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How To Choose A Helmet: Head Games

In preparation for his first track day, Bob has done all of his homework – he spent hours researching tire choices and ordered the best set of rubber possible. He spent hours studying suspension settings, spring rates and shocks. Bob selected the best safety harness money could buy and spent hours installing it. it wasn’t until the night before his first event that it hit him – he needed a helmet!

With just hours to spare before his big event, Bob signed-on to the internet, frantically posted a question, read 2-3 replies and raced to the store to buy a helmet. While at the store, he was shocked by the prices – helmets are expensive! He looked at Bell Helmets, Arai Helmets and others. Bob reluctantly shelled out his money and drove home. While loading the helmet into his gear bag, it slipped from his hands and dropped to the ground. “Well, it’s broken in,” he mumbled as he scooped it up and stashed it away next to his $200 driving gloves and $150 driving shoes.

Luckily Bob’s track day went off without a hitch, and he returned home happy and excited about the day. He tossed his gear bag in the corner and began tending to the car, preparing it for the next event. In reality he should be tending to his helmet, researching a replacement and trying various helmets for proper fit.

MISTAKES AND MISCONCEPTIONS

Looking back at our example, it would appear as though Bob did everything to ensure a fun, safe and good track experience. Unfortunately, he put so little effort into choosing a helmet (and later dropped it, rendering it effectively useless) that a fun day could have turned tragic had any serious incident taken place.

As the old saying goes, “If you have a $10 head, buy a $10 helmet.” I’d like to think that your head is worth more than $10 (mine might be a wash), yet so many folks don’t take helmet buying seriously. The helmet is there for an important reason – the least you can do is spend some time buying one that fits well, while making certain it meets or exceeds various safety standards.

The primary cause of serious injury or fatality in an accident where a helmet has failed is improper fit and/or equipment failure. We’ll examine how to buy a helmet, including what to look for and how to make sure it will protect you when needed. We’ll also examine the various certification process and explain a little about the test procedures.

While there are many different types of helmets on the marketplace, we’ll focus on the type of helmets that are intended for motorsports use, specifically referred to as “Special Application” or “Motorsports” helmets. These types of helmets offer protection from impact, flying debris and (limited) flame or fire. While often similar in appearance to a motorcycle helmet, they’re quite different (motorcycle helmets tend to have a larger field of vision, no fire/flame retardant and different ventilation systems).

Although helmets look similar, it’s often very difficult to tell a good helmet from a bad one, and that’s where certifications can help. The Federal Department of Transportation (DOT) offers a certification standard, but the DOT standards are somewhat dated (many are based on 1972 ANSI standards), and the certification is voluntary. In other words, the onus is on the manufacturer to ensure their helmets meet DOT standards – the DOT does not conduct tests of helmets.

The Snell Memorial Foundation provides a rigorous set of test criteria, and is generally regarded as “the standard” in helmet safety technology. Unlike the DOT, Snell offers its testing and certification services to manufacturers in exchange for a testing fee and a licensing fee.

Snell, a not-for-profit organization, was founded in 1957 after William “Pete” Snell died during a racing event when his helmet failed to protect him. The foundation released its first set of standards in 1959, and has been working to improve helmet quality and safety ever since.

Before any helmet can earn a Snell certification, the manufacturer must pay a testing fee of about $1200 and submit five samples to Snell for testing. Snell destroys four of the helmets during its tests and saves the fifth for future reference. After a helmet receives its Snell certification, Snell randomly purchases samples from retailers to ensure quality and integrity of the certification.

The first helmet sample is destroyed as technicians cut the helmet open to inspect material thickness and quality, design and manufacturing quality, and inner lining inspection.

Snell uses the next three helmets in tests for impact resistance, positional stability, dynamic retention, shell penetration, and if applicable, flame resistance testing, chin bar testing and face shield penetration.

Impact resistance testing involves a guided fall on to various test anvils, while a head form (fitted with various accelerometers) reports the peak G force during impact. Snell expects the load to remain under a 300 G limit – if 300 G’s are exceeded, the helmet is rejected. For comparison, the DOT suggests that the number of G’s not exceed 400.

Positional stability and dynamic retention testing is a fancy way of saying, “The helmet has to stay on during an impact.” These tests make sure the helmet can’t roll off during a crash, and also test the chin strap to make sure that it doesn’t break or loosen during an impact. Again, Snell uses test equipment designed specifically to measure performance, per their specifications.

