When Do Bicycle Helmets Expire?

Woman in safety helmet in bike shop
A woman trying on a helmet in a bicycle shop. (Image: Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images)

Although wearing a bicycle helmet may seem like a hassle, this simple piece of equipment is vital to your cycling safety. In 2011, according to a report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 67 percent of people who died from a cycling accident weren't wearing a helmet. Because your helmet doesn't include an expiration date, you'll need to consider several factors and inspect your helmet to see if it needs to be replaced.

Oldie But Not a Goodie

Helmets built prior to the 1980s may have a nostalgic place in the cycling world, but they should be replaced. The materials used in older helmets no longer meet the safety standards and do not provide the shock protection needed in a serious crash. Helmets from the 1970s often have a hard shell like up-to-date helmets, but the foam liner is too thin to protect your head in a crash. In the 1980s, the foam got thicker, but some companies dropped the hard shell, making the helmets little better than placing a piece of plastic foam on your head. Even with a minor impact, these shell-less helmets can break apart.

Crash and Replace

If you've had a bike accident in which your helmet hit the ground, you've experienced firsthand just how protective a helmet can be. Despite how much you may appreciate that helmet for saving your life, you should replace it. After a major impact -- including that from being dropped on a hard surface -- the foam of your helmet weakens. Even if you can't see cracks or dents in the helmet, this weakness can cause your helmet to break apart if you crash. Before you rush out to buy a new helmet, check with your helmet's manufacturer. Some companies will replace the helmet for less than the cost of a new one.

Meeting the Standards

Helmets must meet certain safety standards. Once a helmet has met these standards, it receives a stamp from the Snell Memorial Foundation, the Consumer Product Safety Commission or the American Society for Testing and Materials. If your helmet has not met the standards of at least one of these groups, you should replace it.

Expiration Confusion

Some helmet manufacturers state that a helmet should be replaced as often as every three years. Others cite every five to eight years as the magic time frame for replacing a helmet. Some of the recommended replacement times have to do with research on helmets while some represents a company's desire to get you to buy a new helmet.

Helmet Inspection

Examining your helmet is often a better way to tell if it should be replaced. Check the outer shell for cracks or splits, then press on it to see if the shell pops back into place. If there are cracks or the shell doesn't spring back, replace the helmet. A helmet also should be replaced if the shell has faded from UV exposure, since the plastic may have weakened. Next, check the foam liner for any cracks or dents and the straps and buckles for any worn or tattered areas.

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