A lot of the recent talk about helmet technologies has focused on digital enhancements, things like Head Up Displays, GPS etc. as found in Skully’s AR-1 helmet lid or BMW’s retro-fit helmet system. When it comes to the underlying technology of helmet construction, however, you could be forgiven for thinking that it had reached its zenith: that there was little more to do but tweak the specification here and there.
Certainly, the materials used haven’t changed much. Once upon a time, all helmets were made of either fibreglass or polycarbonate. And, despite the passing of many decades, most still are. Sure, the odd bit of carbon or kevlar has been added to a few, and there are a handful of full carbon-composite shells.
But when it comes to the inner shell, almost without exception, it’s polystyrene. Some manufacturers call it EPS and others promise progressive deformability, but it’s basically the same stuff your microwave came packed in.
Go one step further and you’ll find all sorts of proprietary materials and designs for the lining. Including a material from AGV called Shalimar (inspired by the 1970s funk group with the same name who gave us ‘A Night To Remember’?). Good for comfort, but the lining has little to do with impact protection.
‘Asleep at the wheel’
So is a polystyrene inner shell as good as it gets? A little while ago we alerted readers of our newsletter, Ride On (you can subscribe at the bottom of the page), to the work being done by Californian entrepreneur Bob Weber and his company, 6D Helmets website. Bob set out to make a safer dirt-bike helmet, focussing on the way the inner shell works in an impact. In doing so he described the helmet industry in a Los Angeles Times article about Bob Weber's helmet development as “asleep at the wheel for years” about the issue.
Weber’s design created an interior liner that can move to absorb and disperse the energy of a crash.
It was an approach taken up by helmet giant Bell, first in a dirt-bike lid and now in their top two Road Star helmets. Bell call it ‘Flex Technology’ and it was covered comprehensively in a recent piece on Bell's Flex Technology on Stuff. Sadly, poor old Bob Weber didn't get a mention so we can only hope he has a lucrative licensing deal with Bell!
Either way, it’s good to see innovation being applied in this area with, hopefully, safer helmets as the end result. In the meantime, the best guarantee of protection is to always look for helmets with the NZTA's correct safety standards, and check out how a helmet performs in SHARP helmet testing. You’ll find more info on choosing the right helmet, based on the riding you're doing, in our Ride Forever Bike & Gear section.