Shell penetration testing involves dropping a weighted, pointed striker in a guided fall onto the helmet from a prescribed height. If the striker penetrates the helmet, the helmet is rejected. Face shield penetration testing involves an air rifle and a soft lead pellet. Snell fires three shots at the face shield and inspects for signs of penetration.

Snell uses the next three helmets in tests for impact resistance, positional stability, dynamic retention, shell penetration, and if applicable, flame resistance testing, chin bar testing and face shield penetration.

Impact resistance testing involves a guided fall on to various test anvils, while a head form (fitted with various accelerometers) reports the peak G force during impact. Snell expects the load to remain under a 300 G limit – if 300 G’s are exceeded, the helmet is rejected. For comparison, the DOT suggests that the number of G’s not exceed 400.

Positional stability and dynamic retention testing is a fancy way of saying, “The helmet has to stay on during an impact.” These tests make sure the helmet can’t roll off during a crash, and also test the chin strap to make sure that it doesn’t break or loosen during an impact. Again, Snell uses test equipment designed specifically to measure performance, per their specifications.

Shell penetration testing involves dropping a weighted, pointed striker in a guided fall onto the helmet from a prescribed height. If the striker penetrates the helmet, the helmet is rejected. Face shield penetration testing involves an air rifle and a soft lead pellet. Snell fires three shots at the face shield and inspects for signs of penetration.

Chin bar testing only applies to full-faced helmets, and involves dropping a 5kg weight onto the chin bar from a prescribed height. Snell observes the amount of deflection and inspects for signs of breakage or excessive deflection.

Flame resistance testing involves a 790-degree centigrade flame. The helmet is subjected to the flame and is then expected to self extinguish within a specified amount of time after the flame is removed. Snell expects that the interior of the helmet must not exceed 70 degrees centigrade at any time during the test.

The tests, despite having their descriptions simplified for the sake of this article are complex and thorough, and easily exceed DOT specifications. Snell standards are typically updated every five years, with the newest set of standards expected to arrive some time in 2005. Helmets that meet the Snell standards are identified by either an adhesive sticker (usually placed inside the helmet) or by a cloth tag that’s sewn to the chin strap. Manufacturers pay Snell about $1 per sticker, in addtition to the initial testing fee.

Finally, any helmet that’s been involved in an impact should be returned for inspection by the manufacturer, as even the most thorough self-inspection can’t detect signs of damage. Snell further recommends that all helmets be replaced after five years.

While certifications are important, a proper fit is critical – if the helmet doesn’t stay in place during an impact, it can’t properly do its job. A helmet should never be uncomfortable – it should fit snugly, but shouldn’t cause headaches or uncomfortable pressure at any one place. The old saying used to go, “You should be able to sleep with your helmet on.”

When trying on a helmet, you’ll want to make sure that the helmet fits your head properly – the helmet should “ride” on your brow/forehead area, with an even, uniform pressure. Pressure should not be excessive or concentrated in any one area. The top of your head should make contact with the helmet as well.

Tighten the chin strap so that it rests snugly under your jaw, at the point where your jaw meets with your neck – just above the throat. Never wear your chin strap “on your chin” (like a football helmet). With the chinstrap secured, try to roll the helmet forward or backward – try your hardest to slide the helmet off your head. The helmet should not rotate forward or backward enough to impede your vision or expose your forehead. If it does, the helmet doesn’t fit properly.

Finally, stand in front of a mirror and “twist” (or rotate) the helmet left to right and front to back. The skin on your forehead should move as you move the helmet. If it doesn’t, the helmet is too loose.

A quality shop will have plenty of helmets for you to try, and each brand of helmet has a somewhat unique fit. If an Arai doesn’t suit your head style, try a Bell. If the Bell doesn’t fit properly, try a Bieffe, and so on. Keep trying helmets until you find one that fits properly and carries Snell certification.

Your head is the single most important asset to yourself and your vehicle. Rather than making a hasty, last-minute decision about buying the one device than can literally save your life, take some time to research your next helmet purchase and be sure to try the helmet on for proper fit. And finally, before you place an order for your helmet online, make sure that the manufacturer supports online purchases. Arai, for instance will not extend its warranty to helmets that are purchased online or through mail or phone methods – the fit is critical, and Arai would like you to visit an authorized dealer to make certain your helmet fits properly.

Official Web sites:
Snell Web Site
Arai Americas
Bell Racing

About Steve Litscher

Steve Lutscher Avatar
Food connoisseur, car guy, tech geek and dog lover.
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