Use your head! Our essential guide to bike helmets
Your motorcycle helmet is likely to be the most important piece of safety riding gear you will ever buy. Jeremy Pick cuts through the conflicting advice to tell you what you need to know
We motorcyclists are one of the most vulnerable groups of road users. We represent 1% of road traffic, but are 19% of the casualties.
That’s why it makes absolute sense to ensure your helmet is certified safe, fits properly and is secure in the event of an accident. Helmets have a shelf life too, so it is vital to ensure your head protection is within age limits and kept in top condition as well. But how do you do all that and what are those limits?
What does the law say?
By law, you must wear a helmet meeting British safety standards while riding a motorcycle on a public road. The only legal exception is members of the Sikh religion, who may wear a turban. All helmets used on UK roads must meet – and be marked with – one of the following:
• BS 6658:1985 (certified helmets will carry the BSI kitemark)
• UNECE Regulation 22.05 (certified helmets will bear the UN ‘E’ mark and have an approval number starting 05)
• A European Economic Area member standard offering at least equivalent safety and protection as BS 6658 (certified helmets will carry the relevant equivalent to the BSI kite mark)
These certifications are comprehensive tests of helmet safety, covering not just impact and friction testing but fastener strength and helmet retention (i.e. making sure the helmet stays in place on impact) as well as environmental testing against solvents, UV light, temperature, humidity and moisture.
In addition, look out for the SHARP rating. SHARP (Safety Helmet Assessment and Rating Programme) testing supplements the ECE test procedures by giving a star rating. For the very highest level of protection, look for the relevant ECE or BS marking plus a high SHARP rating.
What are the types of helmet?
Full-face, open-face and modular (‘flip up’) helmets are all legal on UK roads, if certified. US-style half-shell helmets and DOT-certified helmets are not. Modular helmets undergo dual homologation, meaning they are tested and certified as J (open-face only) or J-P (i.e. with protective chin guard). The designation is usually on the label sewn to the chin strap.
Helmets typically consist of a protective outer shell made of polycarbonate, fibreglass, carbon fibre or Kevlar enclosing an expanded polystyrene impact crumple layer and a foam lining for comfort. Kevlar helmets are usually the most expensive and combine great strength with lightness but, so long as the helmet meets the relevant certification standards, there is no significant advantage of one material over another.
How important is the fitment?
Extremely important! European accident reports suggest that a startling 12% of helmets are lost during accidents. A helmet can’t protect you if it’s not on your head, so ensuring a correct fit dramatically increases your chances of survival if a crash occurs.
A good start point is to measure around the head just above the ears and take the measurement at the forehead, then check against your chosen brand’s sizing chart (sizing varies between manufacturers). Use this information to try on the equivalent helmet in store.
Once it’s on and the strap is secured, you should be able to feel the helmet against the whole of the head without feeling pressure points – keep it on long enough to make sure it is snug and comfortable. Side-to-side rotation should result in your cheeks staying in contact with the helmet, and tilting forward and backwards should not allow the helmet to move or slip.
In practice, this means it is essential to properly test the fitment of a particular helmet in store rather than buying sight unseen or over the internet.
How often should a helmet be replaced?
Manufacturers recommend replacing helmets between five and seven years after purchase, or immediately in the case of an accident or any significant damage. In practice, the life expectancy depends on a number of factors that mainly boil down to how it is used and how often. Simply put: the more you ride, the shorter the life expectancy.
The greatest long-term damage is caused by UV rays from the sun – damage which is not visible to the naked eye – and petroleum-based products found in cleaners, paints and fuels. Additionally, many products can affect the integrity of EPS liner material, including hair products, cosmetics and body fluids. Resins and glues used in manufacture can degrade over time too.
Any visible damage to the outer shell should mean immediate replacement, although the often-repeated adage that simply dropping a helmet means it should be replaced has been largely debunked by testing. Removing the comfort lining should allow you to check the inner lining for cracks, separation from the shell or signs of breaking up.
Linings compact with time and use too, and loose- fitting helmets can cause traumatic brain injury through ‘second impact syndrome’. Therefore, if your helmet is feeling looser than it did when you bought it, it’s probably time for replacement.
Bear in mind that advances in helmet materials and designs over a five-year period mean that newer helmets are also likely to offer more protection. Although it is a very general approximation, a five-year replacement cycle is a prudent judgement call in most cases.
What is best practice for helmet care?
Firstly, treat your helmet as it if were fragile – avoid dropping or bashing it. Don’t store it near anything that could damage its components, and particularly fuel and solvents. Avoid storage near excessive heat and cold, and keep it out of direct sunlight when not in use. Don’t apply stickers – the glue can compromise helmet materials, particularly thermoplastic or polycarbonate.
Clean your helmet exterior using pure water, very mild soap or a proprietary helmet cleaning solution, and don’t apply polish which may contain petrochemicals. Remove the inevitable bugs from both helmet and visor by spreading a wet towel over the helmet and leaving it for a few minutes to soften them.
Most modern helmets have removable comfort liners and padding, so remove and clean them regularly using a cleaner recommended by your manufacturer. This also provides a good opportunity to check the integrity of the inner liner as well as the straps and fastenings.
Don’t store your gloves inside the helmet – they often have traces of fuel which can cause damage and zips and fasteners that can harm the lining.
Finally, make sure that your helmet is clean before you store it for any length of time.
What are the significant new developments in motorcycle helmets?
New developments of note include significant decreases in helmet weight due to new materials including Kevlar and carbon fibre (and hence less inertia in the event of an accident); smoother exterior shells to allow ‘glancing off’ in the event of an accident; better ventilation, lighter and stronger fasteners and improved foam and liner material technology for greater comfort. In-helmet communication and heads-up displays are developments that can increase safety, but make sure you select a system that suits your riding style and decreases stress and distraction rather than increasing it.
Jeremy Pick is the editor of BMF Motorcycle Rider.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2019 edition of BMF Motorcycle Rider.
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