This note comes from my friend Robert Bergman in Phoenix, AZ, via the TMSuzuki Yahoo! Group. Advocates for Access to Public Lands is sponsoring a petition to fight the California Wild Heritage Bill S-493, the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, and other such wholesale closures of public lands. Take a minute to add your name to the Public Lands Petition. Also be sure to check out the BlueRibbon Coalition, one of the leading public land access organizations in the country.
Looking at the new Bell Moto-8 got me to thinking again about the controversial issue of helmets. Mainly because the Moto-8 is at the higher end of the price range for motorcycle helmets, and there is really no objective way of determining if your money is truly buying you more protection. In a non-scientific survey of my friends in the riding community there’s more or less general agreement that a helmet which retails for $250 is at least 2x better than a $100 helmet, maybe as much as 5x better due to materials, workmanship, etc. But there is considerable disagreement on whether a $500 helmet is even 2x better than the $250 unit.
A Look at the Economics.
If you think about how helmets get sold it’s easy to see why a $100 helmet isn’t a very good deal. The retailer who sells the helmet to you probably gets a 40% to 50% margin, meaning he paid about $55 to the distributor. The distributor probably gets a 30% to 40% margin, meaning he paid roughly $35 to the manufacturer. The manufacturer, who in all likelihood outsourced the actual manufacture of the helmet to a factory in Taiwan or PRC, also tries to maintain a 50% gross margin. That means the actual manufacturing cost of the helmet is between $15 and $20 USD. The outsource factory takes overhead, labor, materials, and their profit out of that money, which means that your $100 helmet probably has about $5 of material and $5 of labor in it. I don’t care where in the world you are, you aren’t going to get much for $5. You might as well go to the hardware store and buy a pail filled with florist’s foam. But even at this level most helmets have a DOT sticker (more on that later.)
If you use the same math on a $250 helmet you come out just shy of $40 for raw manufacturing cost. For that money you can buy good grade materials and pay very good wages in the Asian factories where these things are made. You can also invest in a much higher grade of tooling and equipment. You can even invest in advanced robotics and techniques. I wouldn’t be surprised if some factories at this level are even ISO 9001 certified (although there’s a lot of debate about the value of this.) And you can afford to pay for more than 15 minutes of manufacturing and inspection time. I don’t have any doubt this $250 helmet is way better than the $100 bucket we looked at above. There’s also $40 here for the helmet company who can now afford to start doing some real R&D. At this price point most helmets are submitted for approval to one of the major helmet standards such as Snell M2000/M2005, ECE 22–05 (Europe), or the BSI 6658 (Britain.)
But above this point the math stops working so well. If you take a $450 helmet and apply the same factors you get $250 wholesale, $161 to the helmet company, and $80 for raw manufacturing. I question whether the top-end companies are spending $30-$40 on materials for a helmet, but they might. The more important question is does that extra money actually buy you more protection?
At the top-end most of the companies are using a mix of Kevlar, carbon fiber, and fiberglass, where at the lower price point you generally have fiberglass with various resins. These advanced composites save a lot of weight while still retaining the strength needed to pass the various standards. But do they protect your head better? Probably not. Why? Because the Snell (and other) standards are very specific about how, when, and where a helmet absorbs and disperses shock. They are also very specific about how long it takes, how many times it happens, etc. Designing a helmet to meet these standards pretty much locks you into the arbitrary definition of safe that the standard assumes. The top-end helmets also vary the way they use the crushable foam inner liners. But, again, the standards prevent them from being very innovative in any given direction.
Most of what you get, in my opinion, for the increased money is better styling, better fit, lighter weight, more consistency, and better design (aerodynamics, ventilation, adjustable linings, etc.) In some cases you are also paying for a lot of hand labor to paint the helmet and, in some cases, to do the whole assembly by hand. It’s not that the helmet isn’t better – it arguably is in those ways discussed above. But is it safer? Today there is no way of knowing, but it’s unlikely that you are getting 2x the protection when you spend $400 vs $200 for a helmet if both pass the same arbitrary safety standard.
A Word About Standards.
