Monday, September 10, 2012
ALL THE GEAR, ALL THE TIME - HELMETS
First in a series…
The most important single piece of riding gear one can use is a helmet. Helmets are engineered to withstand and distribute tremendous force all in an effort to protect the rider’s delicate cranium better than the mere ¼ inch of bone matter with which we are all naturally endowed.
I’m no expert, but it seems to me like the physics of a bare head hitting a freeway divider at 65 miles an hour are a lot more unforgiving than that same head encased in Kevlar, Fiberglas and thick foam padding.
Helmets must meet regulatory requirements that have been established both in the US and Europe. Two standards setting organizations are ANSI (American National Standards Institute) and Snell. The US Department of Transportation awards "DOT" stickers to helmets meeting specific standards, but the Snell benchmarks are far more rigorous, so I look for that Snell approval. While most (all?) marketed helmets meet accepted standards, there are styles of helmets that are inherently safer than others.
Full coverage helmets are one-piece units that that fully cover the rider’s head from the top of the skull to below the chin. A thick, padded band of the same material that makes up the helmet wraps around the lower part of the face protecting the rider in situations where one may be tossed over the handlebars and skidding along the pavement on one’s face. Full coverage helmets have a clear or tinted visor that rotates into place protecting the eyes from bugs, debris and wind. Full coverage helmets come in range of prices, but price should be the lesser of the buyer’s concerns. Comfort, fit – it should be very snug, ventilation, and weight should enter into one’s thinking. Mine is white in color because it shows up better and because it is cooler on hot summer days. Also, find one from which it is easy to remove the face shield for cleaning.
Convertible or modular helmets serve as an alternative to the full coverage model. Although they look the same as full face, the chin bar is hinged so that with a push of the button, the bottom of the unit can be rotated up and out of the way when safe. “When safe" does not include while riding. Modular helmets can only fully protect the rider at speed when closed. However, when filling up or when stopping by the side of the road for a conversation, the flip-up nature of these can prove to be more convenient than having to take the whole thing off. Convertible helmets used to get a black eye for product integrity in the event of impact, but manufacturers and enthusiasts seem to think this is no longer the issue it once was. Modular helmets can be a tiny bit heavier than full face. I wear mine on short trips around town.
Open face helmets are those units the more gentrified among us may have remembered as kids. A.J. Foyt? Indianapolis 500? They lack the chin bar. Snaps are provided around the front from ear to forehead to ear so that plastic eye protection can be added. Open face helmets are cooler but do not afford all the protection that the full-face units provide. I use mine only if I am driving around the block to dry the bike after a wash. And once my open face helmet is worn out, I’ll not replace it.
Shorty helmets offer the least protection. While many are padded like their afore-mentioned cousins, chances are that in the even of an impact, parts of the head and neck will be less protected.
Snell Foundation helmet standards: http://www.smf.org/stds
How to identify unsafe helmets (from the National Highway Traffic safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/pedbimot/motorcycle/unsafehelmetid/pages/page2.htm
Enthusiast magazines offer product reviews on helmets from time to time. Here are just a few of many, many magazine websites worth exploring:
Rider Magazine: http://www.ridermagazine.com/
Cycle World: http://www.cycleworld.com/
BMW Owner’s News: http://www.bmwmoa.org/ownersnews/
Also: plugging “Motorcycle Helmet Product Review” into your search engine may access many on-line sources.
Church of the Open Road press