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Government launches “helmet safety rating system”… but will it save lives as claim

Two new safety measures were launched at the NEC Motorcycle Show yesterday by Road Safety Minister Jim Fitzpatrick.

The first is SHARP – the Safety Helmet Assessment and Rating Programme. This will give an independent rating of how much protection a helmet can provide in an impact. Helmets will be rated from 1 to 5 stars depending how well they perform in laboratory tests.

The press statement continues

“All helmets on sale in the UK must offer the wearer a minimum level of protection, but tests show there are real differences in safety performance. SHARP’s objective advice, based on rigorous testing, will help riders choose a safer helmet by measuring the extent to which a helmet exceeds the minimum standards. Jim Fitzpatrick said: “Our research indicates that even though all helmets have to reach a minimum legal standard, safety performance can vary by as much as 30%. The SHARP scheme being officially launched today will allow riders to select a safer helmet on the basis of a simple star rating system. “This is a vital step forward. Motorcyclists are one of the single most vulnerable groups on GB roads today. They account for just 1% of all road traffic, but for 20% of all those killed or seriously injured. We estimate that if all riders wore helmets that scored well in our rating system, the SHARP scheme could save up to 50 lives a year.””

To my mind the creation of a two tier ‘official’ safety standard is somewhat bizzare, given that helmets currently on sale in the UK are already tested to agreed standards (a standard to which the UK government was party), a standard we are led to believe is in itself not flawed. And if it is flawed, shouldn’t the standard itself be the subject of investigation and improvement, rather than piggy-backing a second tier of ‘government approval’ on top of the existing standard?

I have to say that I also find the figures claimed for the reduction in casuaties less than credible. Given that last year just under 600 riders were killed on Britain’s roads, I find it hard to believe that there are helmets being worn out there which are directly attributable to the deaths of 1 in 12 of all bikers who are killed in accidents. There’s also a limit to the amount of protection a helmet can offer – as I understand it, in a majority of cases where head injuries are fatal, other soft tissue injuries would also have led to the death of the casualty.

One area in which the ECE standard has been criticised is in terms of penetration by a sharp object. I’ve seen it claimed that the more rigorous Snell test in the USA is actually a much better standard because the helmet is tested for penetration in more places. However, there has also been some research done in the US that suggests that in meeting the Snell penetration test, the helmet becomes TOO rigid, and thus in the event of an accident and a blow from a flat surface, more of the shock is passed through the helmet to the wearer’s brain than in a softer, more deforming helmet.

It’s not entirely clear who will do the testing either – the press release only says “our labs”.

What will be interesting is to see however, is whether the claims of the manufacturers of the top of the range helmets actually stand up to scrutiny. The first SHARP results are expected to be available next Spring, with the majority of helmets on the market tested before the end of 2008. The statement says that early results show that good performance is not restricted to premium price helmets. Full face helmets are to be tested first, with the scheme covering all types of helmet by the end of 2008.

You can find out about the SHARP scheme at the THINK! stand at the NEC, Hall 2 2E50 until December 2, or the SHARP website at http://www.direct.gov.uk/sharp, or email SHARP@dft.gsi.gov.uk.


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