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Breaking Down the New Helmet Standards

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Just a few days before I wrote this story, my wife, Joan, and I were out on our semi-regular Saturday morning bike ride. We stopped at Office Max on the way home, and not all of her purchases fit into panniers. One oversized box was hung on my wife’s handlebars.

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On the ride home, she caught her toe in the bag, which turned the bars right and caused her to high-side at 11 mph or so in the middle of a busy street. She was pitched on to the pavement, and her elbow, shoulder and head hit the pavement. I leapt off my bike and found her gasping for breath (her wind was knocked out) and incoherent. She came around in about 20 seconds, but doesn’t really remember the next five minutes clearly. Even though I believed she was fine, I spent a few seconds wondering if she was seriously injured.

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When the helmet contacted the pavement, the outer shell of the helmet flexed and spread out the force of the impact. The foam compressed and absorbed some of the force, cushioning Joan’s head from the blow. The blow to her head (or perhaps the shock of the crash) put her into shock and chased her reasoned, rational side away for a bit.

She spent the afternoon in the ER getting X-rays and CAT scans. Thankfully, her only injuries were bumps and bruises. Had she been wearing one of those thin-brimmed cloth caps popular with Austin cyclists, the results would have been much more dramatic. Rather than writing this article, I would perhaps be sitting at her side in the hospital. Or worse.

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My personal state of well-being, such as it is, owes a debt of gratitude to motorcycle helmets. I’ve had a few street crashes in my life, dozens of garden-variety off-road mishaps, and hit my head on Brainerd’s turn 10 so hard that the pavement scraped all the coating off the chin bar and bared raw green fiberglass. Even so, nothing drives home the value of a helmet like seeing a loved one shake off the effects of getting hammered down to asphalt.

The protection offered by motorcycle helmets took a step forward in 2010 with the release of Snell’s latest safety rating, M2010. As you probably know, helmets which pass Snell’s rigid standards are widely regarded as the best melon protection money can buy.

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Snell is a non-profit organization dedicated to setting the highest achievable standards possible for helmets in America. The group relies upon a board of directors comprised of top medical experts in head trauma and helmet technology to help set testing standards. American-made helmets are required only to meet standards set by the Department of Transportation (DOT). Helmets are not required by law to pass Snell standards, but persistent marketing and market support have made Snell standards widely accepted. Almost every premium helmet sold in American is Snell-rated.

Motorcycle crash helmets were first adopted in England in the early 1940s. When a research study showed that more than 90 percent of motorcycle fatalities were caused by head injuries, riders began to wear military helmets for protection. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, companies began manufacturing crude motorcycle-specific helmets.

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The Snell organization was founded in the 1950s, and came about because of a tragedy. Pete Snell was killed by head injuries when his race car rolled over on the track in California on Aug. 6, 1956. One of his friends, Dr. George Sniveley, had been doing research on the effectiveness of safety helmets. He and several others felt they could improve the standards of helmet manufacturing in America. After Snell’s death, Snively and several others founded the Snell Memorial Foundation to do just that. Its first set of standards was published in 1959, and Snell slowly grew to the prominence it enjoys today as the world’s premier helmet safety standard.

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Every five years or so, Snell comes out with updated standards for helmet manufacturers. The standards are developed in conjunction with input from the manufacturers, and each manufacturer has to submit helmets to Snell for testing at their facility in North Highlands, Calif. If the helmets pass, it receives a Snell rating.

In recent years, things have become a bit complex for Snell. For one, the Snell M2005 rating met the U.S. government-mandated DOT standards but was not compliant with the prevalent European standard (catchily named ECE 22-05).

The reason for this is not really related to how much impact the helmet can absorb. The distinction between Snell, DOT, and ECE 22-05 standards is in how the helmets are tested. Snell uses different presumed head weights than ECE 22-05 standards to test all sizes of the helmet.

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Snell-approved helmets are widely viewed as a safer choice as they typically use more liner material to absorb shock, Snell M2005-approved helmets do not meet ECE 22-05 standards due to the different head weights used in the European test standard. ECE 22-05 is a legally mandated standard, which meant that European riders who prefer a Snell-approved helmet couldn’t legally use one on the street.

The Snell M2010 test standards now test helmets using head weights that are the same as the European standard. While this should mean that Snell M2010-approved helmets are compliant with ECE 22-05, this may not be the case. Ed Becker from Snell stated that the new Snell M2010-approved helmets should pass ECE 22-05 standards, but Bret Milan from Shoei said that their company still builds two different lines of helmets in order to satisfy Snell M2010 and ECE 22-05 standards.

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That’s all regulation wrangling that doesn’t mean much to American riders. In order to meet the new M2010 standards, manufacturers had to change their small-sized in order to pass. Small and extra-small helmets now use different lining material which provides slightly more cushion in a fall. This means that riders with small noggins who wear Snell M2010-approved helmets will have slightly improved crash protection.

The new standard also required some companies to redesign the shell sizes of the small and very large helmets. This means that new helmets that meet M2010 may have a newly designed shell which should result in better-fitting helmets.

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The protection provided by large and medium helmets that meet M2010 is minimally changed from M2005.

In the end, the new standard is not such a radical change that you need to urge all of your customers to toss their Snell M2005 helmets into the trash. Nor should you fire sale M2005-approved helmets.

Snell M2005 helmets caught some fire in a 2005 article in Motorcyclist magazine entitled, “Blowing the Lid Off.” The magazine tested helmets and found that some of the lower-priced non-Snell-approved buckets were marginally better at impact reduction than more expensive Snell-approved models. The article generated considerable discussion, and Snell took issue with it (you can read the article and responses at the Motorcyclist web site).

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“You will definitely be getting a softer impact with these M2010 helmets. The big question has always been what’s this going to mean in terms of injury risk,” Becker said.

Becker agrees that the new helmets will provide a marginal improvement in the the G-load to the head in a crash. The question is, will that incremental change reduce injuries?

Our litigious society plays a role in what official representatives can and can’t say. While new helmets may incorporate innovations that improve safety, company reps often aren’t even allowed to discuss them for fear of implying that the old helmets were somehow deficient.

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In the end, the new Snell M2010 regulations provide a slightly improved impact reduction that is most significant to people with small and extra-small heads. Becker stated flatly that dealers shouldn’t be afraid to sell the Snell M2005 helmets on their shelves. He said that the difference between that and the new M2010 is subtle, and that both are tremendously safe.

Personally, I think back to how it felt to see my wife crash face-first into the pavement and how relieved I was that the helmet she was wearing protected her head. Incremental improvements, at least to me, are worth the expense.

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The Bottom Line

• Don’t feel the need to liquidate stock of M2005-approved helmets, as the impact resistance of Snell M2010-approved helmets improved only subtly over Snell M2005-approved helmets.

• Medium- and large-sized Snell M2005 helmets are virtually identical in impact energy reduction to Snell M2010-approved helmets of that size.

• Small and extra-small helmets that are Snell M2010-approved may be slightly better at reducing impact energy and, due to redesigned shells, may fit better than Snell M2005-approved helmets.

• Getting your customers a quality helmet that fits comfortably is more important than whether or not they have M2005- or M2010-approved models.

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