Motorbike Helmets and Brain Injury Prevention
While recommending particular brands of helmets is beyond
the scope of this article, it hopefully provides pointers in
maximising your safety when it's time to buy a new skid lid. If you
ride, be sure to share this article with your mates.
Choosing the best motorbike
helmet can substantially reduce your chances of acquiring a brain
injury in a crash.
Wearing motorbike helmets can reduce
the chances of death by 42% and the chances of a traumatic brain
injury by a huge 69%.1 With figures like that,
every motorbike rider should be aware of the helmet standards, new
research and proven innovations in helmet design.
Lack of research & old
There is surprisingly little research or
consistent effort to improve helmet design. The few rigorous
research reports that exist can be up to two decades old. Why?
Helmet manufacturers generally feel all they need to do is meet the
required helmet standards. The helmet standards are mostly set by
government departments, so there is little motivation to
update and improve the standards they have set.
Smaller helmet manufacturers occasionally put
forward new designs for improved safety and reduce the chance of
traumatic brain injury (TBI). However, the question
then is whether the designs are tested by qualified independent
researchers, how rigorous their methodology was, and whether the
results are published in a peer-reviewed journal - the gold
standard for quality research.
First, the good news
If all of this sounds like glum news, it
shouldn't be. A comprehensive European study in 1996 called COST
3274 found that a wide sample of helmets complying
with various safety standards all consistently did a good job.
How good a job? There is room for improvement.
The study suggested a possible 20% improvement if standards were
revised to include design features for improved helmet safety and
reduction in TBIs. Here are some key considerations next time you
buy a helmet.
Improving Helmet Safety
Dual density liners
The foam in your helmet is the main key to
protecting your head. Recently, some manufacturers started using a
second softer layer of foam for comfort and a better fit,
especially for heads a bit differently shaped to the
A lucky potential spin-off is improved helmet
safety. The COST 327 study10 found the existing single density
of foam used in helmets works well for major impacts but is not
very effective for lesser impacts that can still cause a brain
injury. A 2001 Australian study5 showed that using a
second layer of a specific density allows effective absorption of
both minor and major impacts. This does not, however, necessarily
prove the effectiveness of all dual density liners. The report
stressed the second layer needs to be a specific density, and would
need good quality control to ensure consistency during
Brain injury research increasingly shows that
many brain injuries occur due to the sudden rotation of the brain
(or angular acceleration), as well as the direct impact
itself.6 This is relevant to motorbike riders as
often the head hits the road surface at an angle. A USA study has
confirmed this kind of injury among football
players.7 The COST 327 study concluded that helmet
design should insist on a minimum tendency to induce rotational
motion by minimising external projections from the helmet shell
(e.g. air vents).8
Mills, et al speculate that
increasing the ability of helmets to to absorb direct impacts
should also reduce rotational effects.
Currently there are two developments that claim
to protect against rotational injuries. The first uses a gel
coating on the helmet that moves when hit at an angle to reduce
rotational forces. The second approach incorporates a kind of
suspension inside the helmet shell to dissipate rotational forces
from an oblique impact on the helmet. In both cases, the helmet
manufacturers have contracted independent researchers to run tests,
but the full reports are not available for scrutiny, and also have
not been published in peer-reviewed journals.
It is interesting to note that many riders are
now attaching small video cameras to their helmets to film their
ride. There is no research yet to see how much this increases the
chances of rotational injuries, but logic suggests it could have a
bearing in some impacts.
Flexible outer shell
Only a small number of motor bike
accidents result in penetration of the outer shell of the helmet.
The COST 327 study found that most helmets are too stiff and only
absorb impacts efficiently at levels that are not survivable.
Currently the European helmet standard is the only one that
requires the helmet shell to be flexible (ECE22).
Wear a full face helmet
Most head injuries are sustained at the front
of the head, with more than two thirds of skull fractures involving
chin impact12. While open face helmets are seen as
stylish for scooter riders, and some riders find full face helmets
claustrophobic, a full face helmet does reduce the chances of head
injury. The chin guard reduces forces transmitted along the
jaw that can cause a lethal base-of-skull injury (where your brain
stem connects with your spinal cord), and also reduces
rotational forces that can lead to a diffuse brain
It is important that the chin guard not be too
stiff, and it should also be padded to reduce the chances of brain
injury.12 Currently only Snell and the European
standards test the chin guard.
Helmet fit is everything
It is critical for a helmet to fit snugly.
Accident statistics reveal that in roughly 10% of motorbike
accidents the helmet does not stay on the rider's
head.10 This can be due to a helmet that is too
large and/or not doing up the helmet strap sufficiently tight. A
good check is to simply push upward with force against your helmet
from various directions and see how far it moves - the results can
Never buy a helmet you haven't personally
tried on your head to ensure the correct fit, no matter how cheap
online shopping may be.
Buying a Helmet in Australia
Helmets from large international companies who
make and market their own helmet are generally very reliable,
arising from an internal safety culture - no amount of
certification can add quality to a helmet if the manufacturer
didn't build it in. Large production runs usually ensure the
required density of the foam remains at a consistent level to best
protect your head.
Any new helmet used on the road must comply
with the Australian Standard AS/NZS 1698:2006, but Australia is a
very small market so many manufacturers don't bother getting
compliance for their helmets here. Some riders may buy a helmet
from overseas (e.g. one that complies with the more comprehensive
European standard) and risk the chance of a fine should the police
inspect the helmet.
