Inside a Helmet
Arai Europe invited us the Arai Inspiration Centre in Holland, a testing facility used for dealer training.
The difference between a $50 dollar helmet and a $500 Arai
, Shoei, Bell or 6D is one of the true mysteries in motorcycling. While parts upgrades, tires, knee braces and boots can all be tested by journalists and consumers through feeling and experience, with helmets this is simply not the case. That is unless you wish to smash your head into the ground at 50 mph and see which one leaves you with more brain damage... Arai Europe invited us the Arai Inspiration Centre in Holland, a testing facility used for dealer training, where the Japanese brand introduced its new MX-V motocross helmet to the public. Arai also provided some insight into the helmet design and testing process, as well as sharing its own philosophy on what makes a good helmet.
Stepping through the doors of the Inspiration Centre, a building nestled in a shed an hour outside of Amsterdam, is humbling experience. Just two small rooms make up the testing facility and lining the walls are helmets from almost every Arai racing legend, from just about every type of motorsport.
The logic for wearing cheaper helmets generally makes sense. After all, why spend $500 on something that’ll be wrecked the first time you hit the deck? Surely some Carbon Kevlar and polystyrene is just that? The answer is pretty simple – material and science. According to the fine folks at Arai, the major standout to cheap helmets is the lack of science in the expanded polystyrene lining (EPS) and, more importantly, the lack of material mass making up the shell. Skimping on this is the way to make helmets cheaper and lighter so that’s what they do. The shell of the helmet is paramount to its ability to stop your head taking the brunt of any impact; if you didn’t need it we’d all cruise around with pure polystyrene strapped to our heads.
Arai stand out from the pack on several key issues and are rather vocal in its opinions. Hard, round and smooth underlie the design of every single Arai crash helmet made since the company’s birth. If you look at an Arai, the design is simplistic, there are no protrusions from the body of the helmet and all the venting ducts and peripherals are plastic meaning they will break off if you sneeze too hard near them. Arai champion an idea called the R75 shape, which states that the shell should maintain a continuously round shape with a minimum radius of 75mm.
The principle behind this, is that in the event of a crash, a smooth, hard helmet will allow your head glance off things, maintaining its natural trajectory and therefore reducing the force your skull takes. Having a hard shell also greatly increases puncture prevention, so when you smash into a sharp object it won’t penetrate the shell and, consequently, your skull.
To compensate for the extreme hardness of their shells, Arai use a very soft EPS liner, made up of multiple densities, a little trick that Arai owns the worldwide patent on.
While principles and theories all make for wonderful sales pitches, how do you go about proving such things? The Arai way is to smash hard objects into their helmets for us to watch in amazement. Watching a seven pound metal spike drop into a vent hole goes someway to convincing you that an Arai is probably a little better at stopping that impact than that plastic helmet you bought from Costco, along with your toilet paper.
) Impact testing Arai Helmets at the company's European Inspiration Center. (Below
) Driving a seven pound metal spike into a vent hole.
After replicating several of the tests from the SNELL, DOT and EC test, the Arai had held up remarkably well, external damage was present but far from horrific. Checking the EPS foam inside revealed that it has done the majority of the impact reduction with large head shaped creases present inside. It’s hard to express just how strong an Arai shell is, they have almost no flex to them and to break through is going to need an impact that is scary to think about - in fact they are quite happy let a 200 pound man stand on an unfinished shell with a person’s head inside. That’s a strange thing to picture, but everyone came out unscathed and Arai’s sales pitch got a little more believable.
In actuality, the most impressive aspect of Arai’s demonstration was not how strong its helmets are or the detailed handmade construction; but, instead, the logic, reasoning and thought that appears to have gone into each helmet design. No question by our media troop went un-answered without a very sensible, logical and understandable answer. That is a very reassuring situation. Arai hasn’t just gone out and paid someone for a helmet out of a far eastern factory – it designs, tests and puts 30 years of ideology into it. Everything from the carefully designed chin bar with built in flex zones on the MX-V, to the optimum vent hole size for the perfect safety to airflow ratio, have been thoughtfully engineered. If you’ve got a question, Arai has the answer. And, again, watching a seven pound spike drop into a vent hole with virtually no damage is pretty convincing.
Helmets are surrounded by myths that cloud ownership, and rules that have been around for longer than helmets themselves. Here are some of the bigger ones the Arai team were happy to shed light on.
Dropping my helmet will ruin it… This is, according to Arai, simply not true of its products (and I assume any other good quality helmet). Dropping a helmet from your handlebar, or any other similar height may damage the paint and add some scratches, but real damage will not occur.
You can only use a helmet for three years… In Britain it was once a national rule that a helmet may not be more than three years old as it would no longer do the job. Arai says 10 years for its helmets is a realistic time-frame for a helmet, providing you haven’t been playing head tennis with the ground.
More contraptions used to test Arai's helmets for safety.
Painting your helmet will ruin it… Again, not true. If you choose to use a plastic helmet, then you may well have an issue, but the materials used to make any Arai helmet are unaffected by custom painting.
You can only tell if helmets are damaged with an X-Ray… Again, this isn’t strictly true. Arai’s EPS liner is painted black, so it’s relatively easy to see if the helmet has suffered damage, crease lines or white creases in the foam mean she’s taken a battering at some point. For a proper analysis you can return it to Arai for inspection, but chances are that if your EPS liner has signs of damage, your helmet’s done its job and you should be thankful. Sadly, it probably also means you need a new one, as EPS doesn’t return to shape and, more importantly, once compressed won’t offer the same protection any more.
I’m most definitely not a scientist, and I don’t work in a helmet-testing lab, so it’s difficult to pass opinion on the safety of a helmet. Arai’s presentation made a lot of sense, but for Joe Public it doesn’t help all that much. After all it is a sales pitch, and there are several other reputable brands in existence with very different ideas on what makes a safe helmet.
Arai didn’t have an issue with this. As a brand, Arai believes what it believes, but there were several key points that the company made clear are paramount to producing a safe helmet, regardless. First, plastic helmets are doing very little to protect your head in a crash and second, for a helmet to be light, it must use less material in the shell meaning it will be weaker.
Surely if it’s got a DOT or EC sticker it’s safe? Well, Arai doesn’t believe this, especially of the EC (European) Standard. It simply does not believe that the helmet testing is thorough enough, and that it’s easy to design a helmet to pass – and still cut corners on safety. That said, the SNELL test, in Arai’s opinion is somewhat closer to where helmet testing should be.
In the end, helmets remain the most critical piece of safety equipment for riders. They are life-saving devices that shouldn’t be neglected. They can carry high sticker shock, and Arai certainly retails at the higher end of the spectrum, but premium helmet manufacturers claim superior performance and decades of engineering development to produce the safest lids on the market. So next time you plan to splash out on an expensive exhaust, maybe you should take a closer look at your helmet first!