We’ve all had the same conversation (usually down the pub). Should we buy cheap crash helmets and replace them more often or go for an expensive brand and change less often? There’s vocal proponents on both sides of the argument. So who’s right?
Let’s take a look at some of the arguments and the reality, based on some of the helmets that were/are available in the marketplace.
Here at Billy’s Crash Helmets, we use the UK’s SHARP safety testing rating as an indicator on how well a crash helmet performs in an accident. All crash helmets for sale in the UK (and EU) should be ECE 22.05 rated in the first place, which means that all crash helmets for sale should achieve at least a minimum level of protection. However, even though they all pass this test, the SHARP test shows there’s quite a variance in safety performance among those. So, we’ll choose to look at helmets that scored the maximum sharp rating of 5 stars (and look to see if any of the cheapies do score 5!).
Argument 1: Cheap crash helmets aren’t as safe as expensive helmets.
Let’s say that a cheap helmet is one that’s under $100, medium priced are $100-250 and expensive helmets are $250 and above (up to around $1000). If we then look at the price ranges of the helmets that have been tested and rated 5 stars for safety, then there’s certainly a handful of sub-$100 helmets that have scored highly. They’re not from the most well known manufacturers and probably not as widely available (in fact some are now discontinued), but they’re rated as being as safe as the big names. They’re mostly full faced helmets too:
Now, if you buy one of these helmets, you’ll be getting more crash protection than lots of helmets made by some of the best brands. There’s also a stack of 4 Star rated cheap crash helmets too – 35 to be precise – right down from as low as $40. Again, these will offer great protection in most circumstances and will probably outperform more expensive, well known brands in terms of crash safety.
We also reviewed the scores reported by the SHARP helmet safety scheme, looking at the safety of helmets by brand name. We then ranked them in order of safety – those with mostly 5 star rated helmets first – and produced a top 10 safest crash helmet brands list. There are lots of surprises in there – including a couple of budget brands making it into the top 10 – ahead of names like Arai and Schuberth!
How can cheap helmets be as safe as expensive ones?
Well, without getting into the detail of testing regimes and Cost 327 European crash investigation reports, it appears most survivable motorcycle accidents actually require relatively ‘soft’ crash helmet designs. Most survivable accidents involve moderate impact speeds and require the shell of a helmet to flex and absorb some of the impact. This further allows the shock-absorbing EPS (polystyerene) liner within the helmet shell to do it’s work as effectively as possible and absorb further impact – because it’s the shock that’s passed through to the brain that does most of the damage.
It seems that plastic (polycarbonate or other themoplastics) are good at doing this while some harder materials aren’t. Because some helmets are much more solid, the shells fail to flex on impact, stop the liner doing much of its job and instead transmit more shock through to the rider’s head and brain.
And because cheaper helmets are often made of these plastics, they’re just as able to score very high marks on SHARP tests – and more importantly – are probably just as good, and in many cases better, at saving your bacon as expensive lids. Hurrah (unless you’ve just shelled out $700 on a helmet in which case boo!).
As a slight aside, this is one of the arguments against the Snell testing regime in the US which tends to require helmet shells to be harder and less flexible. Many now argue this leads to helmets that, somewhat counterintuitively, allow more shock to be transmitted through to the brain, causing internal brain injuries due to the rapid deceleration or change of direction that occurs during a crash.
So the argument that cheap crash helmets don’t offer the same protection and expensive ones is not necessarily true. Price doesn’t really come into it, rather it’s the ability of the helmet to limit how much shock is passed through to the skull and the brain. And, surprisingly, many lower priced helmets are just as good at doing this.
Having said that, check out our definitive guide to motorcycle crash helmet safety where we analyse SHARP crash helmet data to answer (once and for all) lots of questions – including whether carbon fiber helmets outperform thermoplastic ones.
Argument 2 – Cheap crash helmets don’t offer the same quality and features as expensive helmets.
Now this is probably true. Expensive helmets and better brands own patents to mechanisms and features that perform better. They also take the time (and expense) to finish helmets using better quality linings, fastenings, paint finishes and so on. Generally, more expensive helmets are quieter, better ventilated, more aerodynamic and comfortable. Though again, that’s a broad generalisation as many budget helmets have features such as removable linings or micrometric fasteners that more expensive helmets don’t have.
To see reviews on some of the cheaper helmets check out our cheap crash helmets section.
However, using better materials and having good quality control processes to make a well-built helmet doesn’t necessarily translate into safety. It might make a helmet nicer to use and a more comfortable place to put your head, but in terms of safety in an accident, the two things don’t necessarily tie together. For example, my mate swears by his Arai Condor helmet. He bought it because it’s an Arai, it was pretty expensive (for him) at over $200 and he thought, because it’s an Arai, it’d be one of the safest helmets around. Unfortunately, it only scored 2/5 in SHARP testing making it substantially worse than your average cheapy Grex helmet which, incidentally, score at least 4/5 for every helmet tested by SHARP and took them to 8th in our safest helmet brands top 10. Grex produce some nice helmets too so he’d probably have been better going for one of those, saving some dosh and riding round with a much safer lid into the bargain.
Again, check out our definitive guide where we look at prices versus safety of helmets.
So there you have it. Cheap crash helmets can be just as safe as expensive ones. They probably lack features and finish, but they can look pretty cool too. So next time someone starts off that argument, just point them at this web page and save yourself half an hour and go do something more useful with your time!
Also check out this video showing a graphic representation of how a poor quality helmet performs v a good performer. I couldn’t identify the specific helmet to see what it’s rating is but it shows why it’s worth buying a well rated helmet!