There is a lot of controversy about helmet standards, and very little agreement on just what is meant by safe. The DOT standard seems to be pretty safe, but the sticker on a helmet isn’t really worth much because it is self-regulated. That is, a company just submits the right forms to the NHTSA and gets the right to put a DOT sticker on the helmet. Every year the NHTSA buys some helmets and tests them in an independent lab. If the helmet fails they do some sort of follow up with the manufacturer, but that’s not exactly a rigorous standard. If you’re buying a DOT-only helmet you sure want to get it from a top-tier manufacturer.
The other standards, primarily Snell in the US, are much better in that regard. They require that a manufacturer submit helmets for approval before granting the license. And they also follow up during the year with tests of off-the-shelf helmets. For one of the most thorough discussions of standards see this Motorcyclist Magazine article Motorcycle Helmet Performance: Blowing the Lid Off.
I would like to see a lot more transparency and research in the helmet industry and lot more information made public about the standards. Today a helmet either passes or it fails. There is no in between. And if it passes there is no way to objectively state that it is more or less safe than any other helmet that passes the same test. But the argument over standards makes clear that we are nowhere near having a satisfactory definition of what safe means. The AMA is pushing to fund a motorcycle crash study as a follow-up to the original Hurt Report (pdf). Hopefully some helmet data can be gleaned from that if it happens. I have compiled a list of links about helmet safety and fit that you can visit to find more detailed information. I’ll continue to add links there as I find them.
There were a handful of new safety products announced at Indy. I didn’t see them all but I did get a chance to see a couple of them up close and talk to the manufacturers. EVS Sports announced their RC-Evolution Race Collar, a less expensive competitor to the Leatt Brace. The RC-Evo is similar in design to their RC3 foam collar, but has much larger plastic support pieces and a molded helmet cradle similar to the Leatt. The pre-production prototype on display at the show was a little rough – it’s definitely not as nicely finished as a Leatt, but it retails for $200 less as well. It’s terrific to see more neck protection options coming on the market. We do not know nearly enough about the effectiveness of these devices and it can only help to get a broader range of ideas and price points into the market. For my money everyone on a dirt bike should wear some form of neck protection, but we don’t have enough data to say for sure what type of protection. Not everyone is willing to pay for a Leatt and I’m glad to see less expensive options beginning to appear.
Patrick Lynch, motorsports director for Shock Doctor, showed me some very nice impact shorts that are under development. They don’t list them on their site yet and I don’t have a picture, but think about something like baseball sliding pants or SixSixOne’s Bomber shorts, except with a flex padding that looks like black, high-density bubble wrap. It’s a new material that’s supposed to provide good protection with a low profile while maintaining good fit, light weight, and durability. It looked like a much better option than standard compression shorts and did not seem nearly as bulky as some of the other options currently on the market. No word on availability or price.
The best item I saw was the new 2008 Bell Moto-8. Back in my day the only helmet to have was a Bell. If you drove cars you might wear a Simpson, but if you rode bikes you wore a Bell – unless you were a dweeb who wore something from Montgomery Ward or K-Mart. There’s a pretty sordid back story about what happened to Bell — product liability issues, stupid decisions by management, corporate divestiture, clueless money-grubbing, horrible outsourcing, zero quality control, and an extremely questionable character. But move forward to 2002–03 and Bell Powersports, the corporate entity, buys back the Bell name and rights and begins a new product development program. It’s taken about five years to get it right, but the result of that program is the 2008 Bell Moto-8. I had a chance to talk with the Bell’s marketing director who confirmed much of what I thought I knew about Bell’s history. According to him the company has been working very hard to correct those problems.
They have created a state-of-the-art research, design, and testing center in Santa Cruz, CA., where helmets are tested both during design and production phases. According to Bell the production standards for the new Moto-8 were so strict that the company fired two different manufacturers before they settled on one that could consistently meet their specs. The new helmet shell uses a complex weave of Kevlar, carbon fiber, and fiberglass that provides high durability with extremely light weight. The shell design also underwent extensive wind tunnel testing to ensure the venting and airflow systems worked exactly as intended. Even the middle snap that usually holds the visor in place was removed because it interfered with airflow. In it’s place is a unique twist-lock mechanism on each side of the adjustable visor that secures it in place with a simple twist.
