There’s two groups that don’t tell the Helmet Story, and I don’t mean the rabid anti-helmet folks.
No, one group is the helmet manufacturers themselves. And my next guess is that many of you are strenuously objecting right now—so let’s take a look at the most popular helmets in the USA (in no particular order).
First of all, all helmets sold in the USA have to meet, at minimum, DOT standards—and that information is available on the sites. But, we’ll take a look at standards in another entry.
Arai “You could go through a bunch of cheaper helmets in the lifespan of just a single 5-year-warranty Arai – and wind up spending more in the long run. Worse, you’d miss out on Arai’s legendary comfort, fit, features, and feeling of confidence along the way. A helmet is something you’re going to spend too much time and too many miles in to not ensure that every bit of it is a pleasure. So compromise somewhere else.”[i]
Iow Arai takes the same approach L’Oreal hair color took with women: yes it’s more expensive, but you’re “worth it.” But nothing in the manufacturer’s site says safety is what the rider is buying.
Shoei doesn’t say it’s reduces injuries or prevents death either: In the section “Inside A Shoei Helmet” there’s a subsection, “SHOEI ACTIVE SAFETY”: “As opposed to “passive safety” that is ensured by compliance with Snell and DOT safety standards, “active safety” defines the further improvements made by SHOEI to ensure that maximum comfort is achieved, allowing the rider to devote all of his or her focus to riding. Advanced helmet features such as our anatomically-shaped comfort liner for optimum helmet fitment, lowest possible weight to reduce stress on the neck muscles, and effective ventilation system for temperature regulation and reduction in wind noises all serve to further improve the safety of the rider. Further development and continued improvement in the areas of safety and comfort technology are SHOEI’s primary goals.”
Shoei implies that safety is synonymous with comfort and that’s “active” safety. Safety is defined as the rider paying more attention, having a cooler head (which is only hot because they’re wearing a helmet) and is quieter (though the helmet itself is causing much of the noise which Shoei then dampens). All that is a limited truth because comfort can just as easily led to inattention. But that’s not why we buy helmets.[ii]
HJC doesn’t claim its helmets do anything either: “With the addition of the helmet models mentioned above, it is clear that HJC continues to be a brand that is friendly to motorcyclists around the world providing safe, comfortable, stylish and affordable helmets.”
In the section “Helmet Usage” HJC comes the closet to claiming that its helmet will reduce injury or death: “To reduce the risk of serious injury or death…” “and to help prevent damage to your helmet” …“always use your helmet correctly.” However, this doesn’t say the helmet reduces the risk. Rather, its what the rider does that will reduce the risk.
But that’s a half-truth. A rider can vastly reduce the risk of a crash by what he or she does (and that includes using the helmet correctly) but once the crash occurs, the rider can’t reduce the risk of injury or death—that’s exactly what a helmet is supposed to do. But that’s not what HJC claims.
Nolan Helmets has a truly ridiculous claim: “…since the early 1970′s, Nolan began using sophisticated materials to bring optimum performance to motorcycle riders at a competitive price.” Iow, it’s not skill or judgment that makes a rider perform as best (but not necessarily safely) as they can. Iow, helmets are like tires or a trellis frame or a few hundred extra cc’s. Safety—or even comfort—aren’t appeals that Nolan uses in its advertising.
KBC comes the closest to referencing safety in terms of helmets with its slogan: “Ride Long. Ride Hard. Ride Safe.” It’s also the only manufacturer that states a direct though somewhat ambiguous warning on its website: “PLEASE NOTE: A. No helmet can protect the user against all foreseeable impacts.”
Scorpion has a section on safety but it doesn’t say its helmets will protect you. Instead it references MSF training (without saying that will keep you safe), has a link to the MSF’s .pdf on helmets and directs readers to the Snell Foundation.
Safety seems to be the last thing on Icon’s mind—as does grammar and coherent thought. Rather, Icon courts and encourages both risk and violence: For example, it describes its new “Airframe Sacrifice” helmet as: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Some will thrive whilst others wither. The Airframe Sacrifice is the former. A warrior’s helm. A leader destined for glory amongst the disposable ranks. Legions of weaker willed troops will break upon it’s chromed brow. There will be no legends passed down to glorify their sacrifice. Only this single heroic helmet and magnificent crest will remain.”
The Airframe Predator is described as: “When this bird shows up, trust us, it’s no party. This foul predator eats your dog’s food, craps over the driveway and one day will probably carry off the cat. We’ve seen it a thousand times.” And the Airframe Death or Glory as: “Some live their life in moderation – a careful balancing act devoid of excess. And that’s fine, the world needs those people. Then there are those who are destined to leave their mark on history’s pages. Those courageous (or stupid) souls who know no such balance. For those few it’s all or nothing. A pure digital lifestyle – Zero or One, Black or White, Death or Glory.”
Icon, though, does have a section called “Survivors” where Icon purchasers relate their various crashes and attribute their well-being to Icon.
Only one manufacturer claims that its helmet saved a life—while Bell also advertises its helmets in terms of ventilation, weight and price it’s the only manufacturer that directly claims that once a helmet saved someone’s life: “In 1955 a guy named Cal Niday plowed into the retaining wall during the Indianapolis 500 and the first Bell comeback was officially underway. The impact fractured his skull, but one of our helmets saved his life.”
