It’s a generation old, but still the most famous line in helmet history: “If you’ve got a $10 head,” ran Bell’s ad, “get a $10 helmet.” Things have moved on a bit since then, of course. The retail price of a Bell RS helmet like the one Jenson Button uses is €5200 – call it £3,500. The fancy paint job and VAT are extra.
At the other end of the scale a brand new budget helmet could be yours for £35, and there are plenty of options in between. So how do you decide what you should spend? Let’s narrow down the choices.
Approved for use
Button's Bell helmet
Club racer Mark Durrant
BS6658 Type approval
Removable ear pad
Life would be much simpler if there was a single, universal method of approving helmets. But there isn’t. In Europe you’ll commonly find three different sets of approval initials: BS, ECE and SA.
BS6658-85 is the British Standard for crash helmets. Any helmet meeting this is legal for road use on a motorcycle. The standard is divided into three categories: Type A/FR (red label) for helmets with a fire-resistant lining, Type A (blue label) for high-performance helmets and Type B (green label) for lower-rated helmets.
ECE is the Economic Community of Europe approval system. ECE 22-05 is also legal for bikers in the UK, but the older and less stringent ECE 22-04 standard is not.
SA is the US Snell Foundation’s ‘Sports Activity’ standard for car racing helmets. SA-standard helmets have tougher visors than bike helmets and are required to pass a rollbar impact test. Snell also has a less stringent series of standards for motorcycle helmets, the latest being Snell M2005.
In addition to those you may see the US Department of Transport (DOT) standard for bike helmets, the FIA’s 8860-2004 ‘super helmet’ standard for top-level racing helmets, another American standard called SFI31, and the ACU Gold and Silver standards which approve helmets for bike racing.
Whether these approvals actually help riders and drivers to choose helmets which best protect them is a moot point. The hardest standards to meet are the SA2005 and (similar) FIA standards, and these force helmet manufacturers to stiffen the energy absorbing layer inside the helmet to ensure that it doesn’t squash completely in a major impact. The problem with that comes in impacts which are less severe, but still serious, where these stiffer helmets transmit higher forces to the wearer. The dilemma is whether or not those bigger impacts are relevant to real-world accidents and therefore worth designing for – and you’ll find eminent experts on both sides of that argument.
But the merits of the different approval systems don’t really concern us here – what’s important is that you choose a helmet which carries the approval labels required at the events where you’ll be using it.
Helmet standards for track days vary from one organiser or circuit to the next, and checks on the day are often only cursory. Most of the time you could probably get away with any helmet, provided it was in good condition and fitted properly. But to avoid being caught out, be aware that many organisers will not allow Type B bike helmets, and some will only allow open-face helmets in hard-top cars. If you run an open car you’ll need to get a full-face helmet.
Increasingly, track day organisers specify the same helmet standards as those which apply to motor sport. These are easier to pin down because they’re spelt out in section Q of the ‘Blue Book’ – the MSA Motor Sports Yearbook. For club racing or speed events, you need a helmet which meets one or more of the following: FIA8860-2004, SA2005 or 2000, SFI 31.1A or 31.2A, BS 6658-85 Type A/FR or Type A (but not Type B). Helmets used in competition must be scrutineered before use to check their suitability. The scrutineer will attach a blue MSA approval sticker.
Which to choose?
The first fundamental choice is between open-face (or ‘jet’) helmets and full-face lids. Some people find full-face helmets claustrophobic, or find communication easier with an open-face (which is why they are still popular in rallying). But the safety advantages of a full-face helmet are indisputable and as we’ve already mentioned, some track-day organisers insist on them in open cars. So unless you find the open-face helmet’s advantages compelling, full-face is the way to go.
We’d steer clear of Type B bike helmets because they’re no good for competitive motor sport, and increasingly inadmissible for track days. Instead aim for a BS6658 Type A or A/FR helmet – the latter will have a fire-resistant Nomex liner. British Standards approved helmets are zero rated for VAT, so these tend to be cheaper than equivalent lids which only have Snell SA approval.
Each helmet manufacturer produces helmets which are a slightly different shape, so try on several and find the one that best matches your head. The helmet should be a snug fit, but not so tight that it gives you headaches. You’ll feel like a berk, but wear it around the shop for half an hour to see if it becomes uncomfortable. Try these two useful tests. With the helmet on and the strap tight, try twisting the helmet around on your head, or get a helper to do it for you. Only a slight movement should be possible. Then try pulling up and forwards on the back of the helmet – you shouldn’t be able to roll the helmet off your head.
Some helmets have quick-release straps which can be unreliable, so most premium helmets stick to the tried-and-trusted double D-ring straps. Look for one with a Velcro pad or press-stud to tidy the loose end. Check that you are happy with the ease of use and security of the visor. If you plan to fit an intercom, look for a helmet with removable ear padding. On some helmets the liners can be removed for cleaning, which is a handy feature.
Keep your helmet in a protective helmet bag to avoid damage: if you drop it onto a hard surface you could easily compromise the protection it would afford you in an accident. Even if you paid a little less than £3,500 for your helmet, it pays to take care of it.