I put one on and can say it is the best-fitting helmet I have ever worn. I have tried both Shoei and Arai and the Bell fit me better than either. It was snug, but without a single pressure point. And it didn’t smash my cheeks in to give me that classic chipmunk look. The Moto-8 shell is shaped differently than any other Bell helmet, so you can’t judge its fit by trying another Bell helmet. You need to try on the Moto-8.
The finish quality was outstanding. This is a beautiful helmet. At $350–$395 the Moto-8 is targeted squarely at the Shoei and Arai markets. It’s not cheap. It isn’t hand-made, and it isn’t hand-painted, but in every other respect I’d bet it’s the equal of them in quality. It’s likely I’ll be wearing one for the 2008 season.
There’s a video review of the Moto-8 over at motocross.com. Oh, stay away from bellhelmets.com. This is not Bell Powersports but is instead a web store run by the guy who is responsible for the total crapification of Bell motorcycle helmets in the ‘90s. He has been accused, more than once, of misleading customers and misrepresenting products on his site. Bell has forced him to put language on the site stating he’s not affiliated with them, but it’s not a real forceful disclaimer. They need to stop the guy from selling their product altogether but I guess they can’t for some reason. Go buy your Bell from a legitimate dealer and be sure you get the Spring 2008 model that is Snell M2005 certified. This is not your father’s Moto-8.
I just got the new issue (Issue Six) of Classic Dirt Bike magazine. This relatively new quarterly publication comes from the UK, published by WH Smith. I have to say I really like this mag. It’s quite different from VMX Magazine, which I wrote about back in December. Classic Dirt Bike covers the whole twin-shock market – including MX, trials, and general offroad – in the UK and to a lesser extent Europe and the US. There’s plenty of historical content going all the way back to the early 1960s and beyond, as well as ongoing technical and how-to articles like the rebuilding of a TY175. But what I really like is the extensive coverage of the UK twin-shock scene, which appears to be way more active and mature than our own vintage efforts.
For instance, they have actual vintage MX racing teams. The current issue profiles Chris Houseman’s Dick Do Racing, which fields a team of no less than 11 beautifully prepped Maico 490s, both twin-shock and Evo-class single-shockers. Issue Three profiled Andy Story Racing, which fields a team of 6 1973 Honda CR250 Elsinores. How cool is that, real VMX “factory” teams? There’s also business coverage – of the extensive cottage industry that supports the whole twin-shock movement. Everything from small companies like Greeves and AJS that are keeping venerable old names alive to companies like Wulfsport that can sell you everything you need to build a brand new Maico 490 race bike. As well as a bounty of craftsman frame makers, metal casters, and machinists. The current issue profiles the new owners of Sammy Miller products, who are introducing a new line of MX parts to complement the trials line. Even the apparel market seems more lively, with ads from several vendors in each issue. There’s even a full-page ad for motorhomes – yes, motorhomes – on the outside back cover.
This kind of stuff is very exciting to me. It’s great to see how vital the twin-shock market is over there and it gives me some hope for our future here. Population density is a big barrier for us. After all the UK has 60 million people in an area about the size of Oregon, so gaining critical mass is a lot easier. Our vintage brethren are scattered across a land mass so huge a “national” series is a ridiculously expensive proposition. But it’s still great to see all the companies and teams and products and bikes that are alive and kicking in the UK. If you haven’t had a look at Classic Dirt Bike go check them out. I think you’ll really like it.
Having said that, I want to give some props to VMX mag. I subscribe to both, and will continue to do so. VMX is a stunningly beautiful homage to the golden era(s) of motocross, and it’s obvious that Classic Dirt Bike’s high production values are a direct result of VMX setting a blue ribbon standard. Both magazines provide valuable, but different, views to our past. VMX is strictly vintage motocross and, as such, may be a better choice for the restorer or enthusiast who wants to focus exclusively on that. But for my money both publications should be in the reading room of any good vintage dirt bike lover.