Monday, May 23, 2011

How to pick a bike helmet, and when to replace it

Another in a long list of topics that seems to come up frequently: What kind of bike helmet should I buy? And how long to they last? 

(If you are an experienced bicyclist, you can skip this post. I'm just writing up the FAQs of bicycle education.)

Recently, Steve Meiers, City of Madison Pedestrian-Bicycle Safety Assistance, posted a link on a local email list to a report from the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute. It basically says that cheap helmets work just as well as expensive helmets, as long as they both are approved by the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC.) Although you can spend $150 or $200 on a bike helmet, a $30-35 helmet will protect your head just as well.

The difference tends to be color, number and size of vents, and some aesthetic options. For me, one big issue is how easy it is to adjust the straps. Making sure that your helmet fits well, and can be adjusted if the straps stretch, you tuck your hair up, or you want to wear a hat is very important. Here are some tips on fitting helmets correctly:

As an almost-daily bike commuter, I tend to spend a bit more on my helmets for one reason: I am likely going to wearing it every day and frequently for long periods of time. I want a helmet that fits me, is easy to adjust, and feels comfortable. I've owned helmets that didn't quite feel right, or were hard to adjust, and it just drove me nuts.

For what it's worth, I now own two helmets. (OK, I still have any old helmets that just got too banged up and/or gross from daily use, which I use for guests or in emergencies, but I mean new/current helmets.) One is my commuting helmet. It has fewer vents and was considerably cheaper than the other one. I finally decided to get a helmet just for long rides that had better ventilation and was a tiny bit lighter. Since I blew more than my normal helmet budget on it, I'm hoping it will last longer than the commuting helmet.

And for those who wonder, helmets don't last forever. They need to be replaced. Manufacturers will say three to five years or one crash. Helmets are meant to be single use: If you crash, replace your helmet. There may be micro cracks in the foam that will compromise its ability to protect you in the future.

Because I use my helmet almost every day, constantly being carried around or locked to the bike, clipped and unclipped, bumped, pushed, pulled, adjusted, etc., my helmet gets sort of beat up and nasty after about two years. A new helmet is an inexpensive component of my transportation system. Like so many other things about a bike, I think how much a tank of gas is for the car, and then decide that I can afford to buy a new helmet when I need one.

The three things that most degrade the foam of the helmet - the part that is actually protecting your head - are: heat, sunlight, and salt. Hmmmm.... what things is my helmet likely exposed to as I go out riding in hot weather: my sweaty, hot head in bright, hot sunlight.

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