Yesterday I talked about the importance of regularly replacing your helmet since the protective materials degrade over time. Today, I’m going to address the issue of safety testing.
Once you’ve made the decision to buy a new helmet, you probably want to know which helmets offer the most protection. An absolute answer is harder to come by than you might think because in the U.S. helmets are rated using a pass/fail system. Approved helmets meet the minimum requirements of the standard established by the American Society of Testing & Materials, ASTM F1163. This standard defines performance criteria and test methods.
Conformity assessment of riding helmets to defined standards is performed primarily by the Safety Equipment Institute (SEI). Helmet manufacturers provide samples of each model and size to the SEI for simulated crash testing using the methods defined in the ASTM Standard. SEI then publishes the models and sizes that pass the tests.
The videos below demonstrate some of the testing that is performed on helmets and demonstrates very clearly how much better today’s ASTM approved helmets protect your head than helmets of the past. They use a Caliente for comparison. I can vividly remember when I — and many eventers — wore a Caliente helmet because we thought that they were safer because they were favored by jockeys!
No comparative data is available. So the question becomes, given that the cost of an ASTM helmet ranges from about $40 to more than $500, what do you get for the additional $450? According to the Equestrian Medical Association:
“There is no evidence that higher priced helmets or those which use exotic materials test better than the other certified models. We don’t do comparison testing in the U.S. because one model will absorb more impact better than another on one impact site and then it may absorb less at another site. Without knowing where an individual head is going to be impacted, there is no fair way to say that any one model is superior.
The Safety Equipment Institute and the manufacturer receive test result numbers, and unless the manufacturer releases them to someone, they are considered to be proprietary information. Over the years some manufacturers have shared their information and from that limited data it appears that the least expensive sports helmets test the best; but all of the helmets on the certified product list exceed the minimum standards. . . . A larger liner means a larger helmet, which not only absorbs energy but which also works to deflect blows toward the face, an uncovered area which is a frequent recipient of an impact.”
In other words, fashion and trendiness seems to influence price more than actual performance. In fact, fashion may work against performance because according to the statement above, the helmets that will provide the best protection are probably the ones that are the least fashionable because they will not be the low profile, sleeker models, but rather the ones that make you look like a mushroom head.
In the U.K. there was an effort to publish independent helmet testing under the Equestrian New Helmet Assessment Program (ENHAP). The initiative was spearheaded by the Mark Davies Injured Riders Fund (named after a rider who died at the Burghley Horse Trials) and managed by the Transport Research Laboratory which is experienced in the testing of hats and which developed a new helmet system for Formula 1 racing. The group spent two years developing its test protocols and then published its assessment of 55 helmets that were already approved by EN, BS, ASTM or SNELL. The ENHAP tests included impacts on flat, curved and sharp surfaces as well as crush and stability tests. Forty of the 55 helmets were rejected as being not safe enough.
The results that were published in 2003 were widely disputed by the major helmet manufactures and the British Horse Association. They were never updated and the report was pulled from the MDIRF website. Incidentally, the US helmet manufacturer with the best scores was also the least expensive: Troxel.
The other interesting piece of information that came out of that study (and which I’ve seen confirmed elsewhere) is that smaller sized helmets performed better than larger ones. So, if you have a larger head, you are already at a disadvantage!
The bottom line? Find an ASTM/SEI approved helmet that fits you well (there are now helmets for every head shape) and buy that one — even it it isn’t the most expensive.