Helmet history

Australia was the first country in the world to make it compulsory to wear a helmet while riding a bike. It all happened between 1990 and 1992 when, one-by-one, the states and territories began amending their laws, making Australia a world-leader in the process.

But now, more than 20 years since the ACT became the final state/territory to introduce mandatory helmet laws, it’s not enough to wear just any old helmet when heading out for a ride. Your helmet must adhere to a mandatory standard, called AS/NZS 2063:2008, which specifies exactly what a helmet must be able to endure, in order to protect you.

The actual standards document is rather inaccessible — it’ll cost you more than $60 to get a copy — but it basically boils down to 15 performance criteria that need to be met if a helmet is to be approved for use in Australia. Simplifying further, a helmet must have:

- a means of absorbing energy in an impact
- a means of distributing load
- a way of staying properly attached to your head (a retention system).

So how do we know if a helmet meets these performance criteria? To find out, I spoke to Kim Gralton, the manager of Personal Protective Equipment for international services group TUV Rheinland. In addition to this full-time role, Kim’s been on the committee for writing the Australian standard since 1996 and is also on the committee for the CS97 standard which governs the way helmets are tested.

The testing and certification process

The first step in making a helmet ready for sale in Australia is to get the design approved — that is, to test whether the helmet’s design meets the Australian standard. Interestingly, the standards don’t impose any restrictions on the way a helmet can be designed.

“We can’t even say what sort of materials the helmet is made out of”, Kim told me. “If you want to make a helmet out of cardboard, we don’t care — as long as it passes.”

Every time a new design helmet is ready to be sold in Australia, the manufacturer will take 10 units of the largest consumer size and four of any smaller sizes and send them to an authorised tester. The testers are always looking for the worst-case scenario, and that occurs in the largest helmets which tend to have thinner wall sections.

One of the most obvious parts of the testing process is impact testing. The helmets are attached to a head-shaped object (called a headform) that’s been kitted out with a sensing system that can detect the forces acting on a person’s head in the case of a collision.

The headform is then dropped helmet first onto a flat surface from a height of between 1.45 and 1.8m, on a number of different angles, to see how the helmet reacts to impacts from different sides.

In addition to impact testing, the laboratory will do retention system tests to make sure that the helmet stays on the rider’s head in the case of an impact. The testers attach the helmet to the headform (on top this time) then attach roughly 20kg to it to ensure that any slack is removed from the straps and webbing. The testers then suspend 136kg from the helmet and let it hang there for a few minutes, to see whether the webbing stretches, whether the buckles break or whether the tightening system falls apart.

In addition to this static test, a laboratory will also use a dynamic test to simulate the helmet being jarred forward suddenly. The testers attach a 10kg weight to the helmet then drop the weight, to see how the helmet handles the sudden movement.

Tests like these are common elsewhere in the world, but there’s one test that’s unique to Australia, known as the “load distribution test”. In Kim’s words “it’s like karate chopping the helmet.” The force is applied to a very localised area to see whether the helmet can distribute the “load” or whether it will crack under pressure.

The helmets are put through tests such as these in a range of conditions, to ensure that they perform on all rides, not just on those days when it’s 23ºC outside and sunny. In addition to being tested at ambient laboratory temperatures (between 18ºC and 25ºC, according to the standard) the helmets are put through their paces at 50ºC, at -10ºC and in wet conditions.

Assuming the helmet meets the 15 performance criteria set out in the standard, then that particular design is certified and given one of those little red stickers that show that the helmet adheres to the mandatory standards. There are only four groups in Australia that are authorised to certify bike helmets and give out these stickers: BSI Benchmark, TUV Rheinland Australia, Globalmark and SAI Global.

At this point in the process the tester/certifiers ask the helmet manufacturer to “freeze” the design and provide a complete bill of materials, parts and product drawings so they know exactly what they are certifying. And while the manufacturer/distributor is free to sell their helmet in Australia once that red label has been granted, the certification process doesn’t end there.

When I spoke to Kim he was in China on a trip to visit helmet manufacturers to ensure that the products they are sending out into the Australian market are the same quality as the ones that were originally certified.

“I’ll go and look at the purchase orders for their raw materials to make sure they are buying what they should be buying, according to the original certification”, he said. “I’ll look at the grade of polystyrene, the grade of polycarbonate, whether the buckle is still sourced from the same supplier, whether the webbing is still the same width and thickness …”

If the product is found to be different to the certified version, then there can be a product recall — a messy and expensive process for those involved in manufacturing, distributing and selling the helmet.

So how much does this whole testing and certification process cost? Well, it really depends on the size range within the helmet model in question. Kim told me that it can be about $2,500 for the testing of one model, with the certification process costing in the vicinity of $5,000. Once that initial certification is done, it costs roughly $700 to get a new model certified in subsequent years.

More expensive = better?

And speaking of cost, if you’re anything like me, you’ve probably stood at your local bike shop, looking at the range of helmets on sale and wondered: “is there any difference between the cheap and expensive helmets?” That is, leaving weight and aesthetics aside, will a $450 helmet protect you any better than a $30 helmet?

