Riding with the same bicycle helmet for over a decade can be seen as the height of crash-free riding expertise for some but as Joe Kenwright discovered, it is more likely to be the height of stupidity…
Time Out For Helmets
The unthinkable happened the other day. Our cycling group had settled into an easy cruise on the Warburton Trail. In a split second, one of our most experienced riders spun around at right angles to where she was heading then slammed head first at full speed into the rock cutting with a sickening crunch. The rider behind her died a thousand deaths when he didn’t expect her to survive such a massive collision.
The short story is that she was back on her bike within minutes completing the ride, the long story is that she was forced to take it easy for a couple of days after mild concussion set in. And fortunately for her, that was as long as this story needs to be because of something she did a month earlier.
Her survival without serious injury and only a broken helmet to tell the tale was a wake-up call for everyone that day. So was the cause of the accident. The culprit? A slippery partly-buried rock had lifted then threw her rear wheel sideways without warning and so quickly, there was no time for correction. The lessons learned from this sudden loss of control were also not lost on the group (see story on tyres).
Yet the most critical factor in her survival was an unexplained urge to go out and buy a new helmet before she joined The Great Escapade in Western Australia earlier this year. It cost her around $250 even though her old one seemed in perfect condition.
Her old helmet simply could not have protected her in this collision. An inspection of the damage to her new helmet revealed that it had protected her forehead and temple whereas her old one would have simply slid back over her head exposing her face and forehead as she slammed into the rock wall. It was such a graphic illustration of how much things have changed. No one in our group could ignore it.
After I had tried on the latest helmet designs in 2008 in a “what if” scenario while helping a friend buy new equipment for a return to cycling, I had narrowed down my choice of a new helmet, baulked at the price then did nothing about it. I already had a perfectly good helmet thank you very much. Within a week of this crash, I was leaving Ivanhoe Cycles with a new Limar 909 under my arm wondering why I hadn’t made the shift earlier.
I wasn’t alone.
I don’t have any excuses. In a previous life as Victoria’s Chief Road Safety Promotions Officer, bicycle helmet promotion was one of our biggest programs as Victoria set out to lead the world in this area. Yet as a cyclist I despised the program, along with the helmets themselves and the nanny-state political opportunists who drove this so-called initiative to make helmet-free cycling a crime even if the motives were not all bad.
I often found myself at odds with these zealots after I discovered that even a short ride on a hot Aussie day with one of these early buckets on your head would cook your brain and seriously interfere with your processing ability to avoid trouble in the first place. I then questioned whether such heavy helmets swinging on the top of your head would do more harm than good, a factor later exposed in the research. I also wondered whether their clumsiness would discourage a rider from making the frequent visual checks necessary to stay alive.
The heat build-up and strain on your neck from even the short ride to work was enough to make you give up riding. What made it worse was that we could only promote the two helmets that had Australian Standards approval. The bureaucrats played it safe and focused only on the worst case crash scenarios, not whether either helmet was appropriate to the application or even wearable on a regular basis! Both were derived from cold climate designs, and one was not even intended for bicycle use! Turning people into criminals for not wearing them was the expedient, revenue-producing answer to these objections, an all too common default position in Victorian road safety.
Both local helmets that emerged from this process required tough, virtually impenetrable shells that wouldn’t allow a steel rod the size of a drinking straw to get in. Say goodbye to light weight and any chance of a detectable airflow. If you were designing an insulated heat multiplier to trap heat escaping from the top of your head, the body’s main heat blow-off valve, ready to make you feel light-headed from a cooked brain within the shortest possible ride, you would be hard-pressed to deliver more effective designs in both cases.
Those who can remember back to 1985 will recall the Stackhat, a copy of a North American ice hockey design and the Guardian, a copy of the original Bell Biker helmet - good sturdy helmets maybe, but neither remotely suited to local conditions. In a bid to stay on my bike and hold my job, I purchased a Bell Tourlite from Ivanhoe Cycles during this period while work colleagues looked the other way over its lack of an Australian Standards sticker. The best of a really awful choice, the Tourlite featured a tiny forehead vent filled with a sponge sweat mop that needed squeezing out every couple of kilometers. Like the others, it used foam pads to make its bucket shape fit different heads, a futile process when they rotted so regularly. Without these foam pads taking up the slack, it took little more than a stiff breeze to blow the helmet down your neck, strap still firmly fastened.
This was before issues like appearance were considered, which our research soon revealed was the biggest obstacle for those younger cyclists who had most to benefit from wearing a helmet.
After a liberating and safe helmet-less ride around Ireland later that year thanks to a clear and unencumbered bonce, I threw my trusty Graecross Limited and the miserable helmet into the garage on my return, never to be used again. As for promoting the unpromotable and the fading nanny state politicians riding such moves, enough was enough.
Serious Australian studies have since linked early compulsory helmet legislation with a serious decline in cycling and a corresponding increase in obesity. While I was a textbook example of the former and came perilously close to the latter, this is a long bow to draw when increased working hours, home computers, skate boards, roller blades, home theatres, iPods, DVDs, cable TV and an explosion of take-away options all arrived in the same period. I list these factors when they now compete against the notion of going out for a ride, something that needs to be more pleasant and inviting than ever against such stiff competition.
The crunch came in the early 1990s when Australia’s federal road funding was linked to a state’s willingness to enact compulsory bicycle helmet legislation. While turning helmet-less Victorian cyclists into criminals was just achievable, doing the same for the hotter states was far more problematic, so the Australian Standard became more realistic in terms of ventilation, weight and crash scenarios. The hard shell and pin-prick sized ventilation holes went. A credible Melbourne study concluded that real world protection had not suffered and there was much to be gained from the increased wearing rates that might follow.
