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Inside Bikes

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The Department of Transport is now providing star ratings for motorcycle helmets, via the new SHARP system, in a bid to improve safety and save lives.

Alastair Walker reports.

Like most bikers, I’ve been riding motorcycles for over 30 years and always worn a helmet, mainly because it’s the law but also because it’s a sensible thing to do. A low speed head injury can kill you – simple as that.

But for most of that time I’ve never really known how bike helmets were designed, manufactured and tested.

The only way to figure out if a helmet was good was to ask other bikers, or use your own judgement when trying them on in a shop. I was also surprised to learn recently that the ECE 22.05 standard is set by a United Nations funded testing body – not the EU. But alongside the existing ECE regs, the UK government’s new SHARP (Safety Helmet Assessment Ratings Programme) came onstream in Spring 2008, offering ratings from one to five stars for most popular biking lids. It’s intended to offer buyers a useful guide as regards the helmet’s likely impact resistance in a crash. SHARP are buying the most popular lids, then lab testing them.

The initial results are surprising, as some helmets from top brands like Arai, Shoei and AGV only made three stars, whilst budget brand products from Nitro or Lazer were rated five out of five in the SHARP tests. All of which begs the question; what testing methods are SHARP using and is a cheaper helmet just as good as a more expensive one?

The SHARP Test Regime

SHARP tests are designed to log the effects of a specific impact of between 6.5 to 8.5 metres per second on specially selected points of the helmet’s outer shell – both head-on, and a simulated glancing blow. The impact speed is slightly higher in terms of speed than the existing ECE 22.05 standard but SHARP don’t do any testing on the chinbar section of the lid, or do a repeated impact on one area – like Arai do in their own factory tests for example. Arai also drop a 3kg heavy, piercing metal spike on their helmets, which SHARP – and many other manufacturers – don’t feel is needed.

Ferry Brouwer, who has 27 years experience at Arai told insidebikes; ” The ECE and SHARP tests are on specific areas of the shell, identified to manufacturers in advance of testing, which means a manufacturer is able to add some extra material at those points to make sure the product will pass the test. In the USA the test points are chose by Snell at random – a far better system in my opinion.”

The SHARP tests don’t include a test of the chinstrap fastening on motorcycle helmets, which many bikers think is a crucial thing to test. So many bikers suffer serious injury because the helmet strap breaks, then the lid flies off during a crash.

Experience Matters – A Personal View

For my money, the SHARP tests are a step forwards in terms of lab-based testing – they exceed the existing standards, which is a good thing. But they don’t go far enough.

What we need is random impact testing, like Snell do in the USA, plus some stern action by UK Trading Standards against dodgy helmet makers who flout the existing rules. Having done some research, I couldn’t find one importer or helmet factory who has ever been prosecuted in the UK, for selling unsafe, or dangerous goods.

That cannot be right, as most experienced bikers have seen outdated, damaged, or poorly made lids on sale at various bike shows. Surely the time has come to stop the unregulated sale of helmets which are so ridiculously cheap, that questions must be asked regarding their protective value?

After 30 years riding motorcycles, I would offer the following tips and advice when buying any helmet;

1. Make sure it fits right – get your head accurately measured. The helmet should fit snugly, with very little side-to-side, or up and down movement, when being worn.

2. Never place gloves, keys, wallets or anything else inside your helmet – the inner EPS lining is vulnerable to damage by sharp objects, dirt, or human sweat, which accelerates the wear and tear on the inner lining.

3. Look for a `D ring’ type chinstrap fastening, rather than the mini `seatbelt’ type clip. The adjustment via the D ring tends to be more precise in daily use.

4. A flip-up helmet, where the chin section can be raised, may be more convenient to wear, but they are not as strong as a full face type lid – do you see anyone race in GP or Superbikes wearing a `flip-front’ type helmet?

5. An ACU Gold sticker means very little – the ACU do not actually test helmets, they merely approve them for race use based on a visual inspection.

6. The old Bell helmets slogan remains true in my book; If you have a ten dollar head, buy a ten dollar helmet. Always buy the best lid you can afford, and replace it after 5-6 years, unless it suffers a serious blow to the shell, some solvent or other damage etc. in which case it will probably need replacing immediately after discovering the damage.

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