Thursday, March 5, 2009

A helmet is your most important piece of riding gear

The single most important piece of protective gear you can wear is a helmet certified to meet DOT standards. This was emphasized in the University of Southern California (USC) researcher Harry Hurt’s federally funded study, “Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures,” often called the Hurt Report, after its researcher Harry Hurt. This and other research has established that helmets save lives by reducing head injuries. The research also disproves helmet myths such as “helmets break necks, block vision, impair hearing, cause overheating, etc.” Informed riders wear helmets by deliberate choice every time they ride.

Let’s look at what a helmet really does for you. First, it is the best protective gear you can wear while riding a
motorcycle. Think of it at the same time you think of your ignition key. You pick up the key, you pick up the helmet. They go together. Helmet use is not a “cure-all” for motorcycle safety, but in a crash a helmet can help protect your brain, your face, and your life. In combination with other protective gear, rider education courses, proper licensing, and public awareness, helmet use is one way of reducing risk of injury.

You hope you never have to use your helmet, just like you hope you won’t ever need to use the seat belt in your car. But accidents do happen. We can’t predict when or what kind they will be. In any given year, a lot of people make good use of seat belts, and a lot of riders give thanks that they were wearing helmets.

Second, a good helmet makes riding a motorcycle more fun. This is the comfort factor. It cuts down on wind noise roaring by your ears, on wind blasts on your face and eyes, and deflects bugs and other objects that fly through the air. It even contributes to comfort from changing weather conditions and reduces rider fatigue.

Third, wearing a helmet adds to your motorcycling image and the image of all motorcyclists. It shows that we are responsible people, that we take ourselves and motorcycling seriously.

Wearing a helmet, no matter what the law says, is a reflection of your attitude toward riding. And that attitude is plain to see by other riders and non-riders alike. To ride a motorcycle means avoiding foolish risks.

How and Why a Helmet Works

Different helmets do different things. There are construction hard hats on construction heads, football helmets on athletes’ heads, and Kevlar pots on military heads. None are interchangeable. Motorcycle helmets are very
sophisticated and specialized for the activity. They’ve been developed carefully and scientifically over the years.

Four basic components work together to provide protection: an outer shell, an impact-absorbing liner, comfort padding, and a good retention system. What we see first is the outer shell, usually made of some family of fiber-reinforced composites or thermoplastics like polycarbonate. This is tough stuff, but designed and intended to crunch when it hits anything hard. That action disperses energy from the impact to lessen the force before it reaches your head. But it can’t act alone to protect you.

Inside the shell is the equally important impact-absorbing liner, usually made of expanded polystyrene
(commonly thought of as styrofoam). This dense layer cushions and absorbs the shock as the helmet stops
and your head wants to keep on moving.
Both the shell and the liner essentially self-destruct, if hit hard, by spreading the forces of impact throughout
the helmet material. The more impact energy that is deflected or absorbed, the less there is of it to reach your
head and do damage. Some helmet shells delaminate on impact, while others may crack or break if severely
impacted. This is one way a helmet acts to absorb shock. It is doing its intended job. Impact damage to the
non-resilient liner may be invisible to the eye; it may look great, but probably has little protective value left and
should be replaced.

The comfort padding is the soft-foam-and-cloth layer that sits next to your head. It helps keep you comfortable and the helmet fitting snugly. In some helmets, this padding can even be taken out for cleaning.

The retention system, or chin strap, is very important. It is the one piece that keeps the helmet on your head in
the event of a crash. A strap is connected to each side of the shell. Every time you put the helmet on, do up the
straps securely. It only takes a couple of seconds. To ride without the helmet securely strapped on would be
as questionable as driving without your seat belt fastened.

Choosing a Helmet

While color, design and price may be a part of your decision about which helmet to buy, think first about protection. A full-face helmet gives the most protection since it covers more of your face. It usually has movable face shields protecting the eyes and is easily operated with one hand. Professional and seasoned riders tend to prefer full-face helmets for the added protection and comfort. A three-quarter, open-face helmet is also a choice of some riders. It is constructed with the same basic components, but doesn’t offer the face and chin protection of full-face helmets. If you use an open-face helmet, you should have a snap-on face shield in place when you ride, or buy a pair of goggles that can withstand the impact of a stone. Ordinary glasses or sunglasses are not sufficient eye protection for a motorcyclist, and they might move or fly off.A half-shell helmet protects even less of your head. It is more likely to come off your head upon impact. Therefore, half-shell helmets are not recommended.

