Written By Richard Kimes, Chief Marketing Officer, Director of Training for Helmet House, Inc.
Perhaps the most often asked question in motorcycling refers to justifying the cost of helmets and why some helmets cost $69, while others can cost $699 or above. What’s the difference? Are more expensive helmets worth the extra money? If all “legal to ride with helmets” sold in this country are DOT Certified by law, why would I want to spend the extra cash on a more expensive or “premium” helmet? All reasonable questions, made even more reasonable during this current economic climate.
Before I go any further though, let me explain who I am and why Thumpertalk asked me to answer these questions for readers of their site. I’ve worked in the motorcycle industry since the late 1990’s and I now work for perhaps the country’s leading distributor dedicated to the sale of motorcycle helmets and riding gear in the United States. I work for Helmet House, Inc.
Helmet House is based in California at the base of the Santa Monica mountain range and we have at our disposal some of the best riding areas in the world, both street and off-road. Helmet House is the exclusive distributor of SHOEI premium helmets, the world’s leading brand of premium motorcycle helmets (premium as defined by price - roughly speaking $400 and above.) Helmet House works closely with the brands that we represent to dealers (and we work with over 7,000 dealers nationally) and yes, we have people on staff who I would respectfully refer to as “Helmet Super Freaks” such is the depth of their knowledge of these products, their design and construction.
In addition to distributing SHOEI helmets, Helmet House is the leading U.S. distributor of the leading helmet brand in the world; HJC Helmets. Thus Helmet House represents and is responsible for the sale to thousands of dealers and retails for the leading helmet brands in both the “premium” and “volume” segments of the motorcycle helmet business.
Now, I can hear “PAID SCHILL!” coming out of your mouth as you’re reading this and while I am efforting at full-disclosure here and appreciate how you might say that, let my perspective on helmets be crystal clear; the most important aspect of a purchasing a motorcycle helmet is that you end up buying a quality helmet, and that you wear it- all the time when you ride- every ride. Let me also point out that I wrote “quality” not “premium” nor “expensive” here. Like most other aspects in life, you get what you pay for. That’s true in buying steak. It’s also true with helmets. Do any better than that, you are ahead of the game- as my Dad used to say. Lastly, we didn't pay to have this article on ThumperTalk, they asked for our thoughts on the subject.
So with the “full-disclosure” aspects of this article out of the way, let’s revisit the central question, “Are more expensive motorcycle helmets worth the extra money?” Well, yes they indeed are, IF what a more expensive helmet provides you is important to you.
In general terms, most of the extra money charged for a “premium” helmet benefits a rider in four main areas:
- A compact, strong and light outer shell.
- Better ventilation for the rider.
- Better aerodynamics.
- A higher performance interior liner that provides more rider comfort.
Let me expand on these four areas to help you understand where the extra money goes to.
A Compact, Strong and Light Outer Shell
A helmet is really nothing more than an energy dissipation system for your head. This system is activated when you hit your head. And this “system” is comprised of three parts: the hard outer shell designed to transmit the energy of a crash around your head, not through it; an energy absorbing liner (usually made from EPS- expanded polystyrene or Styrofoam like in that inexpensive coffee cup from the PDQ, but the EPS in your helmet is usually much more highly engineered with different densities of EPS) to help dissipate and absorb the energy in a crash that the hard outer shell can’t redirect; and finally a comfort liner (the cushy foam that’s next to your skin and hair) with a strap to make the helmet comfortable and keep it on your head firmly so that the system can operate as effectively as possible.
The outer shell can be made quite strong using fiberglass, fiber-reinforced plastic, carbon fiber or other organic fibers, or combinations of these. The challenge in making a shell is to make it strong and light, with a modicum of elasticity. That’s right, your helmet needs to be slightly elastic to help direct that crash energy around the shell vs. through it. The challenge in constructing the shell is to maximize strength and elasticity to redirect and absorb crash energy while remaining light enough so that it isn’t unbearable to wear or create extra stress to the rider’s neck due to weight.
Why is being light important? The lighter the helmet, the less stress it will put on a rider’s neck to wear it. Thus he will be increasing stamina and will probably have a more enjoyable ride and will ride longer.
Inexpensive helmets are often constructed with a thermoplastic shell, usually made in a mold constructed in two halves under pressure that leaves a small seam that this then painted over for a seamless appearance. This is a very cost-effective method of producing a DOT-level (and some lower cost Snell-rated helmets.) Premium helmets are often built using hand-laid fiberglass and special fibers for strength and durability that are then sandwiched together under pressure in a mold. This is a much more intricate and hand-labor intensive process using more expensive materials, thus costing more.
.For example, SHOEI’s leading off-road helmet, the VFX-W,uses a very sophisticated shell using a very lightweight matrix of several materials in the shell; fiberglass, carbon fiber, other organic (read “secret ingredient” organic fibers) and a bullet-proof fabric layer, all sandwiched in the shell’s construction in a high-pressure mold to make for a very strong, very thin and light hard outer shell that meets and exceeds the necessary DOT 218 standard in the United States, it also surpasses the Snell Memorial Foundation’s 2010 standard, the highest impact standard in the world.
In addition to shell construction techniques that tend to optimize strength, elasticity and weight, the size of the helmet shell relative to the EPS liner and the comfort liner padding is also very important.
