To celebrate entering the Y2K skate season, I finally got myself a new helmet--one of those sleek, aerodynamic ones with lots of vents and a snap-off sun visor. I disapprove of our disposable economy, so for the last 4 years I was feeling increasingly dorky swapping back and forth from my old Styrofoam Bell (made sooo fashionable by a colorful variety of helmet covers!) and my hardshell helmet, decorated with a montage of stickers that never quite hid the heat warp caused by too many hours in the trunk of a hot car. Of course, these are still pulling duty as loaners for my occasional unprepared beginning student.
You're Never Too Good to Protect Your Brain
Some skaters mistakenly believe that wearing a helmet is not necessary once they progress beyond the beginner stage, as long as they keep their speed down. Waaaaay wrong! You always wear a skid lid, because no matter how good YOU are, the rest of the world continues along its merry way. For example:
- In overtaking an unaware dog walker on the trail, the dog cuts across your path and trips you with its leash.
- In overtaking a fully aware child on a bike or trike, the child's tendency to twist around and watch you over his or her shoulder causes the bike to swerve across your path just as you attempt to pass.
- In approaching an intersection in a marked bike lane or on the sidewalk, an overtaking motorist talking on a cell phone (Alert! Alert!) interprets your bare head to mean you are traveling at pedestrian speed and the driver cuts across your path to make a turn. Helmets make a great visual signal for motorists to watch out for you!
- Entering the shade from the bright sun, an unseen stone or piece of bark lodges between your wheels and stops them dead. Uh oh.
Any of these might result in a deadly or "brush with death" experience if you aren't wearing a helmet. Your skull is the only bone in your body that you can't fracture without suffering severe consequences. Science has discovered that concussions can have lasting effects on brain function. Even when all other organs are healthy and strong, without a working brain, you are "brain dead."
So permit me to assume that any helmet resisters out there now understand the importance of protecting your brain while skating so that we can move on to some specific considerations when evaluating helmets for purchase.
In-line's Impact on Standards
No matter what other features a helmet offers, the most important is excellent impact protection. To address impacts to the lower back of the head, the Snell Memorial Foundation issued its "N-94" Standard a few years ago "for use in activities such as in-line skating, skateboarding, playground activities, paddling, bicycling and other non-motorized activities which involve speed, balance, and agility." N-94 also requires qualified helmets to meet a multiple-impact requirement.
Today, look for the CSPC sticker inside a helmet. In 1999, the Consumer Product Safety Commission decreed that all helmets must comply with their federal safety standards for impact, strap strength and "roll off" (staying in place during an accident). Stickers proving ANSI, Snell or ASTM compliance are all superseded by the new CSPC rating.
The N-94 and CSPC standards both encompass the bicycle rating as well, so you don't need two helmets if you like to cross train on your street or mountain bike. Helmets should be replaced after five or more years because sweat, sun and heat cause deterioration to the protective materials.
It may not be possible to determine a helmet's rating from a catalog listing or photo. To find out the safety ratings for a model that interests you, call the manufacturer and ask for customer service. Check out the inline models made by cycling leaders Bell, Specialized and Giro as well as helmets made by Bauer, K2 and Rollerblade. (See phone numbers at the end of this article.)
The Convenience Factor
Besides the standards stickers and extra coverage for the back of the head, other helmet features to look for include: a built-in or detachable visor, internal "roll bar" reinforcement, custom fit properties for the liner, light-weight materials, multiple- or directed-vent cooling systems and if you're into speed, an aerodynamic design. Some companies such as Giro have an upgrade policy to reduce the cost of protecting growing heads.
Aggressive skaters require multi-impact protection and extra coverage for the entire head. The classic to beat is Pro-tec's helmet line, adopted by the vert crowd. The smooth, hard-shell exterior makes a great billboard for sponsors' stickers. These are made by Mosa Extreme Sports. Rad Products' Fly Away is almost as popular.
While helmet technology is improving, prices have actually dropped over the years due to price wars and improved manufacturing materials and processes. A modest $25 will buy twice the helmet today as five years ago, and excellent multi-featured models are priced in the $40-$75 range. My new Bell helmet was about $100, but it feels like money well spent due to its great fit and cool venting.
Fine Tuning the Fit
Finally, make sure the helmet you purchase will fit properly. Its impact protection capabilities are useless if it doesn't stay in place. Start with the smallest size you can get over your head, then, if necessary, insert padding to keep it from shifting. Adjust the straps so you can't pull the helmet off your head and you can just manage a big yawn before the chin strap squeezes you under the chin. Adjust both sliding strap guides so they rest just below your earlobes to prevent the helmet from slipping sideways. The helmet should be situated so that you can just see its front rim at the top of your peripheral vision. If the straps run down your face from the center of your forehead, you're wearing your helmet backward! The fat end usually goes in back.
Buy the right helmet and make sure it stays put. Then wear it every time you roll. As Phil Lenihan, one of my favorite fellow instructors says in his email signature, "The future is bright... Be there.... Wear a helmet!!!"
Bauer USA Inc. (800) 362-3146 www.bauer.com
Bell Sports (800) 776-5677; www.bellbikehelmets.com
Giro Sport Design (800) 969-4476; www.giro.com
K2 Corporation (800) 426-1617; www.k2sports.com
Louis Garneau USA (802) 334-5885; www.louisgarneau.com
Mosa Extreme Sports, Inc. (310) 318-9883; www.mosa.com (future)
Roces USA (800) 521-2011; www.roces.it
Rollerblade, Inc. (800) 989-7655; www.rollerblade.com
Triple Eight Products (800) 888-9456; www.triple8.com