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.