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The Helmet Update

Volume 17, Issue 1 - January, 1999
BHSIDOC#600 - Published on paper and on the web
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Helmets for 1999


This year's Interbike fall trade show continued last year's trend to fewer new helmet manufacturers and fewer new helmets, reflecting some continued shrinkage in the industry and thin profit margins. There were few real innovations this year, and most of them were at the lower end of the price spectrum. All helmets manufactured after March 10 must meet the new CPSC standard, but anything made earlier is still legal, and many older ones will be sold throughout the year. Some of those that met the ASTM standard last year may meet the CPSC standard, but many if not most will require at least some improvement in coverage to meet CPSC. We recommend looking for a helmet that:

** Meets the CPSC (preferred) or ASTM (somewhat weaker) standard.
** Fits you
** Is inmolded
** Has a round, smooth exterior

A helmet that only meets the ASTM standard should be a lot cheaper this year than a helmet that can meet the tougher CPSC standard.

Trends: Vents and Sharp Lines Vents are Still Hot! A major theme for 1999 continues to be more and larger air vents. If all else were equal, more vents would be a Good Thing, but as usual, all else is not equal. Although it may not be self-evident, most riders do not really need the extra vents, since the normal venting in the good helmets of the mid-90's proved adequate for almost all riding by almost all riders in almost all conditions. Opening up bigger vents forces other compromises in helmet design, even with the more expensive inmold process. To provide impact protection with less foam the manufacturers normally have to harden the remaining foam, so that the force of a blow is transmitted to the rider's head with more pressure on one particular spot. There is no unanimity that this presents a safety problem, and only the Australian standard tests for what they term "localised loading," but all things being equal we would prefer to crash in a helmet with wider foam strips in contact with our head than narrower ones, and a helmet with less dense foam. Opinions may be divided on the importance of these design features, but we believe that rounder shells and less dense foam are still virtues.

Opening up more or larger vents often is achieved by molding the EPS part of the helmet with the plastic shell in the same mold. In one operation this bonds the shell and expands the foam "beads" into solid foam. The resulting helmet has almost every millimeter of space under the shell filled with foam (except for any quality control problems), unlike a taped-on or glued-on shell which has voids of several millimeters or more in spots. In addition, the heat of the mold would melt the cheaper plastic used or glued-on shells, so molding in the shell requires the manufacturer to use a better grade cover, normally a polycarbonate like GE's Lexan. The shell's bonding and higher quality plastic contribute to the strength of the helmet structure. In addition, manufacturers add various types of interior reinforcement to hold the thinner foam together.

Most helmets are designed to reliably meet the standard, not to exceed it by much, so designers use higher quality construction techniques to thin the helmet out and increase vent size. That evens out impact performance so that better construction techniques don't often mean better impact protection, just thinner helmets and more vents. In short, more money will buy you more vents, but not necessarily more safety. In general the manufacturers are designing to the standard (now CPSC), and are not using the more expensive construction features to surpass it. Even so, inmolding does continue to offer two advantages: it provides more consistent resistance to cracking and destruction of the helmet in the first impact. And because the shell is molded to the foam, it may show indentations after a crash to remind you to replace the helmet, while a taped-on shell may just pook out again and hide the damage. For those reasons we continue to recommend it unless price is your first consideration.

All of the hyper-ventilated models we have seen this year meet the ASTM standard, and any manufactured after March 10, 1999 must by law meet the new CPSC standard. None we have seen so far is certified to Snell's more stringent B-95 standard introduced in 1995. All will continue to be expensive, since consumers apparently will pay more for more vents.

Designs Still Sharper, Squared Off

The fashion among helmet designers continues to favor squared-off edges of the foam remaining around the vents, and the addition of sharp lines in the exterior plastic just for style. The elongated "aero" shape continues to dominate as well. This is a less than optimal design for crashing. We believe that the ideal surface for striking a road resembles a bowling ball. Round shells reduce to a minimum any tendency for a helmet to "stick" to the surface when you hit, with the possibility of increasing impact intensity, contributing to rotational brain injury or jerking the rider's neck. They also eliminate the aero tail that can shove the helmet aside as you hit, exposing your bare head. This is such a problem with today's helmets that lab testers have to use copious amounts of duct tape to keep some helmets on the headform in their test drops, even after they have pulled the straps super-tight. In the real world people don't use duct tape, and they don't even adjust their straps well. So our advice is to avoid those long aero designs. In fact, they don't give you any aero advantage until you reach racing speeds anyway.

To reduce potential snagging points to a minimum we would prefer helmets with vents and external ribs well faired and rounded. Many current designs have a "shelf" effect in the rear that adds to helmet length but also adds a prominent snag point, a feature we would avoid. We would note that none of this is tested for by any of the world's current bicycle helmet standards, despite studies that have shown that helmets that do not slide well can cause higher neck forces on chin straps and increase the g level of an impact.

Unfortunately, the squared-off fashion trend tends to make older round designs look clunky and old-fashioned unless they are graphically very well done. The new ones look great, and perhaps that can translate into more helmet use. We think that these helmets will perform well in the field, but we just do not consider the squared-off designs optimum.

