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  • Writer's pictureXosé Mouriño

Motorcycle Safety Helmets

Updated: Jan 17, 2023

Things you should know about motorcycle safety helmets.

We asked our instructor, Joe, to write an article about helmets. Joe has been riding motorcycles for more than thirty years, has been a motorcycle instructor for nearly seven and is considered to be one of the best instructors in London.

A brief history, the early days of motorcycle helmets.

man and a woman on a harley davidson
Motorcyclists in the early days

In the beginning there was the motorcycle. They started to be mass produced at the tail end of the nineteenth century. We fell in love with motorcycles from the moment they were created. And understandably so, no other form of transport captures the imagination and the soul like a motorcycle.

A self respecting motorcyclist in those days would wear normal clothes because there was no such thing as motorcycle specific clothing. They would rummage around in their wardrobe for sturdy looking clothes or footwear and top it off with some kind of cap, because the wind would make a mess of your hairstyle. We like the romance of the expression "wind in your hair" but practically speaking a hat was preferable.

The advent of flight captured the imagination at the turn of the century. One can only imagine the excitement generated by the Wright Brothers or Louis Bleriot. They were conquerors of humankind's oldest dream. People could now travel not only by land and sea but also air. They were momentous life and world changing times.

The public was captivated by those heroes and heroines who relentlessly pushed the capability of flight in seemingly endless leaps and bounds. One only needs to look at the Wright Brothers' "Flyer" of 1903 and compare it with aircraft from the end of WWI, just fifteen years later.

two men motorcyclists from the early years of the 20th century with their veteran motorcycles
Early 20th Century motorcyclist clothing

The world war also produced a batch of hugely famous popular heroes, the "Aces". They had the fame and popularity of rock stars, Names like Manfred von Richtofen "The Red Baron", Renee Fonck or Mick Mannock became as famous and widely as those of royalty and film stars.

People were seeing these characters in posters, news footage, magazines and newspapers and began to see a correlation between flying in those wood and canvas aircraft and riding their motorcycles. To emulate their heroes people began adopting leather flying caps and goggles with long leather or canvas trench coats, sturdy riding boots and gauntlets. Clothing that would give you a modicum of protection against the elements and, if worst came to the worst, and you fell off, a little protection. At the same time, after a war that saw the participation of millions of men and women across the globe. Items of military clothing and equipment were readily available.

Motorcycle helmets were little known, but they did already exist. Almost as motorcycles were being made people were racing them and one of the most famous racing venues in the early 20th Century was Brooklands, opened in 1907. Dr Eric Gardner, a G.P. (as a medical doctor is known in the UK) was also the medical officer for the circuit and it is thanks to him that the motorcycle helmet was born. Dr Gardner was having to regularly treat head injuries being suffered by motorcycle racers and thought about how to reduce the risk. The story goes that he contacted a Mr Moss from Bethnall Green and asked him to make a helmet for canvas stiffened with shellac (a common varnish and wood treatment) and polished smooth so that the head would have some protection against impact and resistance to abrasion. It isn't that easy to find information of Dr Gardner or indeed Mr Moss but their invention is as important to motorcycle safety as the seatbelt has been for car safety.

History is littered with little known names that have had a huge impact on the preservation of life. How ironic that we know the "Red Baron" but names such as Alexander Fleming (discoverer of penicillin) Nils Bohlin (inventor of the modern safety belt), as well as Messrs Gardner and Moss are less well known to us,

motorcycle racer from the early 20th century wearing an early helmet and on an excelsior motorcycle
Early motorcycle racing helmet

Dr Gardner presented his motorcycle helmet to the A.C.U. the governing body for motorsport who initially rejected it. It wasn't only the A.C.U. that resisted the design, riders weren't very happy with it either as they considered it obtrusive and heavy. Dr Gardner had more than 90 examples made and took them to the TT for the 1914 races where he tried to convince riders to wear it. some did, many did not.

One rider who did try it hit a gate a glancing blow and felt that without the helmet his injuries would have been much more severe. The TT's medical officer wrote to Dr Gardner and advised that whilst they would usually have had to treat a number of head injuries that year there were no serious concussions. The helmet had begun to prove its effectiveness. The two criteria the applied to Dr Gardner's initial design, protection from impact and abrasion still apply today and are two key elements of modern motorcycle helmet design.

