I’ve just returned from my pilgrimage to Indianapolis and the annual Powersports Dealer Expo. There was a lot going on there this year, despite the economy. The biggest news was the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, a law that went into effect last week and summarily killed about 20% of the motorcycle industry in one fell swoop. But I’ll talk about that later.
This post is about helmets and what I learned at the show. The older I get the more interested I am in survival and safety technology. With the recent death of FMX star Jeremy Lusk from a head injury, helmets were high on my list this year. So I made it a point to spend time at the booths of as many major helmet manufacturers as I could — Bell, Shoei, Arai, HJC, and AGV.
These were just a few of the helmets on display. Every major vendor of apparel had at least one rack of helmets, and there were even a few new brands I never heard of before. Mike Metzger, the “godfather” of FMX, was at the show pushing his new line of Kali helmets and apparel.
Here’s a basic rule of thumb — style, color, and trendy design are not the most important consideration when looking for a helmet. Neither is ventilation or how many visor/shield configurations you offer. In my mind, neither is the margin offered to the dealer. But those seemed to be the only things anyone wanted to talk about. Except for Arai.
When I stepped into the Arai booth I was greeted with a wall covered in raw shell castings, cut-away shells, cut-away helmets showing various EPS liner configurations, and a bevy of crash-damaged helmets. I asked the first person I saw to tell me about Arai helmets and what made them different. (This was the first question I asked in every booth.) Immediately the salesman walked me over to the wall and began pointing out the raw fiberglass shell and talking about how helmet technology has evolved.
The salesman was an older gentleman, and in the course of his conversation he mentioned that his son had worked for Arai for 23 years. He took the older, single-layer fiberglass helmet casting (typical of 1980s-era helmets,) placed it on its side on the floor, and stood on it bouncing up and down. Then he explained, using photos and graphics on the wall, the 27–step process Arai uses to hand mold every modern, multi-layer Arai shell and explained the function of the various materials
He showed me the unique, dual-density, one-piece EPS liner that all Arai helmets use. He showed me the emergency cheek pad removal system. Then he began showing me the crash-tested helmets on display.
He noted that every rider had walked away without significant head injury. Some of the helmets were not just damaged, but destroyed. That the rider had survived was astonishing. But the helmet did its job.
After his demonstration I walked over to the shelf of new helmets and found a new XD3 Supermoto/Adventure helmet. I love this helmet — the look, the feel, the fit, the balance. Even though it is noticeably heavier in your hand than a Bell Moto8 or the more-comparable Shoei Hornet-DS, it doesn’t feel heavier on your head. There’s no top-heaviness at all.
As soon as I put the helmet down another salesman walked over and began asking me questions. He also started explaining the differences in Arai construction and pointing out features and considerations that the first gentleman had not gotten to.
In fact, everyone in the Arai booth appeared to be extremely knowledgeable about their product. Moreso than any other helmet vendor I visited. I had a similar, but not quite as thorough, experience last year when I talked with the marketing director at Bell. But everyone else, not so much. They pretty much wanted to show me the new graphics, the new vents, or talk about the margins I make as a dealer. I know that’s important, but it’s not what I asked about.
The AGV rep did talk briefly about the industry-wide discussion over whether Snell is the right standard, and whether Arai helmets are, in fact, too stiff. He mentioned that there was actually a Snell meeting at the show to discuss some of these issues. The AGV helmets are noticeably less stiff than an Arai.
There is a legitimate argument about how to rate and construct helmets, and there is real concern that Snell may not be the right standard. There is significant industry debate over this issue, with competing standards in the US, Europe, and the UK. I wrote about this last year.
In that article I noted that, in an informal survey of several riders, there was general agreement that a $250 helmet was probably 2x better than a $100 helmet, but there was doubt that a $500 helmet was actually 2x better still.
I still don’t know the answer, but I do know this — the Arai folks are fanatical about helmets, and it’s very hard to argue against a company that is so committed to protecting your head. They are not making a fashion statement. They are not bowing to trends and fads if it compromises what they believe a helmet should be. They are 100% dedicated to making the very best helmet they know how to make. And this passion shows in everyone in the company.
I might still say the Bell Moto8 is my favorite off-road helmet, but I’m not sure. I know I love the Arai XD3 and will replace my current street helmet as soon as I can.