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.

leatt-braceMy new Leatt brace arrived today. Ordered it from BTO Sports. I also ordered an EVS Revolution 5 body armor which is designed to fit around the Leatt.

Last Friday I got my new Organic air-cushion body armor from RXR Protect North America. RXR got me setup with one to test with the Leatt. The plan is to try the Leatt with both pieces of body armor and see which works best and what I think about each, and then do a little report for the VMX community. We old guys have to watch our bones. Once you get past 40 your bones start to get brittle, even if you have good bone density. Get-offs that you would have walked away from at 35 will put you in a hospital at 45. And that’s no fun. So safety and protection are the name of the game for the happy VMX racer.

rxrlogoGot my RXR Protect Organic chest protector today. Thanks to Chris Favro of RXR Protect North America for fixing me up with a sweet deal so I can test this with the new Leatt Brace. After talking with Chris we determined that the best path forward was to just get one and see how it worked. The RXR is not designed specifically for the Leatt, and some riders have liked it, others not. I promised Chris I’d test them together and share my findings with the VMX community via this website and Unfortunately, it looks like that’s going to be a little ways down the road, as work and travel are making it almost impossible to get any saddle time and it will be hectic until the Holidays. But hopefully I can get in a little riding before then.


red-cross-flagToday I ordered some modern protective equipment – a neck brace and a couple of different chest/body armour units to try with it. The neck brace I bought is the Leatt, the new and somewhat controversial HANS-style device invented and patented by South African Dr. Jeff Leatt. For core protection I ordered an EVS Revolution 5 that is designed for the Leatt, and an RXR Protect Organic.

First released about a year ago, the Leatt has gotten a lot of publicity and raised a lot of arguments both for and against its use. Former riders such as David Bailey and Danny Chandler have spoken out strongly in favor of the brace. As far as I know there haven’t been any riders speak out strongly against it, but it certainly hasn’t been adopted by riders everywhere, for a variety of reasons.

The most common argument against the device is the absence of substantial field-level proof that it actually works as claimed. Such arguments are inherent in any new equipment of this type and will be resolved over time – either favoring or discrediting the Leatt. In the meantime there are a number of riders who feel the unknowns about the device make it not worth the cost, inconvenience, or restriction in range of motion.

But for me it seems to be the right choice to try one. From what I read of the riders who use the Leatt it takes a little getting used to but soon fades from your perception as a rider, blending into the background such that you hardly notice it. This has certainly been the case with the Asterisk Cell knee braces I use. Once laced up and seated on the bike they all but disappear from my consciousness. If the Leatt provides even a modicum of protection against Spinal Cord Injury (SCI), and I suspect it provides more than that based on my reading of the design and research papers, while tasking me no more than my knee braces I will be a very happy camper.

But before making this decision I had to resolve a couple of vintage issues in my mind. Vintage racing is fun, and one of the enjoyable aspects of the hobby is reliving the atmosphere and environment from “back in the day.” For me that meant wearing vintage leather Hi-Point boots, an open-face helmet, old hockey-style shoulder pads, and other early-‘70s era gear. That was part of the fun. But the reality is we’re still racing motorcycles, and we still fall off. While I’m a pretty conservative and thoughtful rider – taking care to stay within my limits and keep my head on straight – there are still times in each race where things can go wrong. And I had to ask myself, “What’s more important – having the look and feel of the ‘70s in my outfit, or taking advantage of the vastly improved technology we have today to minimize my chance of serious injury?”

Giving up the vintage look is not a small matter. It’s not the same to be out on the starting gate with a bunch of ‘74 MX bikes and guys in rugby shirts when you’re decked out in the latest techno-garb. But then again, my goal is to keep riding as long and as healthily as possible, not pose for the best pictures. And then there is the “macho” factor – is all that protective gear really necessary? Anyone who’s ever suffered an SCI will tell you yes. Hell yes. Wear the gear. Get the brace, Whatever. Just take as many steps as you reasonably can to prevent SCIs. We all know riding and racing motorcycles is riskier than babysitting, washing the car, or playing basketball. We all know it’s more dangerous than watching football on TV. But that doesn’t mean we blithely accept the idea of debilitating injury. Bumps, bruises, and even the occasional fracture are part of the game – especially as we get older. But we’ve still got to go to work and make a living. Wheelchairs are not part of the long-term plan.

I’m guessing there’s not a single motorcycle-related cervical SCI victim today who wouldn’t go back in time and wear a device like the Leatt – proven or not – if they could do so before their accident. Life with an SCI is miserable. Life with a cervical SCI can be worse than death. So I will try to accommodate the vintage fashion police by keeping my helmet white, my pants and jersey plain and unadorned by modern graphics. I’ll keep most of my specialized protective gear under my clothes. But my boots will be modern and among the best our modern technology can provide. My helmet will be a new full-face model with modern features. And my neck will be surrounded by the best device that modern medical research and development has yet devised.

I can still get hurt. I can still suffer an SCI. Hell, I came really close 10 years ago when I broke three vertebrae in my lower back by rolling a pickup truck at 50 MPH – a far worse injury than I ever suffered on a motorcycle. Nothing is perfect. But I’ll feel better knowing I’ve stacked the odds a little bit in my favor. And I suspect my subconscious will let me ride a little freer, a little looser, have a bit more fun. And that’s what this is all about anyway.