By Tom Kaiser
Snell, an American nonprofit helmet testing and certification organization, and Europe’s FIA Institute have teamed up to draft the first youth helmet proposals.
While several helmet manufacturers offer youth-sized helmets, the proposed Snell/FIA CMH-2007 Standard will require lighter, appropriate proportioned helmets to better protect young riders from injury. The proposed standards distinguish among children between 6-11 years old and 12-15 years old.
Snell, which hopes to begin certifying its first youth helmets this spring, is working with an Italian company in developing the first prototypes for such helmets.
Snell officials are not aware of helmets currently on the market that would comply with the proposed youth standards.
Stringent standards for consumer helmet construction have existed since the late 1940s when the British Standards Institute, a governmental entity, created its first requirements. Since then, through a variety of agencies, the standards are regularly updated as engineers find better ways to prevent or minimize head injuries in crashes.
According to a Snell/FIA press release, most existing motorsports helmets used by children are actually designed for adults. Children, especially those under 12 years old, have different physiological characteristics from adults in terms of head size and neck strength. Other issues include chinstraps, which might be poorly suited to a child’s shorter face and smaller chin, resulting in helmets resting on shoulders and poor visibility.
Snell’s Director of Education, Hong Zhang, said Europe’s FIA became interested in creating youth helmet standards as kart racing’s popularity has increased. She said when children wear small adult-sized helmets, or even helmets labeled as youth models, various factors compromise children’s safety.
“They are not just miniature adults,” she said. “They are not getting the most out of this protective gear and sometimes it could be hazardous to be using them in a very risky sport.”
Ed Becker, Snell’s executive director and chief engineer, said many of the biggest differences between current and proposed youth helmets lie in vertical measurements. Head circumferences between adults and children, he said, are quite similar.
“Kids wear the same baseball caps, essentially, as their dads and they fit just fine, but the face height, the neck length, all of those are much shorter for children,” he said.
Becker says he doesn’t expect a lot of resistance from manufacturers and speculates that companies currently manufacturing youth helmets will likely try to meet the new standards.
One of the biggest changes outlined in the standard is a reduction in helmet weight for children. For the youngest riders, the standard states that helmet weight should not exceed 1,100 grams or 1,200g (2.4 to 2.7 pounds) if configured with a face shield. For 12- to 15-year-olds, the helmet should weigh no more than 1,250g or 1,350g (2.78-2.98 pounds) with a face shield. For both groups, the helmet test velocity is the same exacting level as for adult motorcycle or special-application helmets. Adult helmets typically weigh between 1,500 and 2,000g (3.3 to 4.5 pounds).
Mark Gandy, director of products at helmet distributor Helmet House, says there needs to be a balance between the standard and what is feasible from a manufacturing standpoint. He adds that is not an impossible task.
Although Gandy says it’s too early to draw firm conclusions on the new proposal, he notes it’s likely the standard could result in some sort of a price increase.
“We’re glad to see new technology and new standards that have come out to make helmets safer, whatever the criteria,” Gandy said. “It’s certainly time for Snell to address the youth market and I’m glad they’re doing that.”
Convincing the Industry
While adhering to Snell’s standards is voluntary, and membership dependent, the FIA demands them for participants in any of its racing series. Becker hopes American racing series adopt a similar stance.
Becker said convincing manufacturers to jump on board with adopting the new proposals could be difficult. His organization has been trying to get traction for a children’s helmet standard for years, but he said lack of support from a racing authority and legal concerns over specifically marketing helmets to children has stood in Snell’s way.
“I think the manufacturers are very wary of building helmets for children and I can’t blame them,” Becker said.
“It’s a real litigious environment here in the States, especially with regard to consumer protective gear … no one certainly wants to be responsible for injuring a child.”
Snell plans to use the media to spread the word about the standards to consumers and the racing community when the youth proposals are adopted. For consumers, new certification labels will help them purchase properly sized helmets for their age.
Could this be a trend?
Becker says he does not expect the Department of Transportation (DOT) to adopt a similar standard, as he notes it has been using the same basic standard that was adopted in the 1970s.
“I think that [the DOT] could demand a whole lot more helmet than they’re actually demanding,” he said. “So I expect them to hold out.”
He believes DOT’s lack of evolution gives Snell a niche in which to exist.
“If the government really decided to do things right and essentially took over our operation, we’d be out in the cold,” he said. “But the consumers might wind up being better off.”
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Spokesman Rae Tyson said there are no plans to add a youth-specific standard because the DOT’s standard is applicable to all helmets.
“The DOT certifies helmets regardless of the age of the person who’s going to be wearing them,” Tyson said. “… the standard that we have for [powersports] helmets provides a high degree of protection.”