arai-xd3motardsilI’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.

inside-helmetLooking 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.

evs_rc-evoThere 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.

bell_moto8_whiteThe 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 Oh, stay away from 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.