Arai’s managing director knew what I was going to ask before I asked it. “Standards are necessary, but they’re not everything,” Brian Weston told the assembled motojournos. It was a theme that pervaded his entire presentation on the features and benefits of the new Corsair X. But if standards aren’t everything, how do you quantify the safety of a helmet? You can’t. And that’s a problem.
[Full disclosure: Arai wanted me to test out the new Corsair X so badly they put me up at a Holiday Inn Express in Willows, CA, rented Thunder Hill Raceway, and lined up an array of Ducatis for me to flog throughout the day. That was very nice of them, despite the fact it’s impossible to thoroughly evaluate a helmet in a few hours of track time. But hey, fun!]
Helmets solve an obvious purpose: protect your head and the important squishy bits inside during a crash. How they do that is through a combination of a hardened, deformable shell and a series of varying density foam layers placed in key positions inside. Between the shell and those linings, they reduce the deceleration of your head on impact and dissipate the forces trying to crush your skull across the widest area possible.
Every helmet sold in the U.S. adheres to the Department of Transportation standard (that’s what those little “DOT” stickers indicate), but there are two other major independent standards helmet manufacturers use. In the states, it’s Snell, a nonprofit research and testing group that’s funded by several major helmet makers. The other is the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE) 22.05 standard, the most widely used in the world, recognized by over 50 countries, and has a massive presence in motorsport.
Think of DOT as getting a high school diploma, while Snell is a liberal arts degree from Florida State and ECE 22.05 is a Master’s from Cambridge.
But here’s the problems with all of these tests: they’re scientific. No, science isn’t bad, it’s just that these tests have to be easily replicated to reach a rating and those don’t always convey real-world crashes. How many times have you been riding and took a direct hit to the head by a 10-pound anvil?
The Snell standard – which Arai helped develop, funds and adheres to – underwent a substantial overhaul a few years back and the new Snell 2010 (nee 2015, same thing) rating is seen as a massive improvement. The Snell test now involves, among other things, dropping five different anvils onto the helmet, dropping it from a variety of heights (higher than DOT), and shooting the visor with a few pellets fired from an air rifle. The ECE does everything from testing abrasion resistance to shell deformation and even the chin strap. It also requires re-certification throughout a helmet’s production life, ensuring things stay in-shape as tooling wears. They’re both thorough and – for all intents and purposes – the best we’ve got. But it’s a shame we can’t do better.
Or at least communicate their benefits to consumers better. While each standard has its proponents and detractors, the real debate should be around how the helmet functions in a real, honest-to-god-this-thing-is-going-to-save-my-brain crash.
Unfortunately, that’s nearly impossible to quantify in any substantive way. And worse, there isn’t a clear way to ensure that makes sense to you or me or anyone shopping for a helmet in the overcrowded and variously priced marketplace.
That’s part of the case Arai is making, and its newest flagship – the Corsair X – is its latest argument.
To begin with, the basic design of the shell looks almost exactly the same as every Arai that’s come out since the early ‘80s. It’s something Arai has gotten a fair amount of flack for, as other helmet manufacturers continue to innovate with shapes and angles and vents of various dimensions and functions. But the core principle of the Arai helmet is to make it as round as possible. Mr. Arai and the rest of his privately held company thinks that’s the best design (known as the R75, because it’s foundation is a continuous convex curve with a radius of 75mm) to dissipate the forces of a crash.
What’s more notable about the Corsair X – and several of its Arai siblings – is how strictly Arai adheres to that philosophy, particularly with the vents. They’re not integrated into the shell itself, but basically stuck on the outside so they break away in a crash and avoid hooking onto things because that would be bad.
That idea also extends to the Variable Axis System (VAS) shield setup, which has a lower pivot point to increase the amount of shell area and requires you to press a lever on each side of the shield to pop off the covers and replace the visor. Where other manufactures allow the shield mechanism to push the shell inwards, Arai keeps everything external and shell integrity intact. It’s not as easy or intuitive as other systems out there, but it gets the job done, and if you’re an Arai devotee, you’ll be pleased to know that it’s both quicker and more painless than the outgoing lid.
Naturally, Arai is boasting about the normal stuff on the Corsair X: increased airflow, an anti-microbial liner, more chin space for Jay Leno, and a new composite material that’s a stronger combination of synthetic fibers and resin and makes the helmet 30 percent lighter. (If you want a thorough breakdown of all the features, watch this.)
During the track day and several rides back at home, the X quickly became my go-to helmet. It’s snug, comfortable, has plenty of airflow when it’s warm and a new chin cover that helps when it’s cold. It took me a half-dozen times to get the visor swapping mechanism down pat, and now it’s pretty much second nature, if still a bit fiddly. And the only minor issue I have is with the front of the helmet barely grazing my massive schnoz when hitting higher speeds.
In short, it’s just a damn good helmet at a damn high price (starting at $839.95). But as a guy that’s never skimped on gear, a high-end helmet is just part of the price of riding to me – you do what you want with your greenbacks and your gray matter.
But back to the standards situation.
Weston, our guy from Arai, talks a lot about “glancing off”, where your helmeted head hits the ground and the force is dissipated in different directions. That’s why Arai likes things round. But again, that’s hard to quantify, even if the theory is sound.
The larger question for Arai is whether the X meets both Snell and ECE standards. No. It’s different if you’re in the U.S. or Europe. The reason, according to Weston, is a variety of different head shapes in the U.S. compared to across the pond.
“We’re the melting pot of the world,” Weston says referring to the U.S. “It’s all about fitting based on the market.”
When I ask about the technical differences between the Snell and ECE versions, he points to the changes in linings and layers to accommodate various head sizes. One of his colleagues says the same thing. But neither will tell me the weight difference between the U.S. and European versions. That’s troubling. Anecdotally, the ECE helmet is lighter.
And it illustrates the problems and complexities of making a helmet for the world, able to hit all the right standards (and not simply built to pass them) while adhering to the company’s design ethos and values. We’re just not there yet, and the Corsair X – and damn near any new helmet coming out today – muddies the waters of safety merits even further. Sure, something’s better than nothing, but we all want that something to be the best.
Is Arai the best? It’s difficult to say. Perhaps intentionally so.