Safer heads: New generation of helmets aims to help save 1000 lives per year

MIPS helmet test rig
MIPS helmet test rig
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Spring 2021 sees a new breed of helmets hit the shelves. The Arai Quantic sports-touring lid is the first to meet tougher standards which will ensure that helmets are more protective in real-world accidents.

The prospect of safer lids is good news for us all, but how will it change the helmets we buy in the future and does it mean the lids we’re currently wearing are no longer any good?

For a helmet to be legal on UK roads it must conform to UNECE Regulation 22, which ensures all helmets are made to a basic protective standard.

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The new version, ECE 22.06 is the first major update to the regulation in 20 years and is much more stringent than the version it replaces. Not only does it demand helmets undergo many more impact tests, at both higher and lower speeds, at more points on the helmet as well as an angled impact, it also requires that lids are tested with any official accessories fitted to prove they don’t compromise protection.

The visor is also tested to simulate being impacted by a high speed object. In short, it’s a much more real-world test than before.

Phased-in over the next three years, after January 2024 it will become illegal to sell – but not wear – a non-conforming lid, meaning there’s no legal requirement for you to rush out and buy a new ECE 22.06 helmet immediately.

Why did helmet safety standards need updating?

MIPS helmet testing

A lot has moved on in 20 years, including what we know about bike accidents and how the head reacts to impacts sustained in them. A huge scientific study of what happens to a rider’s head and neck during real-world bike crashes (COST 327), found that rapid rotational motion caused when a helmet hits the ground at an angle and transfers shear force to the brain was responsible for over 60% of brain injuries.

Owing to the findings from this study, 22.06 is the first official standard to include an angled abrasion drop test, however this test has been part of both the DfT’s SHARP helmet rating test since 2008 and also the FIM’s 2017 FRHPhe-01 homologation for MotoGP and WSB helmets.

What does the new rotational test mean for helmets?

Slip plane helmet design

In time, it may mean that we see more helmets fitted with internal slip planes, such as the MIPS Brain Protection System, or featuring next generation materials like Koroyd (made up of polymer tubes), but only once the standard evolves further.

MIPS co-founder Peter Halldin told MCN: "The thresholds to pass ECE 22.06 are relatively high, making it easy to pass, and a lot of helmets will get through without an implemented technology. However, the importance of the standard is that rotational motion is now on the map. This is the first official standard that actually includes rotational motion in the testing, which we think is great.

"We and many brands believe that requirements will increase over time and then it is important to make sure that helmets can pass the test. Given that development time of a motorcycle helmet can easily take two-to-three years, it is time to start now. We have seen more brands contacting us and wanting to launch MIPS due to this."

Will new helmets look and feel different?

Arai Quantic helmet

Manufacturers are being a bit tight lipped about whether there will be any noticeable changes to the helmets we buy and wear.

But given that the new ECE 22.06 shares some similarities with the racing-only FIM standard, and the current crop of FIM-homologated lids are slightly heavier than their non-FIM approved versions (AGV’s FIM-spec Pista GP-RR is on average 100g heavier than the standard Pista GP-R thanks to a 5mm thicker carbon shell), we may see helmets become a little heavier – although not so much that you’d notice it.

Arai told MCN that they create their helmets to be as safe as possible in real accidents, not just to pass a test, and that their round helmet shell shape helps deflect energy from oblique or glancing impacts. In this respect, Arai say that meeting the criteria of the new test meant that they made no compromises to their traditional shell shape or thickness. They do admit that they have had to make their EPS softer than before.

Does that mean current helmets aren’t any good then?

The study that underpins ECE 22.06 found that, although current helmets are effective, significant improvements could be made through new standards and save the lives of 1000 bikers across Europe every year.

Of course, regulations only set the minimum acceptable safety standards and, as proved by the SHARP helmet rating scheme, some helmets protect more than others.

A spokesperson for SHARP said: "Even with enhanced regulation, there is still expected to be a range of performance offered, and it remains the aim of SHARP to provide consumers with a relative comparison of safety, so that this can be factored into their decision. As regulations evolve, so will SHARP and we are planning a review of the SHARP testing and rating protocols."

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Emma Franklin

By Emma Franklin

Deputy Editor, road tester, club racer