But from that point on it uses euphemisms to imply it saves lives without directly claiming they do: “Cal returned to racing a few months later. We’ve been engineering spectacular comebacks ever since….Bell was there when the world’s best riders went down. And with innovations like energy-absorbing liners, the first full-face motorcycle helmet, and more design patents than any helmet company in history, we’ve always been there to help them get back up again. Over the years we earned enough trust to make our name synonymous with motorcycle helmets.”
Iow, if one didn’t know the Helmet Story one would never ever guess from what those who make them that the primary purpose of helmets is to reduce injuries and prevent deaths. But then we do know the Helmet Story thanks to NHTSA and the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, which is one of two organizational sister corporations to the Motorcycle Industry Council—to which all the helmet manufacturers belong.
The easy answer is that helmet manufacturers don’t say a helmet can save your life because of fear of liability suits—if they say it, and someone is hurt or dies, then they’ll get sued.
So let’s look at life jacket/vest manufacturers as a comparison. Certainly their products also are supposed to save lives and if they failed, they, too could be sued.
Like helmet manufacturers every one states their products meet standards—but, unlike helmet manufacturers they don’t stop there:
The Personal Flotation Device Manufacturers Association is a trade group like MIC and states on its homepage, “Most drowning victims had access to a Personal Flotation Device, but did not wear it. A wearable PFD can save your life – if you wear it!”
Float-Tech “Safety in the water is something we should all take seriously. One of the easiest things we can do is wear our life preserver, a habit that would have a significant impact on annual drowning.”
Jim Buoy “Model #SO-1 – Features Jim Buoy’s remarkable new LIFE-SAVING design that enables an unconscious person to roll over, face-up, with their mouth more than 4 3/4″ above the water in LESS THAN 5 SECONDS!”
Or this from manufacturer Extrasports, “Wherever safety is needed most, rescue experts turn to Extrasport® Swiftwater® rescue PFDs. The right equipment can mean the difference between success and failure, life and death. Our accomplished Swiftwater® rescue line is often called to unexpected places and dangerous water conditions.”
Or Mustang Survival Company that states, “For more than 40 years, Mustang Survival has been committed to providing lifesaving solutions for people exposed to the most hazardous environments. Through constant innovation and application of new technologies we have established ourselves as a leading supplier of survival solutions to the most demanding military, professional, and recreational users.”
The difference between helmet manufacturers and personal flotation device manufacturers could not be more pronounced. And the latter aren’t afraid to mention the elephant in the room—that their products are meant to be used in terrible times. They aren’t afraid to say that their products can mean the difference between living and dying. In fact, they flaunt it.
Nor do they try to justify the purchase by waxing on about comfort or how side effects will make the boater safer. They know why their consumers buy their products and that’s what they sell: we save lives for a living.
The helmet manufacturers sell comfort, ventilation, comparative weight, graphics and swappable faceshields. Notice the difference?
To put this into perspective, then, if helmet manufacturers advertised condoms, it would be all about comfort and pleasure they give without the slightest hint that they’re supposed to prevent pregnancy or disease. Iow, rather like Arai and Shoei advertise helmets. Personally, I doubt comfort or pleasure are why people buy condoms.
Yet we’ve certainly heard of situations where condoms break or were defective and pregnancy or disease resulted yet that doesn’t stop these manufacturers from stating what their products are meant to do.
Iow, while fear of consumer liability lawsuits is a reasonable explanation for the startling omission of any reference to what helmets are supposed to do, it’s not a very good answer.
Or maybe it’s just a different type lawsuit they fear. Stay tuned…
Arai really does spend a great deal of time justifying its cost: “In the end, what are your comfort and confidence are worth to you? Can you really put a “price” on them? An Arai helmet isn’t inexpensive. It isn’t made to be.” “And when you wear one, it isn’t made to feel good for just an hour or two. It’s made to feel good all day, every day – and to keep feeling good for years, long after cheap helmets have become loose and shabby (and probably had to be replaced more than once).” Notice that the only benefits Arai claims have to do with comfort and not safety:” “You can’t always see the reasons why an Arai feels better, but they’re there: lower weight from aerospace fiberglass-based construction; a lower center of gravity for better balance and less strain; softer single-piece multiple-density liners (whose technology still hasn’t been able to be copied in almost 20 years). Ventilation systems that work in the real world, not just in drawings. A helmet with no “minor” parts. And the result is major: you just feel good. You want to keep riding.”
“That’s why we build our helmets the way we do. Because it’s not about what you pay, it’s about what you get.” “Few of us can afford to own the very best of most things. But with an Arai helmet, you truly can own the very best of something.”
[ii] However, Shoei disagrees with the true experts in helmet’s effectiveness like the late Harry Hurt: “Very thick, soft padding provided good wearing comfort, but it did not hold well at high speeds, leading to helmet buffeting and instability.” http://www.shoei-helmets.com/Safety_ActiveSafety.aspx Hurt, the foremost advocate of helmets and truly effective standards, was very clear: very thick soft padding absorbs more kinetic energy and is thus safer for the reason we wear helmets: reducing injuries and preventing deaths.