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Pro tips for helmet safety

Chicago area bike pros share helmet wisdom

  • Cyclists along Chicago's lakefront path Tuesday evening, May 25, 1999.
Cyclists along Chicago's lakefront path Tuesday evening, May 25,… (Tribune photo by Phil Velasquez )
June 20, 2012|Harry Huggins | For RedEye

Helmets are a weird accessory. They're something you wear as little as possible, and so many people don't think about buying them the way they do shoes. You don't fuss over dozens of styles and colors, you just buy one that fits. You might think about helmets as a generic thing, all pretty much the same.

But not all helmets are created equal. According to Anthony Mikrut, manager of Village Cycle Center in Old Town, there are two main types of bike helmet: single-impact and multiple-impact. The multiple impact helmets are those rounded helmets you see BMX bikers wear, and they can withstand being hit many times over the years. The other helmets, the oblong ones that almost everyone else wears, are less sturdy.

"If you drop it on a concrete floor from chest height or above, you should replace it," Mikrut said. This is because the foam inside these helmets is designed to crumple to protect your head, and once it crumples, it can't be used again.

Even if you do avoid a full-frontal helmet-using collision, you should replace your single-impact helmet often. Mikrut replaces his annually. "Generally a helmet lasts five years," he said. "The foam starts to deteriorate after one year, so by five it's unsafe. A lot get tied to bags and banged around. It should be replaced when you see marks and scars."

Multiple-impact helmets need to be replaced too. Mikrut said he personally would replace them more often than the single-use helmets because they get more heavy usage, but every five years is what he recommends.

When choosing a helmet, it's important to know that there aren't any measurable differences in safety between the two styles, since the Consumer Product Safety Commission's tests are only pass-fail, but there are comfort differences. Whatever your taste may be, the most important thing in picking a helmet is to get one that you will wear.

Alex Tweedie, part-owner of Roscoe Village Bikes, uses a single-use helmet because it's more ventilated and lightweight. He would recommend the same for recreational cyclists and commuters, especially since they're less expensive.

Mikrut's advice is to change your helmet with the seasons.

"When it's hot out go for something with vents," Mikrut said. When it's cooler out use the BMX one so you won't have to use layers of hats, it will keep you warmer. But in the summer, it's too warm; it's like a crock-pot cooking your head."

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