The very thing that makes bicycle helmets so effective at potentially saving your life, is the very reason they don’t last forever. Designed to fracture on impact so that your skull doesn’t, helmets have a best-by limit. This article contains some useful stats, hints and a guide which will help you decide if your helmet can stay or needs to be thrown away.
Modern bicycle helmets are designed to protect your head in a fall and significantly reduce the risk of brain or skull damage. And while this all sounds very much like marketing speak, it’s reality, with facts to back it up. Consider these telling stats (via the NHS Trauma Audit Research Network) in a 66-month study from 2012 to 2017 with data on helmet use for 6621 cyclists over the age of 16 involved in bicycle accidents in England – Source.
While that data is three years old, cycling itself hasn’t really changed much, although there are now more cyclists at risk on the roads and trails, after over 1.3 million UK citizens bought bicycles between April and June 2020 during the Coronavirus lockdown.
The stats above confirm the importance of wearing a helmet to reduce the risk of death and head trauma in the case of a fall or accident. But what about helmets that have lost their integrity, either through age or impacts?
For more than a decade, there’s been popular opinion that the expanded polystyrene shell (EPS) of a bicycle helmet deteriorates significantly enough over time to be less effective, but this has been refuted by a study published at helmets.org. Whilst this may be the case, it is still worth noting that resins and glue used in helmet manufacture as well as exposure to UV light, hair oils and cosmetics - and even sweat - can all contribute to helmet degradation, which diminishes a helmet’s effectiveness.
Any kind of crash, even a minor one, which results in your helmet sustaining an impact, should be considered grounds for replacement though. Bicycle helmets are designed to sustain one hard impact. After that, the integrity of the helmet is compromised, which reduces its ability to offer continued safety.
You may not be able to see any physical damage on the outside shell, but it’s worth carefully examining the inside of the helmet - the EPS - for hairline or larger cracks. Any kind of fracture is an indication that the helmet is no longer able to fully perform its intended function.
Over time, you pack and unpack your helmet into and out of bags, cupboards/shelves and motor vehicles. Sometimes you drop it or it just slips and falls. All of this general handling takes its toll. The more you ride, the more it gets handled, the more rapidly it wears.
Strap and/or retention system damage will also render your helmet less protective. A helmet that fits properly is more effective than one that’s loose and which moves around unnecessarily on your head. You can replace helmet clips (should they be damaged) and a damaged retention system dial may also be replaceable. But if your helmet is older than three years, it’s usually better to replace it.
Helmet replacement guide
In general, if you answer yes to one or more of these questions, you should consider replacing your helmet:
It’s worth noting that many helmet brands have a crash replacement policy which helps you buy a replacement - from the same brand - at a reduced price if your helmet is damaged in a crash. They usually require your damaged helmet to activate the discount - if you’ve had a fall or a crash it's worth contacting them to find out!
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