Put a lid on it
In an exclusive behind-the-scenes investigation, Emma Clark lifts the lid on Australian bike helmets.
They mightn’t always look particularly fashionable and they can mess with your hairdo in minutes, but there’s much more to a bike helmet than meets the eye.
Styles might be subtly changing for the better, but the stringent standards all helmets sold in Australia must meet still remain the most comprehensive in the world.
Ride On decided to take a closer look at what lies behind those standards, and in the process uncovered a fascinating insight into the stringent manufacturing tests our helmets must pass.
In the lab
Samples from each helmet’s manufacturing batch are rigorously tested before hitting the shelves, and every helmet sold in Australia must carry a sticker or label on it certifying it meets standard AS/NZ 2063:2008.
Helmet testing is carried out by independent accredited testing laboratories, with four helmets tested per manufacturing batch. The helmets complete seven main tests each, under ambient temperature, high temperature, cold temperature and while immersed in water.
All the tests are done on the one helmet in each temperature situation, which simulates the multiple types of impact and wear that a helmet will experience in a crash.
First, the helmet is checked to ensure that it offers sufficient peripheral vision on both sides, plus 25mm of clearance above the eyes. Then it is placed on a dummy head and subjected to a heavy force for at least 15 seconds to ensure that it stays stable on the head.
The helmet is then fitted on another dummy head with an inbuilt sensor and dropped from 1.5 metres onto a flat steel surface. The sensor measures the amount of acceleration that is transferred from the impact site through to the head. This tests how the helmet will stand up to a normal accident where it is subjected to hitting a flat object, such as the road or a car door.
The next test is unique to the Australian standards. After the helmet has been through the impact test, it is fitted to another dummy head with a sensor. A pointed aluminium anvil is dropped from one metre onto particular points of the helmet to simulate the helmet hitting a kerb or an angular projection from a car. The anvil cannot contact the surface of the dummy head – meaning that it shouldn’t penetrate right through the helmet – or it is an instant failure.
The next test involves another helmeted dummy head, this time subjecting the straps under the chin to a suspended mass of 2kg for 30 seconds. This ensures that the helmet remains on the top of your head during an accident and the straps don’t stretch, allowing the helmet to slip off.
For helmets with a peak or visor, the peak is subjected to a load of 2kg for 30 seconds to ensure that it will not become dislodged in an impact and injure the rider.
In order to meet our standards, the helmets must also include a form of ventilation and be sold with a brochure or label with visual instructions on the safe use of the helmet.
Additionally, each helmet must be printed with a note showing the registered name and address of the manufacturer and/or Australian agent, the shell and liner construction materials, the model and brand designation, helmet size and the month and year of manufacture.
An identifying mark or sticker from an accredited body certifying compliance with the Australian standard should also be visible on the helmet, along with safety instructions.
Setting the standard
“The AS/NZ 2063:2008 standard includes a couple of additional tests compared to the US CPSC or Snell standards”, Jim Brady, Rosebank Product Manager, told Ride On.
Rosebank has been a leading bike helmet manufacturer since producing the eponymous orange Stackhat immortalised in 80s classic film BMX Bandits.
“Our tests include batch testing, which involves testing four sample helmets from each manufacturing batch in order to maintain consistency during the entire manufacturing run. This also allows testers to easily identify a faulty batch instead of having to recall an entire product line.
“The other difference between the Australian and other standards is the anvil test, where a pointed anvil is dropped onto the helmet to simulate the helmet hitting a kerb or car.”
The Snell system, used in the US, tests helmets bought from retail outlets in the field, whereas the CPSC system involves almost no market surveillance.
“Snell buys helmets in the market and then informs the manufacturer if any do not meet their standard, potentially requiring a recall at some point,” said Jim.
Because there is no agreed international standard for helmets, major manufacturers such as Giro and Bell can only sell certain models from their existing international ranges that meet our standards, although ranges can also be adapted and changed if there is enough demand in the Australian market.
Suppliers and manufacturers must organise for their helmets to be tested through specialist independent laboratories. It can be an expensive procedure when you combine the cost of four samples from every batch with the freight of the samples and the testing costs.
But it is also very expensive to flaunt the regulations. Australian suppliers caught selling non-compliant helmets face fines of up to $220,000 for an individual, or $1.1 million for a business, plus product recalls.
Helmets that are bought overseas or online may technically be compliant with Australian standards, but if they do not come with a sticker or label stating compliance with AS/NZ 2063:2008, the wearer could be fined.
When to replace
Any helmet that has suffered impact in a crash or been dropped should be replaced, as it could have sustained cracks or dints that will compromise its performance, and these aren’t always visible. Check your helmet regularly for any signs of damage, including cracks in the surface or worn and frayed straps.
Ultraviolet light from the sun can also decay the helmet and lead to crumbling foam and cracks, so replace your helmet at least every three years.
What to spend
Helmets can cost anywhere between $15 and $350, but spending more does not necessarily mean you are getting a safer helmet. All helmets sold in Australia must comply with the standards, including the very cheapest.
“If a helmet is certified to AS/NZS 2063: 2008, you can be confident that it will offer a good level of protection”, says Jim.
Spending a bit more on a helmet can be better value, though. More expensive helmets almost always look better and offer other benefits like greater ventilation, comfort and style. They may also last longer because they are usually in-mould construction, where the polycarbonate shell is fused to the polystyrene foam, instead of the shell being glued or taped to the foam, as in some cheaper helmets.
From ultra-lightweight models with more ventilation holes than helmet to funky skater-style ones with custom artwork, helmet design has come a long way in recent years.
Innovative materials and styles mean that the days of fluoro polystyrene sweat boxes that we wore as kids are thankfully over.
“There is a trend towards lighter weight helmets in the road category,” says Jim. “For mountain biking, many new models are featuring a smoother profile with more rear coverage, taking on a slightly more skate-style look.
“More and more companies are ranging simple commuter styles for everyday use. In terms of construction, more helmets than ever are made using in-mould (or fused) production techniques, and many have multiple shell pieces with less exposed expanded polystyrene foam visible.”
The right fit
It is estimated that 75 per cent of riders don’t wear their helmet correctly. It is not uncommon to see riders wearing their helmet at a scarily jaunty angle, with dangling straps, and even sometimes, yes it’s true, on backwards. No matter how stringently a helmet has been tested, it will only work if it is worn correctly.
Wearing a hat under your helmet or tying up your hair will affect the fit, so be sure to re-adjust it every time you ride.
Getting the right-sized helmet in the first place is the most important step. Most manufacturers produce small, medium or large sized models fitted with a sizing ring, which tightens like a band around your head.
Place the helmet on your head and adjust the ring. The helmet should fit snuggly and touch the head all the way around, without feeling too tight.
It should sit level and flat on your head and low on your forehead, with about two finger-widths above your eyebrow. Push the helmet from side to side and back to front. If the helmet shifts noticeably, adjust the sizing ring or choose a different size of helmet.
Once you are happy that the helmet fits, you can fine-tune the straps. Adjust the side straps so they meet in a ‘Y’ just below and in front of your ear. You may need to loosen the side glides and lengthen either the front or rear strap. Centre the buckle under the chin and tighten the straps. The chin strap should be snug against the chin so that when you open your mouth wide you feel the helmet pull down slightly.