A lot of good helmets are available today, in all price ranges. One look around your dealer’s helmet display will convince you that nearly any color, decoration and design you could want on a helmet is already available. Many manufacturers are color coordinating their helmets with the newest motorcycle models.

The days of heavy or cumbersome helmets are no more. They’re made of light new materials and keep improving every year. The manufacturers are also working to make them less expensive, stronger, and more comfortable.

Helmet Safety Standards

A real must in choosing a helmet is making certain that it lives up to the minimum safety standards. Price doesn’t necessarily mean one helmet is better than another. It might just reflect hand processing versus a more
mechanized manufacture. It may be that certain styling detail, paint jobs, or venting systems affect the cost. The way to find a well-made, reliable helmet is to look for the DOT or SNELL sticker on the inside or outside of the helmet. The sticker means the helmet lives up to the safety test standards of these agencies: U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and/or the Snell Memorial Foundation. The D.O.T. certification is required by United States law for all motorcycle helmets sold in the United States. Each organization has rigid procedures for testing:

Impact: the shock-absorbing capacity of the helmet.

Penetration: the helmet’s ability to withstand a blow from a sharp object.

Retention: the chin strap’s ability to stay fastened without breaking or stretching.

Peripheral vision: the helmet must provide a minimum side vision of 105 *º to each side. (Most
people’s usable peripheral vision is only about 90 *º to each side.)

Since 1980, ALL adult-sized Motorcycle helmets for on-highway use must meet DOT standards. Helmet dealers and
distributors must ensure that all the helmets they sell bear the DOT sticker. Whatever your helmet choice, be sure it has this certification. You don’t want an inferior helmet or one designed for another purpose. If someone tries to sell you one without it, don’t buy it. If you have one without it, the helmet is probably so old it should be replaced anyway.

Snell has been testing helmets since the 1950s. The use of Snell standards by helmet manufacturers is voluntary, unlike DOT standards. Snell testing is of high quality and is revised as helmet design and technology improve.

Both agencies attempt to reproduce under test conditions, the situations that are hazardous to motorcyclists. Their testing methods differ, but the intent is the same; to make certain any helmet they approve has life-saving, shock-absorbing minimums.

Since head injuries account for a majority of motorcycle fatalities, head protection is vital. Even the best helmet is no guarantee against injury. However, without a helmet you are five times more likely to have serious head injuries than a helmeted rider.

Getting the Right Fit

There’s more to fitting a helmet than just buying one that matches your hat size or guessing at “small, medium or large.” Your hat size is a good starting point, however. If you don’t know your hat size, measure your head at its largest circumference - usually just above your eyebrows in front, over your ears and around in back. Try it several times so you know you’ve gotten the largest number. Some helmets are simply marked as S, M, L or XL. Unfortunately, marked helmet sizes vary just like shoe sizes. The only way to get a proper fit is to try them on.

Trying on Your Helmet

Hold it by the chin straps. The bottom of the helmet should face you with the front pointing down. Put your thumbs on the inside of the straps, balancing the helmet with your fingertips. Spread the sides of the helmet apart slightly and slip it down over your head.

The helmet should fit snugly and may even feel a bit too tight until it’s in place correctly. Be sure it sits squarely on your head. It shouldn’t sit tilted back on your head like a hat. Remember, if your helmet is too large, several things happen. It will move around and up and down on your head when you least want it to. It can be very annoying to wear because it’s noisy and lets in wind. And, in the event of an accident, it may come off!

Once the helmet is on your head, make a few other fit checks before fastening the chin strap:

1. The cheek pads should touch your cheeks without pressing uncomfortably.
2. There should be no gaps between your temples and the brow pads.
3. If the helmet has a neck roll, it shouldn’t push the helmet away from the back of your neck.
4. On full-coverage helmets, press on the chin piece. The helmet or face shield should not touch your nose or chin. If it does, it will surely do so at speed from wind pressure.

With the helmet still on and the straps securely fastened, move it from side to side and up and down with your hands. If it fits right, your scalp should move as the helmet is moved. You should feel as if a slight, even pressure is being exerted all over your head by the helmet. Remember too that a helmet loosens up a bit as the comfort liner compresses through use. So a new one should be as tight as you can comfortably wear it.

Now, with the chin strap still securely fastened and your head straight, try rolling the helmet forward off your head. You shouldn’t be able to pull it off. If you can, the helmet is too big.