In essence, no. In an independent test by the folks at helmets.org, six helmets were tested for effectiveness: three helmets worth $150+, three worth less than $20. To quote the website:

“The impact tests results were virtually identical. When you pay more for a helmet you may get an easier fit, more vents and snazzier graphics. But the basic impact protection of the cheap helmets we tested equalled the expensive ones.”

So as long as an expensive helmet and a cheap helmet adhere to the Australian standard — and they shouldn’t be on the shelves of your LBS if they don’t — then they will both provide an appropriate level of protection. In fact, even those $5 blue helmets you can pick up from 7-Eleven to use on the Melbourne bike share bikes have been certified to Australian standards (and heavily subsidised) and are more than safe to use.

Australian on the world stage

As mentioned above, Australia is something of a pioneer when it comes to helmets and rider safety, having been the first country to make helmet-use for cyclists mandatory. Australia is also seen as a world-leader when it comes to helmet standards, with arguably the toughest standards in the world.

“The Bicycle Institute of America said back in 2000 that the Australian standard was the industry benchmark in terms of the protection it offers to the wearer”, Kim told me.

This is largely because of the way testing is done in Australia. Under the Australian standards, the various tests are done in a particular order — impact tests before retention tests — and the tests are done to the same helmet.

As Kim told me: “This is so that when people have an accident, [the helmet] doesn’t just give itself up after the first impact — it’s still there for any second or subsequent impact.”

In Europe and the US the various tests are seen as separate entities and a different helmet is used for each test.

The toughness of Australia’s helmet standards can be quantified as well.

“The maximum g-forces allowed [before something is considered to have failed] is 250g”, Kim said of the Australian standards. “In other countries, such as in Europe with their EN 1078 and in America, you’ve got g-forces allowable up to 300g.”

In other words, Australian helmets must absorb or deflect more energy than is expected of helmets elsewhere in the world, in order to be deemed safe.

The mandatory standard in the US is known as the CPSC standard and is regarded as being less stringent than the mandatory Australian standards. But in the US they also have the Shnell standards which, while being voluntary, are seen as some of the toughest in the world. In Europe the equivalent standard is EN 1078 which also forms the basis of the identical British Standard, BS EN 1078:1997.

So what happens if you decide to buy a helmet online from Europe and get it posted to you to use in Australia? And what happens if you’ve just moved here from the US and don’t want to buy another helmet?

A $40 helmet (Bell Octane, left) mightn't look as flash as a $250 helmet (Specialized S-Works Prevail, right) but it will still protect your head.

Helmets and the law

In essence, if you decide to wear a helmet that’s not certified to Australian standards while riding in Australia, you’re taking a calculated risk. While the helmet will clearly provide you with some level of protection, you run the risk of being fined if you get caught. In reality, you’d have to be quite unlucky for this to happen — we don’t recommend or condone taking the risk — but the bigger issue could be one of insurance and your legal protection.

“If you have an accident on Australian roads and you’ve got head injuries you might want to … sue the local government or council … because there might have been a pothole or something uneven in the surface”, Kim told me. “If it went to court and you were found to not be wearing a helmet, or not wearing an approved helmet, the case is all over right there. I’m not a lawyer but I’ve seen it happen.”

So what if a cyclist is hit by a car while wearing a non-Australian-standards helmet? Would wearing the non-approved helmet mean the cyclist forfeits their rights if they decide to sue the motorist?

The research I’ve done suggests that if a cyclist is hit because of the negligent driving of a motorist, the cyclist might be seen as “contributorily negligent” (i.e. it was partially their fault) if they weren’t wearing a helmet that meets the Australian standards. But, there’s an important caveat here: the onus is on the defendant (i.e. the motorist) to prove that the injury would have been lessened/avoided had the cyclist been wearing an Australian standard helmet. I couldn’t find a single Victorian case in which that claim had been successfully proven.

Exemptions to helmet laws

And while riding a non-Australian-standards helmet is a calculated risk, it is possible to do so legally, so long as you’ve got a permit. In fact, as Rob Ingall from Cycling Australia told me, this happens every year with international races held in Australia.

When international riders come to Australia to race in the Tour Down Under — and when Australian overseas-based riders bring their European-standards-approved helmets back to Australia for the Jayco Herald Sun Tour and Australian National Championships — they can get a permit so long as their helmet is covered by an equivalent international standard. This permit application is lodged by the race organisers to the local police.

In the case of the Tour Down Under, the race organisers apply to the South Australian Police and in the case of the Nationals, Cycling Australia applies to the Victorian police. It takes roughly a week or so to get sign-off and doesn’t cost anything for the riders or race organisers.

Conclusion

Whether you believe helmets are an important part of cyclist safety or not, the reality is that when you’re riding on Australian roads, you need to be wearing a helmet that meets the Australian standard. And making a helmet that adheres to that standard is a rather more detailed and complex process than you might have thought.

Of course, the bike helmet is one of the few items in life that you buy but hope you’ll never have to use.

Further reading:

- Comprehensive comparison of helmet standards from around the world, with detail about what’s involved in adhering to the Australian standards
- A summary of the Australian standard — productsafety.gov.au
-Humorous video about whether expensive helmets are necessarily safer — WhatYouOughtToKnow YouTube channel
- Video featuring short clips of helmet testing in the US — WXYZ TV Detroit
- More information about testing procedures in the US — helmets.org