The recent death of a motorcyclist using a 'flip' face helmet - or more correctly, a modular helmet, has once again raised the question of safety and the effectiveness of these popular helmets versus the more conventional full-face variety. How safe are they and what are the risks associated with modular helmets?
Well, trawling through the web shows very conflicting opinions - some for and many against the use of these convenient helmets, but other than the 'blurb' that manufacturers put out, very few tests and independent reviews have been undertaken to clarify the question. Logic says that any helmet with a loose face piece surely has a weak-spot that contributes to injury and even death! But is that necessarily the truth?
All helmets on the market today have to pass a series of safety tests before they are sold to consumers. There are three safety standards in use across the world to test helmets - DOT (US Department of Transport), ECE 22.05 (European Commission) and Snell and each of them differ in certain respects from one another. While the DOT and ECE standards are monitored by government bodies in the USA and Europe respectively - and helmets are randomly tested for compliance against a range of collision and safety standards, they are merely the last step in a process that starts with manufacturers. Standards are published and each manufacturer is required to ensure compliance with their respective standards (sometimes both depending on where the helmets are being sold), before they submit them to the government agency to test and approve.
The Snell Memorial Foundation on the other hand, is a private organisation that has been setting standards and testing crash helmets since 1958. Snell goes beyond the governmental standard-setting approach and is available to assist manufacturers with helmet development by offering prototype testing. Once development is completed, manufacturers seeking certification submit sample helmets to Snell for testing using the Foundation’s standardized tests. If the helmet passes all the tests, it will receive certification under the standard and the manufacturer can label the helmet as Snell certified. Importantly, only Snell certified helmets are permitted in professional racing, so it says something..!
Tragically, the differences between the various safety standards - and testing processes, are such that passing one of the tests does not necessarily mean the helmet will pass the others and perhaps the time has come for a single global safety standard for motorcycle helmets to avoid the confusion that clearly exists? The UK Government launched just such a scheme in 2008 and each year it rates the effectiveness of helmets - both modular and full-face. Follow this link to see the 2016 ratings for helmets - https://sharp.dft.gov.uk/helmets/
So, sounds good in theory, but in practice, how do modular helmets shape-up? Well, there seems to be agreement in the fact that while the helmet is flipped open, the integrity of the shell and the overall efficacy of the helmet in an accident is diminished. Modular helmets are not designed for high-speed crashes in the open position, even though the same can't be said for open-face helmets, and almost all manufacturers advise closing the helmet at speeds over 90 kilometers an hour. A second consideration is the latch mechanism itself. Some have a latch made of composite material - and even plastics, while others have metal latches that have been designed to hold the face-piece in place. Clearly, anything but a metal latch is an invitation for disaster and documented cases of modular helmets opening on impact almost all relate to the nature of the latch itself - with metal latches relatively secure after impact.
But in the end, no helmet guarantees your survival in a crash. They are designed to 'increase' the chances that you WILL survive and not end up with your brains scrambled for life. What helmet you choose to wear, is a reflection of the confidence you have in its design. If you're not sure a modular gives you that confidence... opt for a full face helmet. The fact that modular helmets are becoming increasingly popular across the world should give you the confidence to ride one, but at the end of the day, remember that no helmet is designed to survive a high-impact crash unscathed - the best you can hope for is that your head remains relatively safe.
Sadly, there are many helmets available in this country that fail to meet recognised standards - even though they have been approved by local standards authorities, and the time has long-passed for these 'cheap' imports to be banned for good. Also remember that just like any testing process, there are helmets that carry the 'right' certifications by just meeting the prescribed standard, and others that far-exceed the minimum standard, so choose carefully and don't be fooled by price or brand. Modular helmets should not be used by competitive riders - or riders involved in competitive sport, and I have seldom seen full adventure and off-road riders wear them - possibly for very good reason. If you are a weekend rider, commuter, tourer or non-competitive rider, there is no reason why modular should be unsafe.
Helmet certification standards are a highly controversial subject in motorcycle circles, everyone wants to believe their helmet’s certification standard is number 1 but at the end of the day it’s down to each rider to do their research, make their decision and the wear their helmet. Every time.