When buying a motorbike helmet you can be assured that they all conform to a minimum standard of safety and impact protection, but not all helmets are created equally. Some are much stronger than others and the job of testing how strong helmets are in Australia is performed by CRASH (Consumer Rating and Assessment of Safety Helmets). It’s run by a consortium of government agencies and a motorist organisation and it provides helmet buyers with standardised information about a helmet’s effectiveness during an impact that is independent of the influence of manufacturers.
In New South Wales alone, over 2700 motorcyclists were either killed or injured in the last 12 months, and some of those deaths could be avoided if everyone chose a helmet which offered superior protection. CRASH tests and rates full face helmets, open face helmets, flip-up (modular) helmets and dual-purpose sports helmets (e.g. motocross-style). See a more detailed explanation of each type of helmet here. CRASH does not test half helmets are these are generally not considered very safe.
Motorcycle helmets have developed over the years from a simple leather head cover through to today’s advanced composites. The first safety standards for helmets were introduced in the 1950s and, since then, the history of motorcycle helmets and helmet testing has continually been written as helmet performance improves.
Adequate impact performance
In order to minimise injury to the head, the helmet must cover the frontal and temporal areas, not disintegrate during impact, and be able to suffer impacts from different types of objects on different parts of the helmet at different speeds.
In the test, the helmet is placed on a simulated head to allow for the measurement of the various forces that would be transmitted through a real head, were it in the helmet in the event of an accident. The helmet is dropped on a hard surface with a predetermined amount of force and the energy reduction capabilities are measured. On flat surface tests, the helmet is mounted to a simulated head and dropped from heights of 0.8m and 2.5m. The helmets must maintain structural rigidity and the chinstrap must not fail. A set of measurements are taken from 5 different locations on the helmet.
The helmet must stay on the head during the impact without rotating so that it maintains its protection for subsequent impacts (there’s often more than one impact in a motorbike crash). The chinstrap must restrain the helmet, keeping it on the head. One of the tests tries to roll the helmet off the head by applying an upward force to the rear of the helmet at its base.
The chinstrap is tested by dropping a 10kg weight from a height of 75cm.
The comfort level is rated. The fit is assessed by at least five people with a head circumference of between 57-58 cm. The user wears an appropriate-sized helmet for several minutes and then a tester tries to roll the helmet off the head. The roll off force is measured.
The helmet’s wind resistance, ventilation and noise reduction are tested in a wind tunnel at a simulated riding speed of 100km/h by fitting it to a mannequin with a simulated outer ear (pinna) with a specialised microphone.
The helmets must:
- Provide a good peripheral view as motorcyclists rely on turning their head to see into their blind spots
- Snugly fit a range of people
- Reduce wind noise because noise is fatiguing over a long period of time
- Minimise wind resistance because neck muscles can get tired on a long ride
- Encourage ventilation inside the helmet to help keep the head cool and to discourage visor fogging
- Not be unduly heavy, again to avoid neck fatigue
- Have a visor that is waterproof, but resists fogging.
Each helmet is given a star rating between 1 and 5. No helmets have scored 5 stars yet. At present, 90 helmets have been tested since 2010 with 11 scoring 4 stars. No open face helmets have scored 4 stars.
The rating system assesses helmet performance above and beyond the AS/NZS1698 standard. One star means it meets the AS/NZS1698 standard, two stars is average, three stars is above average, four stars is good and five stars means excellent.
In terms of comfort, one star means poor, two stars means average, three stars is above average, four stars is good and five stars means excellent.
CRASH’s website details the rating system:
In the crash protection assessments, the helmets were rated based on their individual performance aspects. These aspects were ranked and weighted based on their importance to reduce the risk of head and brain injury in a crash and are listed as follows:
- Energy reduction in a higher speed crash on a flat surface (30 per cent)
- Energy reduction in a higher speed crash on kerb surface (25 per cent)
- Energy reduction in a lower speed crash on flat surface (15 per cent)
- Helmet’s ability to minimise the rotation of the helmet in a crash (10 per cent)
- Helmet coverage (10 per cent)
- Helmet chin-strap’s strength (5 per cent)
- Helmet’s ability to minimise rebound (5 per cent)
For the comfort level performance, the helmets were rated using comfort features which were considered important by motorcyclists. These features were ranked based on results from a 2010 survey conducted by the European project COST 357–PROHELM (Accident Prevention Options with Motorcycle Helmets) involving 598 motorcyclists. The study found 71 per cent of the riders wore a helmet that was not of the right size and 69 per cent of the respondents reported discomfort using the helmet.
The most common complaints related to noisiness of the helmet, followed by complaints about the visor steaming up too often and to the ventilation system not working adequately. The remaining features are ranked in the following order: Aerodynamics, helmet weight, peripheral vision and visor’s ability to seal out water.
An example rating is displayed like this:
- Size: XS, S, M, L, XL, XXL
- Type: Full Face
- Weight: 1.590 kg Average from 3 size L helmets
- Shell Material: Composite Material
- Retention System: Double D ring
|Crash Protection data breakdown|
|Energy reduction in a higher speed crash on flat anvil||19.16/30|
|Energy reduction in a higher speed crash on kerb anvil||19.98/25|
|Energy reduction in a lower speed crash on flat anvil||4.16/15|
|Helmet’s ability to minimise the rotation of the helmet in a crash||8.95/10|
|Helmet chin strap’s strength||1.54/5|
|Helmet’s ability to minimise rebound||3.06/5|
|Comfort level data breakdown|
|Helmet’s Operation and Fit||14.1/20|
|Visor’s Ability to Resist Fogging||20/20|
|Noise Inside the Helmet||98.58 dBA (11.4/20)|
|Aerodynamic Neck Loading||7.9/10|
|Vertical Field of View||3.4/5|
|Helmet’s Ability to Seal out Weather||3.2/5|
SHARP – an alternative helmet rating system
In the UK, SHARP performs a similar function to CRASH. SHARP has tested more helmets, so if the helmet you want hasn’t been tested in Australia, check out SHARP as it may have been tested in the UK.
A helmet will only protect your head, but many injuries and deaths come from impacts to the body and limbs. Using the correct safety gear can minimise this risk. Check out our guide to purchasing the right motorcycle safety equipment here.