Head hunting

When it comes to head protection, ATV riders have lots of choices. The traditional full-coverage open-face helmet provides basic protection at low cost. The increasingly popular motocross style adds a chin bar for vital facial protection. Half-helmets are sometimes used in hot climates for obvious reasons, and we’ve even seen a few riders wearing a street bike or snowmobile helmet with a face shield to deal with mud splatters or cold winter winds.

But no matter what type of headgear we choose to use, all safety helmets have one basic job, and that is protection of the most important and most vulnerable part of our anatomy. Let’s take a look at how they do it.

How They Work

A safety helmet is a one-time use device engineered specifically to protect the wearer’s head during a crash. But while it is waiting to do its job, it also provides a platform for face and eye protection.

Any time a helmet is involved in a crash, it should be replaced immediately, or at least returned to the manufacturer for inspection because there may be hidden damage.

All helmets require some care while in use so read the owner’s manual. And they all degrade with age, so your helmet should also be replaced frequently for maximum protection even if you never whack it in any way. Most experts recommend a new helmet every two to five years.

With many new models now reaching the market, it’s time for a fresh look at helmet technology.

How They’re Built

Powersports helmets have four primary components: an impact-resistant outer shell, a crushable shell liner, a soft inside head liner for rider comfort and a chin strap to keep the helmet on the wearer’s head.

Traditionally made of fiberglass and resin, and sometimes reinforced with exotic materials like Kevlar or carbon fiber for added strength, outer shells are now increasingly made from injection-molded thermoplastics. Polycarbonate, the original plastic shell material, offers high impact resistance but tends to shatter when the limit is exceeded rather than deforming like fiberglass. Blending polycarbonate with materials like acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and nylon provided improved impact characteristics and allowed the modern plastic helmet to emerge as quality head wear. At this point, neither fiberglass nor thermoplastic construction is necessarily lighter, stronger or better quality than the other. Most popularly priced helmets are going to weigh between three and four pounds regardless of shell material.

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The expanded polystyrene (EPS) rigid foam shell liner is engineered to cushion the head by collapsing slowly under impact. This liner is at least 1-inch thick and often layered with different densities to control the crush. The form on which this liner is molded is a key factor for proper fit and comfort. Helmets come from many parts of the world, including Asia, where they are often constructed for round heads. But some companies that source helmets there, like Z1R, use a round/oval head form that better fits typical North American heads.

The headliner is constructed of man-made materials like Cool-Max Dacron polyester. Typically very durable and hypoallergenic, liners generally wick moisture away from the skin to improve comfort. Liners in better helmets are also usually engineered to allow easy removal for washing, which makes a lot of sense in a dirt environment and when riders are using the same helmet day after day and constantly soaking the liner with perspiration. Liner removal and reinstallation is easier in somehelmets than others. For example, Scorpion helmets feature liners that snap out and snap back in without the troublesome flap fitting and tucking that is typical of removable liners. And as an added benefit, Scorpion also offers custom liner and cheek pad kits with some wild patterns so riders can have more than one set to use and be able to tell them apart easily.

Chin straps are securely anchored to the outer shell and are fastened with any of several styles of closure devices ranging from the old standard double D-rings to slide bars to convenient button-operated buckles.

How They Are Certified

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Two helmet performance certification systems, DOT and Snell, are recognized in the United States.
Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard Number 218 (FMVSS-218) published by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) establishes minimum helmet performance requirements covering impact resistance, penetration resistance and helmet retention in an accident. Manufacturers must certify that all helmets sold for use on U.S. public roads meet this standard. Because most companies use the same basic technology for both on- and off-road helmets, DOT FMVSS-218 has become the effective minimum standard for all powersports headgear. The key word here is minimum.

Independent testing labs are contracted by the manufacturers to do the actual certification procedures using a purpose-built apparatus with the DOT-specified documented and repeatable techniques. Verification of what the manufacturer says is left to DOT and its random sampling program for products on store shelves.

The Snell Memorial Foundation is a private not-for-profit organization that sets voluntary standards for all kinds of protective headgear. Snell performance requirements are tougher than DOT requirements in most respects, and are raised every five years. Snell does its own testing and Snell certified helmets can cost a little more due to superior construction as well as the cost of the Snell testing and labeling materials.

The Snell motorcycle certification identified with the letter M and the year the standard was adopted is appropriate for ATV riding. M2005 is the current standard, but the Snell Foundation says that M2000 helmets provide effective protection and does not discourage their purchase and use.

For a discussion of the differences between DOT and Snell standards, refer to the Missouri Motorcycle Safety Program Web site at www.mmsp.org/helmets/Snell.html.

How To Select The Right Helmet

First determine the style you want. If you prefer an open face type, you should also use mouth protection because a rock thrown up by a quad in front of you could do a serious number on your face. Some goggles have facemasks integrated into the frame or have optional attachments that serve the same purpose. But consider that a helmet with a chin bar may be a more comfortable alternative.

When you make your choice, try it on to ensure a proper fit. Forehead coverage should extend down to just above the eyebrows. The retaining strap should fit snugly under the chin, and the user must be able to use the closure devices properly with the helmet on. Choose a size that fits snugly but not too tight. A good test is to shake your head up and down and side to side. The helmet should not slide in any direction from this shaking.

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