The British Army were possibly the first official government body to make motorcycle helmets compulsory when realising that dispatch riders were receiving head injuries. The distinctive “pudding bowl” design they wore became popular and retained that popularity much later as worn by rockers and mods. It remains popular to this day even though it no longer meets current safety standards.

Motorcycle helmets post WWII

Early BELL helmets marketing poster image with a jest style helmet
Early BELL helmets marketing poster

One of the most influential motorcycle helmet manufacturers was BELL of California. In the 70s they had a famous marketing campaign that stated: “If you have a $10 head, then wear a $10 dollar helmet”. The inference being that there was a very good reason why you may be paying more for a helmet manufactured by BELL.

They began manufacturing quality but also stylish helmets that captured people's imagination. The helmet was beginning to also take on the guise of a fashion item.

Their “Jet” helmet was one of the most popular helmets and to this day is the basis of most open face helmets. Especially those with a hint of retro. At the time however they were the height of technology. They are known as “Jet” helmets because in the age of the jet aircraft this was the type of helmet being worn by those supersonic high speed heroes first testing them and then utilising them in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Once again, the correlation between flying and motorcycling is evident.

Later still, in the midst of space race where the world was captivated by astronauts and the space program BELL once again produced a helmet that was similar to those being worn by astronauts and the full face helmet began to take shape. This was the style of helmet that began to gain preference fr motorcycle racers as it offered much more high speed protection than an open or pudding bowl helmets. On the road now, those wishing to emulate their racing heroes were more likely to be wearing a full face helmet. Other manufacturers began producing their own versions of BELL styles to the point where the American manufacturer began to fade from memory. They were always there but the markets began to be dominated by other firms who supplied successful riders. The popularity of the retro scene however has generated a huge demand for traditional styles with modern manufacturing processes and materials and BELL has once again returned to popularity.

A group of rockers on their cafe racer motorcycles
Rockers displaying a mixture of "Jet" and "pudding bowl" helmets

Helmet safety

Today, in Europe, a motorcycle helmet is one of the compulsory legal requirements for riding a motorcycle but it wasn't always the case. In the UK the law came into effect in 1973 with other European countries following suit. There has been as much resistance to the motorcycle helmet as there was to the seatbelt. Whilst many were wearing a helmet well before 1973, not everyone did and they resented being told to do so by the government.

In order for the helmets to be made a legal requirement the government decided that a helmet must be defined in law and for that to happen there must be a baseline safety standard. In the UK this was the existing British Standard safety unit with it's well known “Kite Mark” logo which would be displayed on all manner of safety devices such as windscreens, ladders, as well as helmets. It gave a customer a sense of reassurance that they were buying a real safety device that gave them a better chance of surviving a serious impact. The UN (United Nations) drew up an international standard along similar lines for guidance and in Europe this is the baseline, known as ECER22.05. A study in 2008 came to the conclusion that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of head injury by 69% and of death by 42%. On our CBT courses we teach that we cannot eliminate the risk of motorcycling, all we can do is reduce it as much as possible and those figures attest to how important a helmet is. When choosing a helmet make sure it displays the ECE label.

A modern jet style open face motorcycle helmet
A modern "Jet" style helmet

There are three basic styles of helmet to choose from. Full face, open face and modular (sometimes known as system helmets of commonly referred to as flip-up helmets). Which you choose is up to you but there are differenced that you need to be aware of and considerable pros/cons to each design.

During CBT (Compulsory Basic Training) courses we teach you about the differences between the basic styles and what benefits/drawbacks each has. None of the three basic styles is the 100% perfect solution and at CBT level we help you to understand those differences so you are able to make a more informed decision before you buy one. Our advice is to not buy your first helmet until you have completed your CBT course so you have all the relevant information which will enable you to make the best purchase to suit both your needs and your budget.

The basic construction for each style is the same. There will be a hard outer layer designed to take the initial impact and disperse the force of it whilst at the same time offering a smooth contact surface to help reduce abrasion injuries. This may be constructed of fiberglass or ABS plastics or even have “Kevlar” or Carbon Fibre. Inside there is a second layer made of a composite of polystyrene foam which is designed to compress to reduce the force of the impact and it's effect on the skull and brain. The third main layer is the support layer (sometimes known as the comfort layer). This is the layer your head makes contact with and should be comfortable but also supportive of your head to reduce the possibility of your head being shaken violently.

a full face motorcycle helmet with a vintage retro style
A modern "retro" styled full face motorcycle helmet

These three layers working together are what makes the helmet such a strong device. During CBT we also teach you about important factors about the longevity of your helmet and how to care for it. Helmets may also have some form of eye protection, be it in the form of a visor or goggles and will have a retaining strap o keep it securely fixed.