The largest risk is buying a helmet that
has poor quality control in production. Why? Manufacturers usually
only do short production runs to service a unique standard, such as
the tiny market of Australia. There are definitely problems with
reliability of helmet Certification in Australia.
Which helmets are legal in which
Another problem with helmet certification in
Australia is the States have there own requirements that often
clash. A key problem is that many organisations are involved, but
there is no overall coordination by one governing body to ensure
consistency across Australia.
The Australian Consumer Law 2011, requires that
any motorbike helmet supplied to the market must meet the
Commonwealth mandatory standard (Consumer Protection Notice No.9)
which is based on AS 1698-1988. However, Road Rules around
the country now require that when using roads, a rider must wear a
helmet in compliance with AS/NZS 1698:2006, a completely revised
Standard with different test methods. Road Rules in some areas also
include requirements for a "sticker" to aid Police enforcement.
Northern Territory &
Queensland simply require "compliance with AS/NZS
1698:2006" but with no additional "sticker"requirement.
Wales Road Rules were changed without warning in
February 2010 and now demand that an approved helmet complies with
at least one version of AS/NZS 1698 and also "has an identifying
mark from a body accredited or approved by the Joint Accreditation
System of Australia and New Zealand certifying compliance with an
above standard". As a result, the helmets of thousands of NSW
riders were made retrospectively illegal on NSW roads on February
ACT, Victoria, Tasmania,
South Australia & Western Australia: A helmet that is
legal for road use under the new NSW Road Rules is illegal to use
in the these States according to their State laws!
Police in the ACT are instructed to look for a
helmet that "has applied to it the certification trade mark of
which the Standards Association of Australia".
In Victoria, the
police are told to look for a helmet that is "marked with an
official standards mark certifying compliance with the relevant
Standard". In Tasmania, the helmet must bear "the Australian
Standards Mark", in South Australia the helmet must bear "the
certification mark of the Standards Association of Australia", and
in Western Australia must carry "a sticker issued by Standards
The problem? None of these exist! Standards
Australia was broken up and sold to private buyers in December 2003
and has not issued any stickers or markings since then.
Technically, it is impossible to buy any helmet you can legally use
on the road in these States. This only touches on some of the
inconsistencies with ensuring a helmet is legal. For a more
comprehensive list, visit
www.roadrider.com.au/special-features/state-of-helmets and read
"State of Helmets". Written in 2011, many Road Rules have changed
since which have further confused the situation. The ACCC has
recently commenced a Review of the mandatory Standard in addition
to managing recalls from the Australian marketplace of a number of
helmets Certified by JAS-ANZ accredited certifiers.
Which is the best helmet
This is a valid question. Regarded by many as
the gold standard, the Snell helmet standard was criticised after
claims that Snell-approved helmets were far too stiff in the outer
shell and could cause more brain injuries as a
Generally, helmet standards do a reasonable job
of protecting the head, both in rich and poor nations.13
But none of the standards are up-to-date with current research, and
few have incorporated recommendations that were made more than a
In the course of writing this article, we spoke
to Guy Stanford, the Australian Motorcycle Council Helmets
Committee Chair. He believes the European motorcycle helmet
Regulation is definitely a cut above the average, because it's
motorbike-specific, has higher impact attenuation, a valid chin-bar
test and an oblique impact test to reduce the incidence of TBI. The
problem in Australia is finding a European-approved helmet that
complies with the Australian standard too.
What can I do?
The first critical step is to achieve one
consistent national standard across Australia for motorbike
helmets. Synapse has started an
online petition; please sign the petition and pass it on to
others. Hopefully we'll see a less expensive and wider range of
helmets with consistent standards in the near future.
References and further information
1. Liu, B. C.; Ivers, R.;
Norton, R.; Boufous, S.; Blows, S.; Lo, S. K. (2008). Helmets
for preventing injury in motorcycle riders. In Liu, Bette C.
"Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews". Cochrane Database Syst
2. Susan Wells et al.
(2004). "Motorcycle rider conspicuity and crash related injury:
case-control study". BMJ. Retrieved 2 September 2007.
Abstract, Quick summary.
3. "Table 5.5:
Predominating PTW colour". MAIDS (Motorcycle Accidents In
Depth Study) Final Report 2.0. ACEM, the European Association of
Motorcycle Manufacturers. April 2009. p. 47Australian standards
4. "COST 327
Motorcycle Safety Helmets", European Cooperation in Field of
Scientific & Technical Research, 2001
8. "COST 327
Motorcycle Safety Helmets", European Cooperation in Scientific
& Technical Research, 2001
9. P. Corner, C.W.
Whitney, N. O'Rourke, D.E. Morgan (1987) Motorcycle &
Bicycle Protective Helmets: requirements resulting from a
post-crash study & experimental research. Federal
Office of Road Safety.
10. Ms Kim
Thai. Effect of motorcycle helmet size and
adjustment on helmet stability, E MBiomedE, University of New
12. Dr. T. J.
Gibson K. (1998) Helmet protection
against basilar skull fracture, Thai Human Impact Engineering.
13. T.A. Smith & J.W. Zellner
(2008) Comparison of Motorcycle
Helmet Standards in South East Asia. Dynamic Research Inc.