Check Your Head: Advances in Off-Road Helmet Technology
By Sean Goulart
For the last sixty years, helmets have been basically the same old thing; a stiff exterior "shell" with some type of collapsible material which composes the interior "liner". And this design has remained the same with very little advancement in actual functionality.
Yes, today’s helmets are more comfortable, stylish, lighter and the foam used is more effective, but the bottom line is...motocross helmets are outdated.
Why say this?
It's because we know it to be true, and the facts lay bare the truth, we all need a better helmet.
So, with that said, we went out and looked at two helmet manufacturers, Kali Protectives and 6D Helmets, that offer advanced technologies that are claimed to improve your chances of avoiding serious head injuries when riding or racing off-road motorcycles.
We were refreshingly surprised at the mutual respect these two firms have for each other, both are aware of the other’s work and complimented each other’s efforts during our interviews.
Before we get into some of the more technical discussion of the way these helmets work, very simply put, both helmet makers have attempted to improve the way the brain reacts to blunt impact force, like when your head strikes the ground in a crash. You want the helmet to have some “give” or cushion between your skull and the ground.
Up until now, the stiff shell prevented the hard stuff from getting to your skull as well as spreading out the load, and the foam inside deformed when you hit the ground and that was that.
But what these new manufacturers are doing is essentially improving that area that “gives” in order to allow your brain more time to slow down before it slams into the inside of your skull and both makers do it in separate ways.
This isn’t voodoo or magic, its scientific testing, coupled with careful medical studies that all strongly suggest these products are the way forward.
We spoke with the team at Kali Protectives and they had a lot to say. Being the first to market with a new idea (or at least a departure from the old way of thinking) has its own unique rewards.
Arriving in the market in 2009, Kali Protectives brought a talented team to the game, including Bryan Mason and also Brad Waldron, a helmet designer and carbon fiber engineer for the aerospace industry. Having this type of experience on staff made for lots of one-off prototypes, which were tested over and over until the product was ready.
Kali’s main goals were to eliminate the gap between your head and the liner (reducing the time for your head to begin the deceleration process) as well as utilizing a thinner and lighter shell to reduce the pendulum effect. Kali firmly believes that lower mass is better and they produce a very light helmet, the Prana, which clocks in at around 1200 grams.
Photo: The Kali Prana Carbon
So what makes the Kali Protectives helmet better than a standard helmet?
According to Kali, it’s the way that their proprietary shell and EPS foam liner absorbs and dissipates “progressive linear impacts” and they achieve this by incorporating the liner foam as an integral part of the shell. The foam is directly fused with the exterior shell itself (no spot glue or tape is needed). Kali claims that “without a gap or requiring a third party bonding agent, the impact energy can be transferred to the EPS foam more efficiently and smoother, allowing for a stronger materials connection.”
So the foam is a key element to this new helmet type. Kali calls it their COMPOSITE FUSION Plus technology (see photo above), and incorporates separate “pyramids of different foam densities within the EPS/Shell connection”.
Kali continued: “During impact, as energy is transferred from shell to foam, the unique pyramid shapes collapse first, thereby directing the energy sideways within the foam, instead of linearly down to your head. This spreads the impact load over a greater area, allowing us to use softer density foam next to your head, right where you want it.”
Another area that Kali has addressed in their new design is the overly angular construction of current motocross helmets, like the chin guard and rear venting “shelves”. While these design elements may look cool, they actually become problematic in some crash scenarios such and sliding or hooking another object or your machine. These angular structures provide a way for the helmet to possibly get caught and overly rotate your head and neck causing serious injury.
So to address this aspect, the Kali Prana Carbon (MSRP $349) that we tested has a more rounded structure than the other helmets on the market, except for one, the ARAI units…which are considered to be the gold standard among many riders and racers…but they don’t feature the same EPS foam technology that Kali offers.
So, simply put, Kali has used a proprietary shell with a special liner bonding process, combined with different density foam pyramids and lighter weight to acting in unison to lessen the impact injury to your brain better than a “standard” helmet does. This reduces the impact to your brain and that’s a very good thing.
TT Editor note: I received a Kali Prana Carbon for evaluation and even though I didn’t do 100 laps with it on, at first glance I found it to be a very high-quality lid and it doesn’t look as rounded up close as it does in some of the photos. It looks very similar to all modern helmets on the market today and features some cool features we liked a large multi-part screen intake port, wide eyeport for goggles, a very comfortable liner and best of all, incredibly light weight. I normally ride with the Fly Racing F2Carbon or the Bell Moto-9 among others, so I’m familiar with premium offerings on the market today.
Next up was 6D Helmets, the other player in this field, and they’ve made a big splash coming to market. We spoke to the team at 6D and they also had a lot to say about their product, why it’s better and why riders and racers may want to take a closer look at their offering before they buy their next lid.
Founded in 2012 by motocross go-to guys and ex-AMA motocross pro racers Bob Weber and Robert Reisinger, 6D Helmets also offer a different approach to the same old helmet. It may look essentially the same, but under the skin it’s a whole new animal.
Photo: 6D Helmets ATR-1
Wise sponsorship and marketing decisions have pushed 6D into the limelight in the motocross helmet space…most significantly, the sponsorship of the successful Geico Honda team featuring riders like Justin Bogle and Eli Tomac, has helped provide valuable television exposure for the new brand.
One dramatic example we recall is when
We felt this was a good example (albeit unscientific) of the new helmet’s ability to protect the head, neck and most importantly the brain.
So what makes the 6D helmet better than a standard helmet?
Similar to Kali, the key element of the 6D technology improvement is in the way the liner reacts when the helmet is impacted. Their top concern and mantra is to “mitigate impact energy to the brain” and even though we aren’t medical professionals, this sounds great to us. 6D accomplishes this by significantly altering the liner portion of the interior. This is a very simple way to state what they do.
First off, 6D uses two liners, both are made of EPS foam, and the first liner is bonded tightly to the shell and the second layer of EPS is on the “inside” of the helmet around your head. Between these two separate liners are special isolation dampers that allow the inside liner(s) to compress/shear/rotate in a separate manner from the outside shell.
Photo: 6D Helmets ODS Technology - Cutaway View
The unique isolation dampers allow 6D to engineer helmet specific rates of compression into the liner, thereby decreasing the deceleration effect that can injure your brain. The anti-rotation element is specific to the 6D design, allowing the helmet to rotate without significantly rotating the head in a linear fashion, and can help with potential neck rotation injury. This rotation effect is also minimized by other design aspects of the helmet like visor screws which shear off upon impact and reductions in the angular surfaces on the helmet.
So each element of the 6D helmet construction is key to the helmet performing as a whole; the EPS density, the durometric properties of the isolation elastomer array and the amount of air gap between the liners all contribute to preventing injury to the rider.
Apart from the differences in construction, the 6D helmet is among the most expensive in the market today at approx. $745.00 MSRP. This may cause some budget-conscious riders to consider whether this is a wise choice for them…6D has tried to address this concern with a new credit program that basically provides a credit for customers who have a crash or otherwise damage their helmet during the first year of ownership. The program details are being finalized but from what 6D tells us, the credit is sizable and will encourage riders to replace the helmet at minimal cost if a crash occurs.
In conclusion, we believe that helmet technology needs to move forward and these two products are filling that need. Why riders would spend $1200 for a carbon fiber exhaust system that they aren’t capable of even using the full potential of…but not half as much on their helmet just baffles us…isn’t your head more important?
If it is, take a look at these new lids, and check your head before you ride!