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BicycleSource Newsletter


Need One? Yes!!

Experienced, careful bicycle riders crash after 4,500 miles on the average. Nobody expects to fall, but in time you will too. When you do you must have head protection, since head injury causes 75 per cent of our 900 annual deaths from bicycle crashes. Road rash and broken bones heal; scrambled brains may not. Medical research shows that 88 per cent of cyclists' brain injuries can be prevented by a bicycle helmet. There are other benefits. Car drivers see you better and give you more respect. So do other riders. And helmets may be required by law in your area.

How Does a Helmet Work?

A bicycle helmet reduces the peak energy in a sharp impact. This requires a layer of stiff foam to cushion the blow by crushing. Nearly all bicycle helmets do this with expanded polystyrene (EPS), the white picnic cooler foam used to protect eggs and computers. Once crushed, the foam does not recover. Spongy foam is added inside for comfort and fit. Another foam, expanded polypropylene (EPP), does recover, but its use is spreading slowly. It may have some undesirable "rebound." An stronger EPS called GECET appeared in 1992 and is widely used now. A third foam called EPU (expanded polyurethane) is used for helmets made in Taiwan. It has a uniform cell structure and good crush without rebound, but is difficult to manufacture and not used much in the U.S.

The helmet must stay on your head even when you hit more than once -- usually a car first, and then the road. So it needs a strong strap and an equally strong fastener that cannot be jiggled open. The helmet should sit level on your head and cover as much as possible. Above all, with the strap fastened you should not be able to get the helmet off your head by any combination of pulling or twisting. If it comes off or slips enough to leave large areas of your head unprotected, adjust the straps again or try another helmet. Keep the strap comfortably snug when riding.

What Type do I Need?

Most current helmets are basically all EPS foam with a thin plastic outer shell. The shell helps the helmet skid easily on rough pavement to avoid jerking your neck. The shell also holds the EPS together after the first impact. Some excellent helmets are made by molding the EPS in the shell rather than adding the shell later.

Beware of marketing gimmicks. You want a smooth plastic outer shell, not the alternating strips of plastic and foam on the outside of Bell's stylish 1997 "Evo Pro" model. Excessive vents mean less foam in contact with your head in a crash, which could concentrate force on one point of your skull. (U.S. standards don't test for that, so it's your judgment call.) "Aero" helmets are not noticeably faster unless you ride at competition speeds, and the "tail" could snag in a fall. There is no real advantage to using titanium in a helmet. Dark helmets are hard for motorists to see, and even those silver stripes on many helmets that look reflective are not. Skinny straps are less comfortable. Few riders need visors, which can snag or shatter in a fall. Mirrors are a necessity, not a gimmick, but they need a breakaway mount. The wire type mounted on eyeglasses can gouge your eye in a fall.

Standards

Standards have been taken care of by a Government regulation requiring all helmets to meet the Consumer Product Safety Commission standard after 1999. Look for a standards sticker inside the helmet. There are two more current U.S. standards to rate impact performance and strap strength. The Snell Memorial Foundation's B-90 standard and the ASTM standard are comparable to CPSC. The Snell B-95 standard is even better. The old ANSI Z90.4 standard is dead. In short, look for a CPSC, ASTM or Snell B-95 sticker.

Fit is not tested by the standards, so you must try the helmet on your own head. Visors are not tested for snagging, and they can shatter in a fall, cutting your face. If you use any add-on accessories you should examine them carefully and consider what they might do to you in a crash.

This site offers a detailed comparison of helmet standards.

Comfort Requirements

Coolness, ventilation, fit and sweat control are the most critical comfort needs. Air flow over the head determines coolness, and larger front vents provide better air flow. Most current helmets have adequate cooling for most riders. Sweat control can require a brow pad or separate sweatband. A snug fit with no pressure points ensures comfort and correct position on the head when you crash. It may take a half hour of wearing to feel pressure points. Weight has not been an issue with today's thin shell helmets.

Special Problems

Pony tail ports help both fit and cooling for those with long hair. Bald riders should avoid helmets with big top vents or expect funny tan lines. Unusually shaped heads or ears require more fiddling with fitting pads and straps. Extra small heads may need thick fitting pads. For very large heads, try some helmets in their largest size or check out our advice for big heads for further information.

Prices and Where to Buy

Helmet prices are down. They are available in bicycle shops or by mail order starting at about $25 or in discount stores for as little as $10. A good shop offers valuable help in fitting, and fit is important for safety. A discount helmet meeting the same standard can be equally protective if you take the time to fit it carefully. The helmets with rear stabilizers are normally a little more expensive. Wherever you buy, helmets are cheap for their benefit, often less than a jersey or shorts. Don't wait for a sale. No one ever complains about the cost of their second bicycle helmet. Cost is no excuse to delay. Your brain is priceless!

How to Buy

When you pick up a helmet, look first for a Snell, ASTM/SEI or CPSC sticker inside and a bright color on the outside. Put it on, adjust the straps and then try hard to tear it off. Look for vents and sweat control. Look at the buckle for long-term durability. Compare the price to the cost of a hospital emergency room. Consider the nightmare of being a vegetable or living in a helpless muddle and knowing that you were once a competent thinker. Buy a helmet and ride home with good head protection. No rider ever seems to regret buying a helmet, but crash victims always wish they had. Many of us bought our helmets after a crash. You can be smarter than that.
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