BicycleSource Newsletter

One of our most-asked questions is "Is it time to replace this helmet?" Well, that depends. One fact to keep in mind is that most manufacturers will replace your helmet after a crash for the nominal fee of $5 or so.

Did you crash in it?

For starters, most people are aware that you must replace a helmet after any crash where your head hit. The foam part of a helmet is made for one-time use, and after crushing once it is no longer as protective as it was, even if it still looks intact. Bear in mind that if the helmet did its job most people would tell you that they did not even hit their head, or did not hit their head that hard. And the thin shells on most helmets now tend to hide any dents in the foam. But if you can see marks on the shell or measure any foam crush at all, replace the helmet. (Helmets made of EPP foam do recover, but there are few EPP helmets on the market. Yours is EPS or EPU unless otherwise labeled.)

You may be reluctant to replace a helmet that looks almost as good as new, but if you did hit, you don't want to take chances on where you will hit next time. If the foam is cracked under the thin shell, it will be more likely to fly apart in your next crash. Many manufacturers will replace crashed helmets for a nominal fee, and most will also inspect crashed helmets to see if they need replacement. Call them if you are in doubt.

Is the buckle intact?

Perhaps more important in terms of actual lives at stake is the information that a plastic buckle must be replaced if any part of it breaks off. Some riders break off one prong of the male section of their buckle and continue to use it, with the second prong alone holding a tenuous grip. That is a genuinely unsafe buckle. It is entirely inadequate for nearly any type of crash. It is much weaker than anything Consumer Reports tested and broke. Any rider who is using a buckle like that should contact their bike shop or the helmet manufacturer for an immediate replacement!

Is it from the 70's?

If you still have a helmet from the 70's without a styrofoam liner, replace it immediately. That would include the Skidlid (with spongy foam), Pro-tec (spongy foam), Brancale (no foam) and all leather "hairnets." They just did not have the protection of helmets made after 1984 when the ANSI standard swept the junk off the market.

The better 1970's helmets were reasonably good ones, but were not quite up to current standards. It is probably time to replace that old Bell Biker, Bailen, MSR. Supergo or similar model from the 70's or early 80's. The hard shells were great, but the foam liners were not thick enough to meet today's ASTM or Snell standard. The Bell V-1 Pro was designed to today's standards, but the foam is very stiff, and if you are over, say, 60 or 65 you probably should replace that too. If you have one of the 1980's all-foam helmets with perhaps a cloth cover, we would recommend replacing that one. Lab tests showed some years ago that the foam doesn't skid well on pavement, and could jerk your neck in a crash. In addition, some of them had no internal reinforcing, and they tend to break up in a crash. That's not serious if you just fall, but if you are hit by a car the helmet can fly apart in the initial contact and leave you bare-headed for the crack on the pavement.
Is it newer? With what standards sticker inside?

Newer helmets from the late 1980's and the 90's are less simple. First look to see what standards sticker is inside. If it's ASTM or Snell, the helmet was designed to meet today's standards for impact protection, and you may even find that Consumer Reports has tested it. Most manufacturers now recommend that helmets be replaced after five years, but some of that may be just marketing. (Bell now recommends every three years, which seems to us too short. They base it partially on updating your helmet technology, but they have not been improving their helmets that much over three year periods, and we consider some of their 1997 helmets to be a step backwards, so we would take that with a grain of salt.) Deterioration depends on usage, care, and abuse. But if you ride thousands of miles every year, five years may be a realistic estimate of helmet life. And helmets have actually been improving enough over time to make it a reasonable bet that you can find a better one than you did five years ago. It may fit better, look better, and in some cases may even be more protective. But in sum, we don't find the case for replacing a helmet that meets the ASTM or Snell standards that compelling if the helmet is still in good shape and fits you well.
Do you still like wearing it?

Your helmet is of course a piece of wearing apparel as well as a safety appliance. If you consider yourself a stylish rider and your helmet is not as spiffy as the new ones, go for it. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look good, and if you do, fashion is a valid reason to replace a helmet.

Is it a better helmet than the ones available today?

As new styles have become more "squared-off" and designers have begun adding unnecessary ridges and projections that may increase the sliding resistance of a helmet shell, there is good reason to stay with one of the more rounded designs of the early to mid 90's. Those round, smooth shells are more optimal for crashing than some of the newer designs. So think twice about "moving up," and look for a rounded, smooth-shelled design when you do. We have a lot of info on the new ones up on our page on helmets for 1998.
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