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Motorcycle helmets save lives

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See if you agree with me on this: The single most important safety device on the Island is the motorcycle helmet. Seat belts, airbags and ABS in cars, life-rafts and EPIRBs on sailboats and smoke-alarms and fire-extinguishers in homes are all important, of course, but none of these even comes close to helmets when measured in lives saved, injuries prevented and permanent disability averted. In the five years that preceded the introduction of mandatory helmets in Bermuda in 1976, the average number of yearly road fatalities was 17.6, the vast majority succumbing to severe head injuries. In the five years that followed mandatory helmets, the average fell to 8.6 and continued a slow but steady decline over the next 20 years. Kudos to Dr Clarence James, then Minister of Transport and his colleagues for this most effective intervention in the face of what I am told was vocal opposition. Would that today’s politicians showed the same courage. The current legislation on motorcycle helmets states: “Every person driving or riding on a motorcycle on any highway shall wear protective headgear.” Importantly, it goes on to say that to be legal, a helmet must meet one of four recognised standards and these are: n British standard BS 6658:1985 (BSI Kitemark) n United States Department of Transport (DOT) standard FMVSS 218 (DOT sticker) n Snell standard M-95, M2000 or L-98 (Snell serialised label) n United Nations standard ECE Regulation 22.05 (UN “E” mark) Standards are destructive testing protocols that measure the penetration resistance of the polycarbonate outer shell, the shock attenuation capability of the EPS liner and the strength of the helmet retention system. There are many more standards than those listed in the law and to compare and contrast them would be tedious and confusing. I will, however, permit myself the following comments: n In very general terms, any helmet that meets one of the four standards in the law should offer good protection. n The DOT standard is accompanied by the following caveat in the law: “ ... and certified to the satisfaction of the Minister to comply with that standard.” This is because the DOT standard, ie the testing that a helmet has to pass to bear the DOT sticker and be legal in the USA is performed by the manufacturer of the helmet and it is the manufacturer, based on his honour, who decides if his helmet meets the standard or not. An honour system in the American corporate world ... imagine that! There is no government testing prior to the helmet being released to the public, unlike the EU or British standards. The US Office of Vehicle Safety Compliance does test about 40 off-the-shelf helmets at random every year and a significant number of them fail the standard and must be withdrawn from the market. The caveat in the law makes it possible for the Minister to demand that the seller of a DOT helmet show proof that the helmet does in fact meet the DOT standard. n Snell standards M-95 and M2000 have been replaced by M2010 bringing the Snell standard in line with the DOT and EU standards. (This needs updating, Mr Minister.) In addition, the law states that said helmet must be “ ... securely fastened to the head of the wearer by means of straps or other fastening provided on the headgear for that purpose”. Securely fastened means that the strap is snug enough that it cannot be slipped forward over the chin with your thumb. If you can slip the strap over your chin, it is a near certainty that your helmet will come off your head at first impact leaving you flying through the air or rolling on the ground with no head protection. Believe me, you don’t want this. So how do you choose the best helmet for yourself or a loved one? First, the helmet has to comply with one of the four standards and if you buy your helmet in Bermuda this should be easy as the law states that “a person who sells or offers for sale any protective headgear other than a headgear conforming with the standard of protective headgear specified in subsection (3) commits an offence”. What type of helmet should you choose? A full-face helmet gives the most protection since it covers more of your face. Note however that if you choose a full-face helmet with a flip-up chin guard, you must never ride with the chin guard in the open position. The flip-up chin guard is solidly attached to the helmet by the hinges and will not break-off in a crash but will, instead, act as a long lever on your cervical spine. Stated bluntly, the open chin guard may literally break your neck in a crash. If you are not comfortable in a full-face or find them too hot, you may opt for a three-quarter, open-faced helmet. While these offer the same head protection, they leave your face exposed to injury. Always ride with a visor. Never ride wearing a half-shell helmet as these do not offer adequate protection and are not approved as protective headgear. Unapproved helmets include those known variously as shorties, pudding buckets, beanies, brain buckets and novelty helmets. Unfortunately, because of lack of enforcement, these are still seen on our roads and are responsible for some of the severe head injuries we see. The helmet you buy must be the right size and should fit snugly. Be sure it sits squarely on your head; it shouldn’t be tilted back on your head like a hat. Remember, if your helmet is too large, several things could happen: it will move around and up and down on your head when you least want it to; it can be noisy and let in wind; worst of all, it may come off in a crash! Sadly, it is not uncommon to see small children with helmets that are too large. Once the helmet is on your head, make a few other fit checks before fastening the straps. n The cheek pads should touch your cheeks without pressing uncomfortably. n There should be no gaps between your temples and the brow pads. n If the helmet has a neck roll, it shouldn’t push the helmet away from the back of your neck. n On full-face helmets, press on the chin piece. The helmet or face shield should not touch your nose or chin. When it comes to care and maintenance, remember that your helmet is a single-use item. Seriously. A helmet protects your head by absorbing energy and it does this by deforming. When you strike your helmet in a crash, the polycarbonate outer shell breaks. Sometimes, this is visible but most of the time it is not. In addition, the inner EPS foam liner crushes and in doing so loses its energy absorbing properties. If you are in a crash and you even suspect that your helmet was struck or scraped, that helmet must be replaced because it may not work to protect you in a subsequent crash. Even in the absence of a crash, you need to replace your helmet at least every three years. This is because as soon as you take the helmet out of the box, it starts to degrade. The sunlight breaks down the polycarbonate and scratches weaken it, the oils in your scalp penetrate the EPS foam liner and gradually reduce its shock absorbing properties and the retention system fasteners slowly corrode. Most of these changes are not visible to the naked eye so that even if a helmet looks pretty good, there is no sure way to tell if it will do its job when you really need it ... at the moment of impact. Never purchase a second-hand helmet as there is no way to know what if any damage it has sustained in its lifetime. Lastly, old helmets should be destroyed so that they cannot be used by others. A good guide to helmet selection is the UK Government Safety Helmet Assessment and Rating Programme (SHARP). This helmet safety scheme uses a five star rating system to help you find the right hemet. Go to

http://sharp.direct.gov.uk . Remember that your brain is a very delicate organ and even the slightest injury to it can leave you with devastating permanent impairment. You and your loved ones should ride with the very best helmet you can afford. Use your head ... and keep it well protected.

Dr Froncioni is the former chairman of Bermuda Road Safety Council. The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect CADA’S position.

Road Safety (Photo by Akil Simmons)
Protector: Motorcyle helmets save lives