with great colors and bolted-on visors that in our opinion should be outlawed.
Ritchey showed a helmet to match their boutique line of bikes and accessories, but it wasn't really in production and had not been certified yet. The vents appeared oversized (see our comment above) and the colors were bright.
This Canadian company concentrates on designs using "licensed" characters like Fred Flintstone, Betty Boop, Barbie, Batman and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Price points in the retail market are just below $20.
Specialized continues to offer some snazzy helmets, with sometimes whimsical touches like shark's teeth around a vent. But their most impressive marketing ploy this year was a photo of a Specialized Air Cobra helmet smashed by a Tour de France rider who fell on a rainy Dutch stage and hit a concrete bollard head first at, they say, 45 mph. (Why do we suspect kph?) There is the helmet, with a chunk missing, and the description of the rider who got up and finished the stage! There is not a hint about the death of an unhelmeted rider a year earlier, and in all it is a very classy ad. The Specialized entry in the "more vents than anybody needs" category is their Air Banshee. (See our comments above on super-ventilated helmets and why you might want to avoid it.) Many of their models including their Sub 6 Pro are still certified by Snell to Snell B-90, B-90S or B-95 (Air Foil and Force Field). Specialized is another company with a well-developed sense of community service.
Taiwanese and Hong Kong Manufacturers
A number of manufacturers from Taiwan with unfamiliar brand names exhibited some of the most promising new helmets at the show. Most are made with PU (expanded polyurethane), a somewhat different foam from the EPS (expanded polystyrene) used by all U.S. manufacturers we are aware of except Aria Sonics (EPP, expanded polypropylene). The Taiwanese helmets are mostly Snell certified. The PU foam exhibits very fine grain, giving it slightly different crush characteristics than EPS and probably permitting a more uniform structure in well-foamed helmets. Best of all for the consumer, these very decent-looking helmets were virtually all selling in the under-twenty-dollar range, and some should be available under $10. Among the manufacturers in that category were Aerogo, Hoyama (Hoya), Jago, THH/Sunbeam Trading, VOC Vogue (NOTE: Vogue has been accused by SEI of claiming SEI certification for uncertified helmets!), United Royal Sports, Happy Way Enterprises, Great Group,
Trek showed five helmets, all with the Trek Cinch Retention System for stability. Their models now carry ASTM and CEN (European) stickers rather than Snell. Their "Inertia" mountain bike helmet has a large visor with air channels and more coverage than usual in the rear, but does not have face protection. Their other models are all very similar with some variations, but all of them have increased rear coverage. The Navigator comes in smaller sizes to fit kids from age 4 up, while the Lunar has a shell over the lower foam. Trek as a different design for their Little Dipper, which is billed as an "infant/toddler" helmet. It has more coverage than the adult helmets and fewer vents.
Vetta showed two adult helmets for 1997, The Gryphon has a GECET foam liner and PETG shell. Both it and the Antares model, with bigger vents, had rear stabilizers and visors. Both are Snell B-90 certified. Their child helmet, called the "Kid" has a molded-in visor in front (a bad idea in our opinion) to make it look like a cap, and is advertised as having a "high density liner." We don't know exactly what they mean by that. Opinions about foam density for kids vary at ASTM meetings, but in our opinion kids need lower density foams in their helmets, not higher.
Vigor showed a number of Snell B95 models, although they still have some that are B-90/ASTM. They also showed a Snell N-94 multi purpose standard helmet called the Duo, with good rear protection, a bright yellow option, a rear stabilizer and 3M reflective tape. They also have an extensive line of BMX and downhill racing helmets, all certified to Snell N-94. Vigor offers a lifetime crash replacement policy. Zacko We don't know much about Zacko's helmets, which were not at Interbike. They are made by PTI and meet ASTM standards. Zacko is running some very sexy ads in bike magazines, and taking flak for it. We see that sort of advertising as long overdue and hope it will help to make helmets more attractive to the younger people who are ignoring them.
(1998 Note: PTI has discontinued using the Zacko brand.)
There were few new developments in mirrors this year, except for two tiny ones that are designed to be glued on the inside of your sunglasses. One of them, the Hind-Site 20/20 (206-564-7760 for dealers) has three $20 models mounted at different angles for specific brands of sunglasses. For $40 it can be ground to your prescription, since you are not looking through the glasses lens and may need that. The other comes with a tiny swiveling mount. Either one is about the size of a pea. We got samples to try out and will put up something on them, even though they are not attached to the helmet.
Several manufacturers now make accessories to permit locking a bike helmet through its vents in case your lock won't pass through. Louis Garneau has the Helmet Guard, a wide T-shaped anodized aluminum piece with a large hole in the base of the T to fit u-locks or cable locks.
There were a number of companies with things to hang on a helmet for decoration, most of them directed toward kids. Nutty Noggins, for example, had covers to make your helmet a Mohawk, cat, lion, pony, skunk, fish, clown and more. Others add dinosaur fins. We sometimes stop at the booths when we have time to make sure they are aware of the sliding resistance issue.
Several manufacturers are now producing products that go under the helmet. The Shamdana is a bandanna-style cover that has chamois in the front. Fly had a hand-knit "speed beanie" that must clearly have been designed as an under-helmet cap.
A side note on certification: we have been informed by SEI that they found helmets at the show in one manufacturer's booth with SEI stickers on them that they had not in fact certified. They immediately took appropriate action. The helmets were samples and after SEI's actions it is unlikely that the manufacturer will ship production models to this market with the wrong sticker.
The Protective Helmet Manufacturers Association had a booth at the show and invited others to a meeting they held. PHMA is looking for a few good projects to undertake. We were pleased to have an opportunity to mention once again the need for an extra large helmet, and proposed that PHMA sponsor one. In their booth PHMA was exhibiting their new video. The title is "Professor Helmut on Helmets" and it is aimed at very young kids, perhaps K-3 or so. We have a copy to lend out if you want to see it, or you can buy it from PHMA for $9.95 (PHMA, 1333 30th St, San Diego, CA 92154). We have added it to our videos list.
Another welcome booth was the one sponsored by the Snell Foundation. Having a booth there makes knowledgeable Snell personnel like Ed Becker and Gib Brown available during the show. Snell has a new plain-paper pamphlet called "All You Need to Know About Helmets" with two paragraphs on how a helmet works and the rest on standards, Snell standards, the Snell certification program, and Who is Snell. Their full color pamphlet continues to be available in quantities of 250 for free, with info on their website.
Finally, 3M had a fine booth at Interbike following up on their efforts to market their reflective tape to helmet manufacturers. In addition to the normal marketing staff they had an engineer from product development on hand to gather first-hand information from manufacturers and others at the show on their product requirements. The company understands that they will have to develop a product meeting the manufacturers' needs as a prerequisite for inclusion of a reflectivity requirement in the ASTM or CPSC bicycle helmet standards. We have been pushing for that requirement, and were pleased to see 3M at the show.
Note: During the 1997 season we will be adding to this article
as new helmet designs appear.
This page was revised on: October 31, 2020.