A bill requiring bicycle riders under 18 to wear crash helmets, which Gov. Pete Wilson will sign or veto by Oct. 11, has increased interest in bike safety, even though many kids think bike helmets look nerdy.
But when parents decide to buy helmets for their kids and pedal to the bike shop, they may find models priced from $25 to $150 with varied features.
Here’s how to narrow the choices.
A helmet should have a safety sticker from the Snell Memorial Foundation or the American National Standards Institute. It should fit snugly but comfortably and be lightweight and ventilated.
The nonprofit Snell Foundation establishes standards for motorcycle, automobile and bicycle crash helmets at testing labs in the United Kingdom, Sacramento and St. James, N.Y. It tests bike helmets by dropping them from a height slightly over six feet onto a hard, flat surface.
In a helmet that passes the test, “you’re going to get one heck of a thump, but the helmet is going to manage most of the impact. You’re going to be dazed, but it’s something you can recover from,” says Ed Becker, Snell Foundation chief engineer. “The whole point of the helmet is long-term survival.”
The nonprofit ANSI in New York writes voluntary national standards for manufacturing and developing of products including bike helmets, but does no testing.
More than a dozen major brands of helmets are sold in the United States, says Jim Langley, senior technical editor at Bicycling magazine. Almost all helmets in bicycle stores, from Bell, Giro or Trek, for example, have both Snell and ANSI stickers. But some in low-price department stores may not, he says.
Helmet buyers should take their time ensuring a proper fit.
“Parents tend to think they should buy helmets big because their kid will grow out of them like shoes,” says Liz Bradley, vice president of marketing at Giro Sport Design, a helmet maker in Soquel, Calif. “That’s not true. By the time they’re 6, their heads are 90% of adult size.”
Helmets should fit snugly to absorb impact. Many come with padding to tape inside to adjust the fit. Headgear with space between the head and the helmet may not protect the rider in a crash, says Pat Hines, founder of Safe Moves, a Los Angeles nonprofit foundation that teaches bicycle safety to 400,000 students a year.
The helmet should be worn about a half inch above the eyebrow and not obstruct vision. “You see parents buy a helmet for a kid and it’s sitting on top of his head like a beanie. Unless a piano falls out of the sky that helmet isn’t going to do that kid a lot of good,” Hines says.
To ensure a snug fit, check the straps and buckle in the store. “Always ask the salesman to fit the helmet to the child,” says Langley of Bicycling magazine.
Once the helmet is snug, see whether it has enough ventilation to keep the head cool, Hines says.
“Helmets with just a large plastic outer shell and one or two holes obviously will be hotter. If there are three to five well-placed holes, the helmet should be OK.”
Once satisfied with fit and ventilation, parents and kids can go on to style and color, says Bradley.
“Lots of helmets are heavy and ugly,” she says. “The key to having a kid like one is that it’s lightweight and comfortable and part of their personality.”
One way to satisfy children is to agree that they can choose any helmet with a Snell or ANSI sticker within a specific price range.
“For an adult, you could spend upward of $130, but that’s if you went after the really aerodynamic super-lightweight models,” Langley says. But a good child’s helmet can be purchased for $30 to $60, he says. “From good manufacturers, there is high quality across the line.
“The helmet must have some kind of polystyrene foam core--just like a beer cooler. That’s what’s doing the protection. The plastic on the outside is mostly for looks and to protect the helmet from getting banged up. In good helmets, the core is made of pretty similar materials.”
To achieve lower prices, manufacturers of cheaper models “don’t take anything out of the safety of the helmet,” Langley adds. “Sometimes they don’t paint them quite as fancy. Or they may turn out only six sizes instead of eight. A cheap helmet will come in very few sizes. The fit will be hit or miss.”
No matter what a helmet costs, however, a child may resist, especially if parents who bicycle don’t wear helmets.
“If parents aren’t reinforcing that message by their own behavior, the child will not wear that helmet,” Hines says.
But if a child still hates to wear the helmet, parents can be firm. “The parent absolutely has to lay the law down because the consequences are so serious,” Hines says. “Parents say there’s nothing they can do. There is something. You tell them they don’t ride the bicycle without the helmet.”
Bicycle Safety Helmet
Check for ANSI or Snell Memorial Foundation sticker certifying that helmet should provide crash protection.
Plastic shell--protects crushable liner from dents and prolongs its life.
Ventillation holes--provide air flow and make helmet cooler.
Crushable liner--during crash will decelerate speed of head movement, helping to reduce damage to head and brain.
Comfort padding--inserted between the rider’s head and the crushable liner to make helmet fit snugly.
Chin strap--allows rider to fit helmet comfortably but snugly.
Source: Snell Memorial Foundation, Bicycling magazine, Safe Moves program.