As a motorcycle rider, safety should be our utmost priority and investing in good quality motorcycle gear is a must. These include helmets, riding jackets, riding pants, or knee and shin pads, riding boots, and gloves. As the experts say, “we do not dress for ride, but for the crash,” meaning that in the event of a motorcycle crash, the value of this gear comes into play toward minimizing injury.
But as with many products that we use, motorcycle gear also have their respective lifespans. They do not last forever as many would think.
In this article, we will focus on the most important gear of all – the crash helmet. It wouldn't be called as such if it does not protect your head in the event of a motorcycle crash. Yet that protection doesn't last forever, so it is important to know its lifespan and when to replace it so that your head's protection is not compromised.
My 5 year-old Bell Qualifier helemet. Notice the wear and tear due to daily use. I'm retiring this helmet this year.
The four elements of a crash helmet
The motorcycle crash helmet has four basic components that work together to protect your head: the Outer Shell; Impact Absorbing Liner; Comfort Padding; and the Retention System.
The first thing we see on a helmet is the Outer Shell. It is usually made from fiber-reinforced composites or polycarbonate. It is the first point of impact in the event of a crash and its job is to compress and disperse the energy from that impact to lessen the force before it reaches the rider's head.
The second element is the Impact Absorbing Liner. Genuine motorcycle crash helmets are made from expanded polystyrene or EPS, which is commonly thought of as regular styrofoam. This dense styrofoam cushions and absorbs shock rather than allows a direct hit to your head. Both the outer shell and liner compresses to spread the forces of impact throughout the helmet material. The more impact-energy is deflected or absorbed, the less there is to reach your head and do damage.
Check if there are distortions on the helmet's inner lining. If there are, consider replacing your helmet.
The third element is the Comfort Padding. It is the soft foam-and-cloth layer that makes sure that the helmet fits snugly onto your head. In most helmets available in the market, the padding can be taken out for cleaning or washing as it is the one directly in contact with your skin. Sweat, dirt, facial oil, you name it, accumulates here, and is responsible for the odor. So it is important to clean it regularly.
The fourth element is the Retention System, more commonly known as the chin strap. It is also very important as it will keep the helmet on your head in the event of a crash. Check for any cracks or signs of warping that may indicate it's time to be replaced.
Wear and tear
Over time, these materials, and the adhesives that keep them together deteriorate. For example, the glue that keeps the rubber materials glued on the shell degenerates, the rubber material becomes inflexible, and the EPS foam inside the shell becomes brittle and can no longer absorb impact. The goes the same with the outer shell, as it is the most exposed to the sun, rain, dirt and everything else.
Motorcycle experts recommend that motorcycle crash helmets should be replaced every 5 years, even if there is no visible damage seen. If your helmet was dropped from a considerable height, say from the stairs, consider replacing it as the outer shell may have developed microscopic cracks that may not be visible, but could cause the helmet to fail in the event of a crash.
Some branded helmets come equipped with an emergency strap that can be pulled off by medical teams in the event of an emergency. This is an example on a Touratech Aventuro Carbon helmet from Touratech Philippines.
Cleaning and maintenance
When cleaning your helmet, avoid petroleum-based cleaning products as these chemicals may cause the helmet materials to decompose and therefore lose their protective properties. Follow the helmet manufacturer's care instructions for your helmet, which is usually cleaned with mild soap and warm water. The helmet visor can also collect scratches over time that may impair your vision when riding. The good thing about it is that most branded helmets have replacement visors readily available so that you can replace them when needed.
Another thing which I see a lot with many motorcycle riders that could compromise a helmet: hanging their helmets on the side mirror, like in the photo below.
Please avoid this, as the hard plastic or metal material of the side mirror or other parts of the bike may distort the impact-absorbing liner inside the helmet's shell, therefore compromising your safety. Just think of it this way: if you compress a pillow, it wouldn't be as comfortable as an uncompressed pillow, isn't it? The same goes with the helmet. There won't be much to absorb the impact if the inner liner is already compressed.
If you were involved in an accident and your helmet has already performed its duty protecting your head, replace it with a new one before riding your motorcycle again. The bottom line, the helmet is worn to protect your head, not just for iwas huli (compliance with the law). And please, wear only helmets that are specifically designed for motorcycle riding. Wearing skateboard helmets, bicycle helmets and even construction site-specific helmets while on a motorcycle are against the law.