Each of the elements must undergo a testing process to ensure they are up to the task of offering you the required protection. Whilst the outer shell may display the ECER2205 label, the visor will display an E within a circle and the strap should also display an E within a circle. Refuse a helmet that does not display these markings in order to be as safe as possible. We explain these in more detail during your CBT course.

Which is the safest motorcycle helmet?

I am so old that I started riding bikes before the internet! In those days we couldn't really do independent research. We listened to our instructor, Mine said “Joe, buy the best helmet you can afford”. So I did, and “best” I took to mean expensive because a more expensive helmet is better...isn't it? We also listened to our mates down the pub but, as everyone knows a pint and a pinch of salt go together. My family were useless because I was the only one that rode a bike. We could read the motorcycling press. But everyone knows they speak mostly nonsense anyway. A manufacturer would send a journalist or magazine a bunch of stuff and they would, naturally, gush about it, otherwise they wouldn't get any more goodies. I remember when bike magazines were full of photos of childish journos popping daft wheelies whilst wearing Frank Thomas gear head to toe. This would influence a young motorcyclist. Today, like I said, I'm an old sod. I know that wheelies are daft and Frank Thomas gear isn't as good as those journos made out.

a modern modular or flip up motorcycle helmet with a vintage retro style
A modern modular helmet with a retro style

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. We could go to a shop and ask the shopkeeper which was the “best” helmet and wouldn't be surprised by being pointed out one of the most expensive. A famous song by The Faces says in it's lyrics “I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger”.

During my CBT courses I like to share my personal experience so new trainees don't make the same mistakes. I made them so you don't have to. I share much more information than I got when I learned to ride because I want you to be on a bike, but I want you to be as safe as possible. My CBT courses are not just about the basics of the syllabus. I teach you a hell of a lot more because I believe it is valuable and I want you to have unbiased, independent, information.

Nowadays however we do have an internet and we can do lots of independent research. We can read customer reviews from people who have actually bought a product, spent money on it and used it. Still not the 100% truth but more accurate than some drunk blokes in the pub. We don't have to listen to what a biased journo says whilst still popping a daft wheelie. (Seriously? Have you guys not grown out of that yet?) because we have information at our disposal and one of those organisations that have gained a lot of respect over the last few years is SHARP (Safety Helmet Assessment and Ratings Programme).

They are a branch of the UK government's Department for Transport and have been showing us how to find the safest motorcycle helmet for a number of years now. Before you purchase a helmet have a look at their website. They are fully independent and unbiased. This is the sort of information you need. They test helmets and publish the results of their tests. Simple.

SHARP helmet safety scheme logo
SHARP helmet safety scheme logo

There are many reasons to choose one helmet over another. Style, design, logo, make, what racer's number it displays...all these are secondary factors compared to how safe the helmet actually is. This surely should be the most important characteristic. I want the safest helmet but also, because I live in the real world, I also want it to be affordable and match my budget, whatever that budget is.

I may have £600 to spend or I may have £60. Either way I deserve to have the maximum protection I can whatever the size of my wallet and the SHARP ratings allow me to do that. Each helmet is given a score out of five stars. The more stars your helmet has the safer it is according to SHARP. They also publish the price which means you can now compare both. Expect surprises. I've seen a helmet priced at £350 attain two safety stars whilst one that costs £40 attain four safety stars. The “best” helmets is the safest helmet in my opinion. That may not necessarily be the most expensive. If I can find a really safe helmet, that doesn't cost the earth and still makes me look like Darth Vader, I'm happy!

We hope that the above is useful. If you have any questions don't hesitate to get in touch with us. We discuss a lot of this detailed information during your CBT. If you haven't booked we have supplied the link below. Then you can speak with Joe directly about motorcycling, he'll be more than happy to help!

Next week: We look at the importance of further motorcycle training.

Want to learn to ride a motorbike? It starts with CBT, book yours here:

If you have zero experience of a motorcycle, why not try a bike first before committing to a training course? Click here for our hourly lessons.

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©️ 2022 ACBT London Rider Training. No part of this article may be reproduced without permission.

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