More Trends

Other trends this year include a continued slow movement toward brighter colors, mirroring what is happening in bike colors and colors for clothing and other accessories. Many manufacturers had orange, yellow or some other brighter colors in their mix this year. Visors have lost some ground. Manufacturers are now using them to promote a difference between visorless "road" helmets and visored "mountain bike" helmets. The distinction is entirely artificial, since both are designed to the same standard and both may well be used at times for the other type of riding. Rear stabilizers continue to move down into the medium-priced market. These devices have been well accepted by consumers, and most manufacturers have been pricing their helmets with stabilizers at the high end, pleased to have a feature that can persuade the consumer to part with more bucks. Another trend in the low-priced market is packaging helmets with other accessories, particularly in the skate market, where a number of manufacturers including PTI and Troxel have knee pads and wrist protectors with their "multi-sport" helmets. We were surprised to find that most of those multi-sport helmets are certified to the same ASTM F-1447 bicycle helmet standard as a normal bicycle helmet. The list of those certified to Snell's N-94 multi-purpose standard is still very short.

New Technology There are no exciting new materials or advances in technology evident yet in this years' helmet lines. Vetta continues to work on their new closed-cell, cross-linked polymer to replace standard EPS, but it is not yet ready for the market. We have seen one interesting new helmet with a completely different construction technique that offers promise for hard-to-fit heads, but it is not shipping yet. It should be announced soon, but the design is radical enough to make us cautious about its effectiveness. Since CPSC-certified helmets now beginning to arrive in the stores are as good as what's on the horizon in 1999, we don't think there is any reason to delay a purchase waiting for new models. But we do recommend looking for the CPSC sticker rather than taking an old ASTM model unless price is your most important consideration.

The Helmets for 1999

We can't begin to cover all the helmets in the market, or even the highlights, in a newsletter produced on paper--it ran us up to 17 pages in this format! On our website you will find a full writeup that covers all the manufacturers and helmets. If you don't have web access and need the details, please let us know and we will mail you a copy on paper.

Bell Kinghead Covers the Largest Heads

Bell is barely marketing their Kinghead helmet, a very large lid that fits heads up to size 8 1/4, with a circumference of 29.5 inches. Most people can turn it sideways. It meets the need of a small but desperate group of riders with very large heads who had found it difficult to ride on club events and had even been riding unlawfully in some jurisdictions because they could not find a helmet large enough. We salute Bell for producing this model as a service, knowing that it will not make money due to the very small market. It is a fine helmet, with the smoothly-rounded exterior we consider optimal. But due to the limited demand for this item we have yet to see it in Bell's ads, and you have to order it at a bike shop where they may not even know it exists! We do not know if Bell has a Kinghead certified to the new CPSC standard or not, which could affect its availability later this year.


The Consumer Product Safety Commission's bicycle helmet standard becomes law on March 10, 1999, covering helmets manufactured after that date. but not preventing sales of helmets made earlier. Most of what is in the stores in January, 1999 is the older stock. So earlier helmets will be in the stores for months, and in some cases years, that cannot quite meet the new standard, and in isolated cases may even meet only to the old ANSI 1984 standard. The CPSC standard is slightly more demanding than the ASTM standard, so we now recommend buying a helmet meeting the CPSC standard.

CPSC covers only bicycle helmets. You will still see helmets on the market that don't meet the CPSC standard, and just omit any reference to use for bicycling. They can be for skating, skateboarding, surfing or tiddlywinks, as long as they are not labeled "for bicycling." They can be sold in bike shops or in discount stores on the same shelf as the bicycle helmets. So a measure of "buyer beware" is still required. We recommend that you look for the CPSC standard, and if it is not there, look for an ASTM standard instead, but pay less. Snell's B-95 or N-94 stickers require even better performance, but most of the "Snell" helmets on the market meet only their older B-90 standard. SEI is now certifying helmets to the CPSC standard. The first batch of SEI-certified CPSC helmets was limited to 14 of Bell's models but others should follow soon.

ASTM Making Progress - Slowly

ASTM's Headgear Subcommittee met in December and made real progress. A new standard for infant and toddler bicycle helmets was approved this year (F1898-98) requiring more coverage than an adult helmet and using a more realistic headform weight, but unfortunately not lowering the g tolerance in the lab tests. Many other standards are being improved. The subcommittee now has twenty active task groups revising existing standards and writing new ones for face protection, visors, helmet fitting and helmets for BMX, snow sports, whitewater sports and roller hockey. The group is now adding language to its standards specifically prohibiting partial adherence to a standard after two large helmet manufacturers produced skateboard helmets that met the ASTM skateboard standard "except for the coverage requirement."


We have redesigned our pamphlets for black-and-white photocopying, and can send by postal mail a hi-resolution master printed at 1200x1200 dpi to be duplicated for non-profit distribution. They are also available as Word files on our website, accessed from our Toolkit page.

The Department of Transportation has new pamphlets available for free (in limited quantities) on both bicycle helmets and bicycle safety. We have a sample up on the web or you can get them by sending an email to NHTSA.


(Added for this web page version)

Our website is celebrating its fourth birthday this month. We had about 70,000 visitors last year and expect at least 100,000 this year, which has both surprised and pleased us! On the web we have articles from this newsletter with more detail, a Toolkit for Helmet Promotion Programs, our latest helmet laws list, annotated bibliography, Most Asked Questions About Bicycle Helmets, helmet standards comparison and a lot more.

To receive this newsletter by email send your email address to us. We enjoy hearing from you and welcome inquiries by any means.

Randy Swart
Editor, The Helmet Update

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