Stu Salkeld The Stettler Independent
A useful trait for a journalist is a healthy sense of skepticism, and I certainly have more than a healthy dose. A friend of mine once tried to convince me the Loch Ness Monster is real, and I had a bit of an argument some time back with co-workers who think Bigfoot lives near Rocky Mountain House.
One thing that’s been particularly concerning to me since I got back into motorcycling a few years ago is the “three year warranty” for motorcycle helmets.
All of the new helmets I’ve purchased, ranging in price from $100 to over $600 depending on brand, have warnings that the helmet is only warranted for three years and after that either you either take your life in your hands or you throw the lid in the garbage and buy another $600 helmet. By the way, some helmets can retail for $1,200 or more.
Every manufacturer uses the same two or three explanations of why helmets should be thrown in the garbage despite the fact there’s nothing wrong with them and by that I mean the helmet has no damage to it.
The first explanation I heard is that the energy absorbing material in the helmet, “expanded polystyrene foam,” dries out or disintegrates as years pass, or as one motorbike website put it, “They naturally degrade over time.” This is essentially the same material used for home insulation and disposable coffee cups; do you have to change the insulation in your home every three years? There’s been a serious problem in landfills for decades because styrofoam coffee cups degrade very, very slowly if at all. I can find no evidence that polystyrene has a serious degradation problem. In fact, when it comes to landfills, the opposite seems to be true.
So apparently this material degrades inside a motorcycle helmet, yet doesn’t degrade in walls or at the coffee machine.
The newer and more fashionable explanation for throwing motorcycle helmets in the garbage is that most riders don’t treat their helmets very well, and generally speaking after three to five years the average helmet has been abused so badly it’s no longer safe.
The Snell Foundation, which grades helmets for safety, had this rather weak explanation for disposing of your helmets: “The five-year replacement recommendation is based on a consensus by both helmet manufacturers and the Snell Foundation. Glues, resins and other materials used in helmet production can affect liner materials. Hair oils, body fluids and cosmetics, as well as normal “wear and tear” all contribute to helmet degradation. Petroleum based products present in cleaners, paints, fuels and other commonly encountered materials may also degrade materials used in many helmets possibly degrading performance. Additionally, experience indicates there will be a noticeable improvement in the protective characteristic of helmets over a five-year period due to advances in materials, designs, production methods and the standards. Thus, the recommendation for five-year helmet replacement is a judgment call stemming from a prudent safety philosophy.” They’re saying dirty helmets should be thrown in the garbage because a new one is probably safer. You’ll notice they use the words “may” and “can.”
The truth is, while writing this column I could find no expert scientific evidence motorcycle helmets degrade in quality over time, or that a one year old helmet is safer than a seven year old helmet or even that a serious injury resulted from a rider using an “expired” helmet. Couldn’t find a single instance.
I’m going to offer a third explanation for why helmets should be thrown in the garbage. Why would helmet manufacturers encourage me to throw my $600 helmet in the garbage, despite the fact I can find absolutely nothing wrong with it?
In journalism school they taught me that, when faced with a quandary, many mysteries can be solved with this rule of thumb: follow the money.
Stu Salkeld is editor of The Pipestone Flyer and writes a regular column for the paper.