By Gerde Applethwaite
Shorter: How long should you hold onto that old helmet before you let it go?
My assignment this week was to write an honest blog piece about when it is the right time to ditch your helmet and re-up for a new one. There are some obvious answers and then there are some that seem not so much.
Before I started working on this post I had to bicycle over to the store to get some more apple juice. The ride took me onto a bridge over an estuary. I walk the bike over that bridge because I like the water. I find it enjoyable to stroll the bridge’s length and watch the world go by. There was a seagull flying slowly about 30 feet over the drink: it tilted one wing toward the water and the other straight up into the sky. In that moment she had dumped the air from her wings, lost most of her air speed, did one cartwheel and pitched straight down toward the water head first. in the descent she pulled her wings in about two thirds. When she was only a few feet off of the water she snapped her wings out full in a braking and gliding maneuver and then bobbed her head underwater to grab a small redish fish. With but two big flaps of her wings she avoided crashing into the drink and was back up in the air again. Its an astonishing feat of skill and grace to witness. There was a short stuttering motion as she flew off: she had just slid the small fish down her gullet. Done and done, the fish never knew what hit it.
One of the campfire rituals with riders is the exchange of harrowing accident or near accident stories. These stories run the gamut from hitting the headlight frozen deer on the back country road to being struck by some #%@ing texting teen making a left turn. Most of the time riders say stuff like “he/it came out of nowhere.” These accidents happen so quickly and there is often no time to react. We’re not the bird – we’re the fish. If they were very lucky there were no, or minimal, injuries and the gear took the brunt of it. You may not need to get rid of your jacket or riding pants but if your helmet had an accident impact it has to go. No no – it has to go. The combination of stress fractures in the shell combined with compression of the inner EPS liner foam render the helmet useless for anything other than a planter* or a bird house. The liner is incapable of protecting you from impact injury after it has suffered one impact. There is a nice video shot at the Nolan factory that shows the helmet testing procedure and the most interesting part for me was the moment when they restruck a helmet and looked at the dent in the surface. After one impact the helmet loses its ability to adequately distribute the force of the blow over the surface of the helmet. It really brought home the idea that you cannot reuse your helmet after you have had an accident with it. Even a small impact is enough. Not a ding like dropping it off of the cocktail table or the seat of your bike but certainly when you have a get-off and strike your helmet. How small a get-off? Good lord man just get a new helmet! How much is your brain worth? Replacing your helmet after an accident is a pretty clear choice for most riders but the rest of it is not so clear.
You can find lots of advice from people who want to sell you a helmet (yeah – like us) about when a helmet ages out. It becomes difficult to get the straight dope. The most widely accepted idea is that you replace your motorcycle helmet every 5 years. Why? Well uh… because it wears out, that’s why. Well, what wears out? The uhhh, EPS liner foam interacts with your sweat and that diminishes it structural reliability – yeah, that’s the ticket. Really? Can’t they make a liner that doesn’t interact with your body oils or sweat? Well, yes, in fact the whole thing is a canard. The liner isn’t affected by your sweat or scalp oils. Your helmet may stink but the EPS liner isn’t necessarily diminished.
Many of the helmet manufacturers will talk about liner degradation from body oils or sweat but this information is the subject of some serious question. There is a nice article by the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute and among other things it addresses this issue. The bicycle helmet liner is made of the same EPS foam material that is used in motorcycle helmets.
Can your EPS liner be diminished by solvents or cleaning agents. Yes, it appears so. If five years isn’t the standard for degradation what is? There is no hard and fast rule here. Other sources are as generous as eight years. If you notice that your helmet seems to fit more loosely on your head than it used to it is more likely due to abrasion of the liner and/or reduction of the liner by cleaning agents and not because your head is shrinking. In either case its time for a new helmet.
Your helmet’s integrity is indeed reduced by the ultraviolet rays of sunlight. The helmet is plastic and plastic does not play well with UV. How long does it take to render your helmet unsafe? It depends upon the materials as some of the composites resist UVA and UVB better than others. What are those composites? I do not have a danged clue. I have read that many manufacturers are putting UV inhibitors into their shell plastics to slow this decay. This reinforces the notion that your helmet has a use-by date regardless of its impact history.
Alright let’s sling some product.
Helmet quality gets better every year and the prices are remarkably low for a helmet that offers more than reasonable protection for your brain case. You can get a perfectly nice Scorpion EXO-400 for a mere $110.00. I like that helmet. Too much for you? You can get an HJC-5N Open Face (solid) for an astonishing $68.00. A Bell Arrow (either solid or graphic) for one Benjamin. How about a an HJC CL-16 (solid), a workhorse of a helmet, for only $117.00. I don’t often go into sales pitch mode but the point I am truly trying to make here is that you do not have to spend a lot of money to be allowed the opportunity to convert your old helmet into a bird house. Why risk a concussion or more serious damage for a mere hundred dollars?
Step up another hundred bucks or so and you can get higher quality shells, more comfortable wicking liners, more durable face shields or in some even drop down sun visors.
Look into the Shark S700 (solid) for $210.00 or the Nolan N-90 N-Comm (solid) for $220.00. They are both very good helmets. Lots of choices – one brain to protect.
I recently demo’d a Scorpion EXO-900 Transformer [ed. that review will be posted soon] helmet because after my last eye exam, came the mandate that I wear glasses when I drive/ride. Modular helmets have now become more interesting to me. I liked that helmet. It has an amazing assortment of bells and whistles and it is CE rated. It fit my head perfectly too. Switching to a modular for my next purchase is definitely in the cards. It makes the whole eyeglass thing so much easier.
For years I rode with Shoei helmets. I wore out two RF200′s and had no complaints about either those helmets or any later Shoei head buckets I wore. I respect the Shoei name because they held me in good stead for many years. Shoei has my attention once again because of their modular Neotec and also their full-face GT Air. When its time for me to go helmet shopping again they are high on my list.
I currently ride with an Arai RX-Q. The RX-Q is a replacement for my then five year old Arai Corsair. I followed the five year rule. I might not have had to but I figured I needed to do what I could to protect what few brain cells I have left.
Helmet integrity is reduced by an impact, by ultraviolet radiation and by abrasion of the interior liner and/or the liner’s contact with some solvents or cleaning agents. The decision to replace your helmet is, so to speak, a no-brainer. The decision to replace due to insults other than impact are a bit less straightforward. I would err on the side of caution. Take a gander at our helmet offerings and take another look at your helmet. Yeah, sure you can replace your helmet because you want something matching your gas tank color and we’d be tickled sideways to have your money but more importantly if your helmet is compromised surrender it to the finches or the orchids and get a new one.
* There are some wild and wondrous planters made from old motorcycle helmets (they will lend your garden something of the je ne sais quoi magic of a hubcap farm) and a quick tour of the interwebz will provide many ideas for other substantial and neighbor confounding things to do with your old helmet. Don’t throw it away, re-appropriate it. ‘No Madge – I’m re-appropriating it.’