Many helmet companies provide a helmet model in sizes XS to XXL. In order to accommodate this broad size range, the manufacturer often will produce a shell in 1 or 2 shell sizes (not the printed size label) so that the relationship between the shell size and the amount and thickness of EPS and comfort liner is optimized across that XS to XXL size range. The challenge here is that certain sizes get more foam padding in the comfort liner to make up for the larger than normal shell size relative to printed size.
While this strategy works on paper, it often results in a helmet that is somewhat larger than needed for the wearer and often results in worse than optimum fit. That compromise results in buffeting (or shaking) of the helmet at speed (due to movement on the rider’s head because of wind and turbulence) creating a lot of rider discomfort. Not confidence inspiring while riding and from an engineering perspective, that buffeting is indicative of some inconsistencies to that crash “system” that are not optimum either.
Premium helmets almost always provide more shell sizes across a size range to better optimize the relationship between the shell size, the EPS liner size and the comfort liner’s thickness to maximize crash energy absorption while minimizing buffeting and shaking at speed. SHOEI helmet are always offered in 3 to 5 shell sizes (depending on model) to optimize this relationship across the helmet’s size range and provide every rider, no matter the size helmet as close to an optimum fit.
Lastly premium helmets often provide EPS liner protection in the chin bar, where cheaper helmets often do not, thus maximizing rider safety in an area that is often overlooked in more value-priced helmets. The EPS in that area helps the chin bar in a full-face street helmet or off-road helmet perform better in crash absorption, going beyond just the head area to the face and chin.
Better Aerodynamics and Ventilation
The Wind Tunnel is Your Friend or a “Dry Head is a Happy Head”
Ventilation is key to enjoying your ride. Think about it. Nobody likes sweating in a helmet and moisture inside only increases the chance of fogging up a face shield or your goggles, or sweat getting in your eyes while riding in the worst case.
A premium helmet usually features a rather sophisticated ventilation system that not only efficiently pumps air into the helmet, but distributes the air effectively around your head and then exhausts that air out the back of the helmet, creating a continuous airflow to keep your head cool and dry and the rider more focused on the task at hand (riding).
Premium helmets, particularly SHOEIs, rely on wind tunnels for product development. SHOEI has invested heavily in both robotic armatures in both half size and full size wind tunnels that greatly aid in their ability to provide immediate feedback to a design in terms of aerodynamics and ventilation. Not only are wind tunnels used for determining a helmet’s shell shape for overall aerodynamic efficiency, the wind tunnel is a vital instrument to locate vents on the shell at the highest air pressure areas to maximize the amount of air a vent can actually well, “vent”, whether it be an intake vent or an exhaust vent.
Furthermore, the wind tunnel can also help tune the helmet to make it quieter. For example SHOEI uses their wind tunnels to measure internal sound levels around the helmet at multiple points in the interior and helps them optimize designs to better manage airflow near and turbulence away from a rider’s ears where it creates a lot of noise. Noise leads to stress over time, even with earplugs. Not good.
And finally, with a full-size wind tunnel, you can develop the helmet shape and size relative to all types of motorcycle styles and riding positions and types, which indeed SHOEI does at length to create a very stable, quiet and cool design.
In a premium motocross or off-road helmet, vents are also often backed with a mesh screen to keep roost from penetrating between the shell and EPS liner, thus keeping their integrity intact. On a SHOEI VFX-W, all the helmet’s intake and exhaust vents feature aluminum mesh (plus a foam filter in the chin bar) for just that purpose. This makes the helmet safer and keeps any roost from getting inside.
Premium helmets also offer sophisticated multi-layer EPS liners that offer air channels that effectively distribute the air around a rider’s head. That’s right, those vents lead to airways that distribute the air around your head front and back. Think of it like your home’s air conditioning system and how it distributes air around to every room of the house. Same with your helmet if it’s a premium design.
The Interior Liner- Completing the System and Increasing Helmet Safety
Additionally, to further aid the ventilation system, premium helmets, especially those designed for use in competition will utilize a removable, adjustable and replaceable liner system in the interior that are constructed using materials that wick away or absorb moisture to keep it away from the rider’s head, aiding head comfort and dryness and helping avoid the “sweat in the eyes” problem.
One of the latest developments in premium helmet liners are now Emergency Release systems for the cheek pads. These systems consist of a pull-tab or small strap, usually located on the bottom of each cheek pad that an Emergency Medical Technician or other medical personnel can use to easily and quickly pull and unsnap the check pads to aid in removing a fallen rider’s helmet more safely with a minimum of impact to the rider’s neck. With the cheek pads out, the helmet slips off the top of the rider’s head much easier. This helps to minimize any neck trauma or the possibility of further spinal or neck injury in a serious shunt.
So there you have it. That’s the difference. Making a motorcycle helmet is not terribly difficult or complicated. As proof there are over 90 helmet brands available (and by brands I don’t mean factories that make helmets) in the United States as I write this, which is testament to the fact that it’s not too hard to make a helmet. But, it is very scientific and intricate in making premium helmets that are designed and engineered to be the best at a number of benefits. To fully develop a helmet to optimize its shell strength and lightness, its aerodynamics and ventilation; its comfort and safety, there are companies, such as SHOEI, who will go to great engineering, design and analytical lengths to create the best possible solution for the rider. The type of solution that will lead to a more comfortable rider. A rider who is able to perform and ride better and longer. And hopefully enjoy it more.
That’s where the extra costs come from and to those where that matters, are justified. For those who feel a helmet is a helmet is a helmet, there are several options and styles available. Remember, you get what you pay for. Do any better than that, you’re ahead of the game.