Everyone in the motorcycle industry says “you should replace your motorcycle helmet every five years” as a rule of thumb – but does anyone really know why that is? We go straight to the source to try to figure out if you really need to replace your helmet every 60 months – and if so, WHY.
Here at BikeBandit we sell a lot of motorcycle helmets, and we encounter this question a lot – when are you “supposed” to replace your motorcycle helmet? Like almost all retailers in the industry, along with the manufacturers themselves, our standard answer is a (very general) recommendation to “replace your helmet every five years.”
But we know what a lot of you think when you hear that: where does that “every five years” recommendation come from anyway? We know many of you spend a lot of money on quality-built helmets and take good care of them, and after five years they still look and feel like new, causing the “five year rule” to suddenly sound more like marketing-speak designed to sell more helmets than a legitimate safety concern.
Because this is a hotly debated topic, we decided to dig down into it to find the truth about the “five year rule,” why it exists, and when it does – and doesn’t – apply.
First off, we’ll take a look at this “five year rule” and why it exists. The most concise explanation of the rationale behind this rule comes from the Snell Memorial Foundation, which does extensive research into the safety of helmets and even has their own testing certification (which you can read more about in this article, Motorcycle Helmet FAQs: DOT, Snell, and ECE.) From Snell’s website,
“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.”
Based on Snell’s explanation, there is a lot in a helmet that does deteriorate over time with wear that may not be visible to the naked eye, and will degrade the integrity of this critical piece of safety gear. In addition, the “consensus” Snell speaks of seems to go beyond just motorcycle helmets – manufacturers of helmets in the bicycling, skateboarding, equestrian, and snow sports industries also seem to follow the five-year replacement recommendation, pretty much across the board.
What Really Wears Out A Motorcycle Helmet
The truth is, helmets do wear out and break down, and lose some degree of their effectiveness over time – but not simply due to age. An untouched helmet will slowly deteriorate on its own, but the vast majority of a helmets perceptible deterioration comes from three factors: amount of use, maintenance practices, and initial build quality.
Those three factors are the things that wear a helmet out, and as you might guess, they vary between both helmets themselves and the riders who wear them. As a result, the five-year rule is just a very general approximation of the amount of wear that takes place over that amount of time. Like a motorcycle itself, what wears down a helmet is use – like hours, or miles ridden in – and how well it is taken care of over that time. But since it is not common to track these figures with helmets, the default replacement time is expressed in terms of time – even that is admittedly a very general recommendation.
What The Experts Say
When it comes to what really wears out a helmet – which again, is not just the passage of time – a good explanation comes from Shoei, one of the world’s premium helmet manufacturers. Their website states:
“Ultimately, the useful service life of a safety helmet is dependent on the intensity and frequency of its use [emphasis added]. Helmet replacement is recommended even if only one of the under-mentioned points applies:
- The helmet was subjected to an impact.
- The comfort padding or the retention system has become loose due to heavy use or display signs of deterioration.
- The synthetic foam padding displays signs of heavy use and the helmet feels too loose. Test: with the retention system fastened, the helmet turns to the side when you gently shake your head.
- There are indentations in the EPS liner and/or white scratches can be seen on surfaces with black paint
Even if none of these is applied, we, SHOEI, recommend replacement in 5 years after its first purchased at retail.”
As you can see, SHOEI identifies a number of ways in which a helmet deteriorates with use over time that can affect the integrity of the helmet. But then, again, they revert back to that five-year rule “even if none of these is applied!” That stubborn five-year rule rears its head once again!
So to get some even more concrete answers, I went to representatives of what many consider to be the world’s premier helmet manufacturer, Arai, and asked them point blank where the five-year rule comes from, and if it really is in fact a “rule” at all. The answer I got from Arai was rather surprising.
First of all, Arai said that they also use the five-year rule as a guideline based on estimates of wear through use over time. They told me that, while a helmet will deteriorate to a very small degree even while sitting unsold in a warehouse, the bulk of wear comes from when a helmet actually starts having a head put into it. That’s exactly why Arai’s warranty figures are what they are – 7 years from the date of manufacture, or 5 years from the date of purchase, giving a generous 2-year window for helmets to make their way to their new homes.
But beyond simply being an approximation of wear, Arai also told me that the five-year rule also has origins in the world of legal liability (as you may have guessed.) This does not come from the helmet manufacturers, however, but from insurance companies that insure racing organizations and the racetracks themselves, who historically have put pressure on those organizations to put in place some standards when it comes to the safety gear that competitors use. Many racing organizations will require a racer’s helmet to have been manufactured within the five-year timeframe (regardless of the condition it is in.)
The Moral Of The Story
So, to sum it up, here’s the long story short about the “five-year rule” when it comes to replacing a motorcycle helmet:
- The five-year rule comes down to a very rough approximation of the amount of wear the average helmet sees in that time. But just as some riders ride once a week only on sunny mornings, and some commute hard miles every single day, the amount of wear each rider puts on his or her helmet will vary widely.
- Helmets do wear out over time, but there is no evidence that a well-maintained, undamaged helmet will “suddenly” lose its protective ability at the five-year mark. As with anything, deterioration is gradual, and at the five year mark the consensus is that the average helmet, under average use, will likely need replacement.
- The five-year rule applies to five years of use, not five years in existence. While a helmet will deteriorate to some degree just sitting in a warehouse, that degree is negligible and need not be counted.
- Initial quality is a factor in how well a helmet will wear. While top-tier helmet manufacturers recommend replacing helmets at the five-year mark, a lower quality helmet may be thrashed well before that time under hard use.
- The bottom line? The five-year rule is a general approximation on how often a helmet should be replaced, and certainly not a bad idea – but ultimately, when to replace your helmet is a judgment call on your part, and it has as much to do with the amount of wear and the level of serviceability of your helmet as it does with its age.