I mention this history only because I am well aware of the resistance that Victoria’s heavy-handed process set up within a generation of cyclists.
And so it was a decade later in 1995 when a new Giant Yukon mountain bike at Ivanhoe Cycles tempted me to ride again but it wasn’t the way the bike performed that clinched the deal. The latest Bell helmet design, which was so much lighter and better ventilated than anything I had worn earlier, was the single biggest factor in re-igniting the passion. It has been the one constant in the purchase of four bikes and thousands of kms since. Until now.
Hand on heart, I have never ridden a bike since 1995, here or overseas, on the road without that Bell on my head. Yet it took the recent crash, as described above, to highlight how this was basically a waste of time. It needed to be flung at least 10 years ago for a long list of reasons. While this second Bell ticked most of the boxes, it still depended on degradable foam pads to make it fit and a strap that was cursorily glued to the outer shell for it to stay in place under impact. Because that glue could not resist the wick effect of a sweat-soaked strap, the glue let go within three months leaving the strap to work its way up to the top of the helmet where it can’t work as the manufacturer intended.
After replicating the direction of the force in the above crash, I quickly discovered that this helmet would also have simply slid over the back of my head. That assumes that the strap, buckle and outer shell would have held together after 14 years of harsh UV exposure. The reality is that I had no right to expect them to.
While my early helmet wearing was motivated mainly to keep the nanny state off my back, as I suspect is the case with many reading this, my position has changed dramatically since the above crash and witnessing how the latest helmets work.
Critical in the above rider’s escape from injury were the three levels of protection in a modern helmet. While the adjustable fitting ring in the best of the latest helmets adds convenience and ensures that it sits where it needs to, it also provides an air gap that provides space for deceleration before the skull hits the harder foam lining. It also stops the helmet from moving on your head.
While the latest soft outer shells and their open vents won’t resist the penetration of sharp pointy objects as well as the earliest bucket-like designs, they are more compliant and can deflect impacts. Because styrene foam wants to shatter under impact, this laminated outer skin is critical to holding it together. It’s also why the helmet must be discarded after an impact as a hidden fracture will rob you of future protection.
Keeping the straps in place under impact is also important so leaving them exposed on the helmet’s outer skin where they can be cut, moved or frayed on impact are no longer issues on the best new designs.
For the record, I chose and paid for my new Limar 909 when I wanted the final say over what sat on my head. By definition, that doesn’t mean it is the right one for you. I don’t like its heart-shaped front vent which is way too cute nor do I like its dull grey colour when a brighter colour is safer for visibility. But of all the helmets I have tried recently, it was the one that would stay exactly where it needs to as it suits my head shape and size better than any other - which is what this is all about.
Its extra ventilation over my previous helmet is almost as good as no helmet at all. The sense of my head being trapped in a pressure cooker is refreshingly absent! For this reason alone, it is worth considering a new helmet.
Also appreciated is the one-handed adjustment – something I use all the time as different cold or warm weather headgear and a haircut are enough to change the fit.
Like all body gear, it is a case of choosing what suits you best but there will be a point where you will need to weigh up the compromises to settle on a choice that will best do the job of protecting your head and one you will want to wear every time. Ultimately, it’s not just about looking good or avoiding helmet hair but walking away from a crash that would otherwise leave you as a veggie or dead. That is something you can’t put a price on.
The Bottom Line
- Get a feel for what you need in a helmet and why they vary so much in price. Even though this website is American, I found it useful but Australian versions of some helmets can vary. Check out: www.bhsi.org/index.htm
- Helmet life is not determined by date of manufacture but how much it has been exposed to ultra-violet light which includes fluorescent lighting. Like any other plastic or foam item, its life is severely reduced in the Aussie sun. As the polymers are baked out of the foam, straps, clasps and outer skin, they become brittle and cannot be trusted. If you are really fussy about keeping your helmet in safe condition, leaving it out in the sun hanging off a bike is not the way to do it. Do a quick assessment on how much UV your helmet has been exposed to and whether it will still do the job.
- Regardless of a top shelf price tag or fancy branding, just about all helmets in 2009 are made in countries that don’t give a rat’s pecker over whether their citizens bump their heads while riding a bicycle. The correct Australian Standards sticker is a good start as is a Snell safety rating. The big issue is whether the manufacturer has pre-empted or fudged the test results or later substituted dodgy materials. Buy a helmet only from a manufacturer whose head office is in a country where management can be thrown in the slammer for engaging in such activity. Already, there have been several recalls on exactly these issues so an Australian distributor and local retailer who cares about such things and keeps a record of who bought what, can be important.
- Look at the guarantee. Limar’s offer of subsidizing a replacement helmet within a specified time frame following a crash is significant for two reasons. Think about it. It suggests a confidence you will survive and that you will want another one.
- A bright helmet is important for visibility when it’s often the only early warning of a cyclist between a row of cars. Too many brightly-coloured helmets have since been withdrawn because they didn’t sell after the fashion police moved in. It is a trend that needs to be reversed.
- Rinsing-out foam or cloth inner liners and the straps with water will extend their life when helmets by their nature are corrosive sweat traps.
- It doesn’t take much to fracture and weaken styrene foam internally even if the plastic outer skin looks intact so look after it. If you and your helmet have just survived a major impact, thank your lucky stars then guarantee yourself a repeat experience by tossing it.
- Hassle your retailer until you get a helmet that fits you and suits your needs. There are often size variations, colours and styles not in stock. This is one item where an impulse purchase needs to be followed by a careful selection process with expert support.