Australia has a new helmet standard on the way. Why?

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When news of a proposed change to the existing Australian helmet standard began to circulate last week, it was something that made people prick up their ears and/or shrug, in roughly equal measure.

But ambivalence doesn’t really do justice to the process of a review of an Australian Standard. There’s a lot that’s involved in that little red and white sticker inside your helmet – years of negotiation, and fine-tuning, and diligent bureaucratic process.

Bicycle Industries Australia, a body representing the interests of the cycling industry, has been involved with the process for the four years that this review has been underway. We spoke to their general manager Peter Bourke to find out a little more about the process behind coming up with a new Australian Standard, what it hopes to achieve and why the current one needed changing.

The basic gist

Australian Standards are not changed with a click of the fingers; the process is a long and considered one.

The current Australian Standard is AS/NZS 2063:2008, Bicycle Helmets – a standard that was introduced in 2008 following a two-year review process. That review, in turn replaced the AS/NZS 2063:1998. Mandatory Standards are reviewed every 5-10 years to keep abreast of technological advances, and it is no different for bike helmets.

But according to Bourke, the revised standard doesn’t necessarily indicate that there’s anything wrong with the existing one. Rather, “the review is saying that in 5-10 years, there’s always new technology that we need to be aware of and looking at the way that influences helmet design and helmet construction.”

How does it work?

The standard is reviewed by a panel of volunteer representatives from a range of different fields – including the Royal Australian College of Surgeons, Bicycle Industries Australia, academics from a couple of universities, government bodies and even a rep from Kmart (who is represented as the single biggest seller of helmets and bikes in Australia).

All these stakeholders bring different insights and experience to the table, and the eventual standard is something of a compromise between the competing interests of this diverse stakeholder base. However – not surprisingly – there’s “a very strong safety focus … basically, many on the committee have a belief that while we have a mandatory helmet law, we’re going to have the most stringent helmet testing protocols,” Bourke explains.

Whilst the Bicycle Helmet standard is being assessed, there are a bunch of other standards being assessed which impact it at the same time, in different but related fields, that will ultimately inform the Bicycle Helmet standard. These are things like the standard for testing protective helmets (AS/NZS 2512) – as opposed to the standard for the helmets themselves – which shift at their own pace.

Australian Standards documents do not make for scintillating reading. The language used is firm and technical, and at times can feel a bit pedantic or arbitrary. Take, for example, the wording around adhesive labels (item 5.2, if you’re playing along at home) – itself informed by another standard for adhesion – which mandates that a helmet passes the Australian Standard if the wording on the label is “easily legible when rubbed by hand for 15 s with a piece of cloth soaked in water, allowed to dry and rubbed for 15 s with a piece of cloth soaked with liquid domestic dishwashing detergent.”

But this is of necessity, as standards documentation needs to be unambiguous, providing a clear line in the sand for whether a helmet passes or fails. Its purpose is to set a minimum standard – there is no testing (outside of what the brands provide, itself somewhat tainted by marketing agendas) of whether a helmet is better than the standard or by how much. In a pleasing move forward, Virginia Tech university and the US-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) unveiled their independent helmet rankings last year – but the helmets tested were not Australian Standards-stickered so firm conclusions cannot necessarily be drawn for our market.

Once any changes have been incorporated and any additions or modifications made, the proposed revised helmet standard goes through an extended period of committee review, public comment, balloting and finally, publication. All going well, the new helmet standard will come into effect in November 2019.

What does a new standard mean for the industry?

In a nutshell, all helmets on the market will need to be retested; past compliance is no guarantee of future compliance. The Standards testing is more rigorous than simply one helmet of each model; rather, each colour, size and model needs to be tested for compliance.

An anonymous source belonging to a major helmet brand confirmed that “it costs more to produce an AS/NZS helmet due to batch testing and standard-related fixed costs being amortized over a smaller production quantity”.¹

In essence, Australia’s a small market that tests to a different standard than the rest of the world, which may use one of ten different helmet standards, most notably CPSC (US, among other countries including China and Japan) or EN-1078 (most of Europe).

The cost for this is ultimately borne by the consumers – our helmet prices are higher and there’s less choice in the Australian market.

Kask Valegro inside
Image: Dave Rome.

It seems plausible that helmets that were compliant to the old standard will be compliant to the new standard, but this is by no means guaranteed; helmets are only compliant when they’ve been tested to be compliant.

And what of the helmets of the superseded standard? As Bourke explains, the previous Australian Standard review caused considerable consternation at the industry level. “In 2010 … there was a major change to the Australian standard and unfortunately, the industry wasn’t aware of that change. There was poor communication and as a result limited notice to the majority of the industry … And every helmet on the Australian market at that point of time had to be sold or moved in three to four months. My job is just to make sure that the industry doesn’t get hurt again in that regard.” ²

What does a new standard mean for you?

For individuals, there’s unlikely to be any real impact. Helmets tested to the superseded standard – indeed, any superseded standard – are still compliant for the wearer. “Anyone who has a helmet today will be able to wear it in an ongoing manner,” Bourke emphasises.

“There will be no major implications except for the fact that Australia will remain at a different standard to the rest of the world,” says Bourke. “We are obviously supportive of any improvements, and we want to make sure that consumers can get the best helmet.”

Where the waters get muddied

There’s a corresponding ACCC review into helmet standards underway, where the government is reviewing whether it will accept other standards in addition to the Australian Standard. There is no defined timeframe for this to be completed.

If this review finds that we should accept other trusted international standards and the Australian Standard is not a mandatory requirement for bicycle helmets to be sold in Australia, the practical implication is that the standard will fall by the wayside completely. There will be no need for manufacturers and the industry to continue testing to it. Helmets on the international market are invariably EN or CPSC compliant, and Australian distributors would then be able to import a broader range of helmets at less cost to themselves – as is the current situation in New Zealand.

And with that, the entire four year process of this current review would be wasted. But that’s not a foregone conclusion, and the ACCC review could uphold the need for an Australian Standard.

In conclusion

While the changes brought about by the new Australian Standard for bicycle helmets are likely to be incremental rather than sweeping, it’s an important – and as we’ve seen, exhaustively considered – process nonetheless. So next time you pull your helmet on, spare a thought for the committees and working groups of the Australian Standard for Bicycle Helmets, who’ve volunteered their time on this since 2015, all in the interests of ensuring that helmets are of a minimum safe standard.

Footnotes

¹ The testing costs for Australian Standards vary based on a range of factors, including number of colours and sizes, but indicative figures as of 2014 for SAI Global – the most commonly used testing authority – were as follows:

  • Application fee: $10,000 + GST per factory (helmets need to be tested and approved, so a factory must also invest in the right equipment to meet Australian Standards testing)
  • Annual fee: $9,500 + GST per year (a simple license fee)
  • Type fee: $1,150 + GST to test the headform
  • Engineering fee: $375 + GST per type of helmet
  • Engineering requirement: 10 helmets provided for the engineering report, tested to destruction
  • Batch testing – $200 + GST (per batch) plus four helmets per 400 made (or part thereof) to be tested to destruction.

² The previous standard, AS/NZS 2063:2008, was introduced in 2008 with a two year implementation phase. However, there was limited communication of the change. The result of this was that most in the industry only found out about the new standard – and their inability to sell helmets certified to the old standard – in 2010, three months out from the new standard coming in. In short, it was a good time for consumers to buy a heavily discounted helmet, but a bad time for the wholesalers who had to clear them in a hurry…

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