Take off the helmet. Does your head feel sore anywhere? Are there any red spots on your forehead? Pressure
points can be uncomfortable and can cause a headache after a long ride, so be sure your helmet isn’t causing any. If it is, choose the next largest size or try a different brand of helmet. Human heads are not all the same shape; neither are helmets.

If you are still unsure about the helmet’s fit, wear it around the store for awhile to see if it remains comfortable. A helmet is an important investment, no matter what its price. Be sure the one you choose is right for you.

Helmet Care Tips

Follow the manufacturer’s directions on caring for your helmet. Use only the mildest soap recommended. Avoid any petroleum-based cleaning fluids, especially if you own a polycarbonate helmet. Exposure to strong cleaning agents can cause the helmet to decompose and lose protective value.

Keep your helmet’s face shield clean. Normally, mild soap and water with a soft cloth will do the job. If it gets
scratched, replace it. A scratched face shield can be annoying to look through. At night, it could dangerously distort your vision and the appearance of oncoming lights.

A helmet looks tough and sturdy, but should be handled as a fragile item. This means that you don’t want to drop your helmet onto hard surfaces. It could ruin your helmet. Remember that its function is to absorb impact in an accident.

It is not wise to store helmets near gasoline, cleaning fluids, exhaust fumes, or excessive heat. Helmet materials can react chemically to these factors. Damage done this way may be noticeable, but most often is invisible to the eye. Read the information that comes with the helmet so you know how to care for it.

Definitely read the instructions about painting, decorating, pinstriping, or applying decals to your helmet. Some thermoplastic or polycarbonate helmet compositions can be adversely affected by applying paint or decals.

Never hang your helmet on the motorcycle’s mirrors, turn signals, or sissy bar. The inner liner can easily be
damaged from such handling. In fact, avoid carrying a spare helmet on your cycle, unless it’s well protected or on your passenger’s head. Even the bumps and jarring from normal riding can damage a spare helmet. If it is
strapped on near hot engine parts or exhaust pipes, the inner liner may distort or melt at the hot spot. The outer
shell may not show the damage, but if you’ve ever seen the effects of a styrofoam cup placed near excessive heat,you can understand what happens.

When you take your helmet off, find a secure, flat place for it. That might mean setting it on the ground, securing it on a rack, or stowing it on a shelf. On some bikes, putting it on the gas tank may expose it to gas fumes. If you place it on the seat, make certain it can’t roll off.

If you plan to use a radio or intercom when you ride, find a model that doesn’t require drilling speaker holes in your helmet’s structure. Before you purchase your speakers, check your state’s laws regulating their use in helmets.Some states prohibit helmet speakers.

Replacing Your Helmet

Plan to replace your helmet if it is involved in a crash; it probably absorbed some impact shock. Some helmet
manufacturers will inspect and, when possible, repair a damaged helmet. If you drop your helmet and think it might be damaged, take advantage of this service.

Most helmet manufacturers recommend replacing your helmet every two to four years. If you notice any signs of damage before then, replace it sooner.

Why replace a helmet every few years if it doesn’t appear damaged? Its protective qualities may deteriorate with time and wear. The chin strap may fray or loosen at its attaching points. Or the shell could be chipped or banged. Probably the best reason, however, is that helmets keep improving. Chances are that the helmet you buy in a couple of years will be better, stronger, lighter, and more comfortable than the one you own now. It might even cost less!

Can’t remember when you bought your present helmet? Check the chin strap or permanent labeling. Since 1974, all helmets must have the month and date of production stamped on it. If there’s no date at all, you should definitely replace your helmet now!

State Helmet Requirements

Many states require a specific amount of reflectivity material on a helmet. Check with your dealer to be sure the helmet you plan to purchase meets the requirements. Ask if it will be damaged if you do apply reflective tapes or decals to it. Again, read the manufacturer’s information. Your local motor-vehicle department can give you exact information on the location and number of square inches of reflectivity material required in your state.

Helmet Laws
Wearing a helmet properly strapped on your head is mandatory in many states. Laws are always changing, so
double check with the state motor vehicle department for the most current information. Planning on a tour through several states? State laws apply to travelers as well as state residents. Don’t leave home without the information you need. Better yet, don’t leave home without wearing your helmet.

There has been some debate lately over SNELL guidelines making helmets more rigid and transfering more energy to the head under certain circumstances. Although the testing done by Motorcyclist magazine does prove this point they do not discourage the use of SNELL helmets but rather state that there is room for improvement. Manufacturers seem to have listened and the results will lead to improved protection for riders.

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