Cape Town - All too often we see motorcycles parked in public place with their owner’s crash helmet locked onto the bike, or worse still, onto one of the wheels and lying on the ground.

And we’re not talking about cheapies; we’ve seen R12 000 top-name helmets on their sides on the concrete floor of the parking garage at Cape Town international airport, chained to the front wheel of a quarter-million rand beetle-crusher while their owners are off jetting around the world.

You’d think that people who can afford that kind of kit could afford a R150 bag to put their helmet in, sling it over their shoulder and take it with them.

After all, would you pick up a towel that’s been lying on the ground in a public place for hours or even days, for every passing dog to mark as his own and every passing insect to make a home of, and wipe your face with it?

Because that’s exactly what they’re doing with their helmet. And that argues not only a lack of respect for expensive safety gear but a certain lack of self-respect as well.

Keeping it clean and fresh  

All of which opens another can of worms; how do you in fact keep the inside of your helmet clean and fresh? We sweat in them, we smear the lining with hair gel and sunscreen and - in the case of lady riders - with make-up. Take a long, hard look inside your helmet tomorrow morning before you put it on; you may not like what you see.

Opinions are divided as to the best way to clean the lining of a helmet. In the case of some very expensive helmets, the padding clips out; you simply put the bits and pieces in one of those mesh ‘sock bags’ and fling it in the washing machine, and when they’re dry you just clip the lining back into place. Helmets with non-removable linings require a bit more effort, however.

Always take the visor off before you start cleaning the inside (or outside) of a crash helmet – you’ll see why later.

Fine powder

I’ve used an aerosol can of foam carpet cleaner with some success, but it is messy and it’s not always possible to get all the residue out afterwards, which is a nuisance because it’s actually a fine powder that mixes with your sweat and dries like concrete. The best thing you can do there is rest the helmet on its side on a towel after you’ve cleaned it, facing into the draught from an electric fan, until it’s bone dry, and then vacuum it - after all, that’s what you’re supposed to do with carpets!

Possibly the best advice I’ve heard came from a very experienced rider who recommended a bowl of very hot water, a microfibre cloth that you don’t use for anything else, and a squirt of baby shampoo on your fingers.

Wash your hands first, then put the helmet on a towel in your lap and work the baby shampoo into the padding with your fingertips. Then wet and wring out the cloth, and wipe away the shampoo and with it (hopefully) the dirt. Rinse and wring the cloth often to make sure it’s always clean - you’ll be astonished at how quickly the water in the bowl gets dirty. In fact, when you’re finished it’s a good idea to wipe it again, using a fresh bowl of hot water.

And don’t forget the strap – that gets just as dirty, if not worse, than the lining.

Then, as with the carpet cleaner, rest the helmet on the towel, facing into a fan until it’s dry, but because baby shampoo doesn’t leave any residue, you don’t have to vacuum it afterwards. And because baby shampoo isn’t perfumed, it won’t leave any funny flowery smells in your helmet - or make you sneeze next time you wear it.

Never use any aggressive cleansers or solvents on a helmet; they will not only dissolve the glue that holds the lining together but, if they’re hydrocarbon based they will literally eat the expanded polystyrene inner shell that gives the helmet its shock absorption properties, rendering it worse than useless.

But what about the outside, and specifically the visor?

Visors are made of very soft plastic that picks up fine scratches very easily so, to clean it after a ride, first rinse it under cold running water to wash away abrasive grit and dust. Then put a teaspoonful of non-abrasive household detergent on your fingers and use them to wipe away the dirt off the surface of the visor; for this part of the job your fingers are less abrasive than even the softest, cleanest microfibre cloth.

When your fingertips tell you the visor is clean, do the inside again; every time you breath out, you deposit proteins on the inside of the visor that stain it yellow and are very difficult to wash off.

Then rinse the visor again, inside and out, with cold running water, wipe it dry with the same microfibre cloth that you used for the inside and put it back on the helmet while your hands are still perfectly clean.

The visors on all current helmets have an anti-fog coating on the inside that starts flaking off in little shards that look a lot like dandruff, as soon as it’s rinsed with hot water. It looks disgusting and you can’t see where you’re going, and the only cure is to buy a new visor, so use cold water only.

The clear coat over the paint on the outside of modern helmets is surprisingly robust; you can wash it with any non-abrasive household detergent that doesn’t contain ammonia, using your microfibre cloth and a basin of very hot water to soften and wipe away the second-hand bugs and road dirt (after taking the visor off first, for obvious reasons!) and then polish it with any household polish to bring the shine up.

Remember not to use the same cloth as you used for cleaning. Polishing creates a waxy silicone residue (that’s how it works) and you don’t want to get that residue on the lining next time you clean it, because it doesn’t wash out.

Never use toilet paper or roller towel on a helmet or a visor, it’s incredibly abrasive.

If your helmet has a matte or satin finish, sorry for you; they are a lot of work to look after.

The important thing is to stay away from any cleansers containing silicon or any form of wax, such as car shampoo, or any form of polish. They leave nasty-looking blotches on the finish that never come out.

Also, matte and semi-matte finishes are even softer than visor material and pick up scratches just as easily. So use the same process - rinse with cold water, then wash with baby shampoo on your fingertips, rinse again and pat the helmet dry – don’t wipe it! – with a clean, soft towel.

Although there are comprehensive safety standards for crash helmets in place, both here and internationally, none of them are stipulated in South African road traffic legislation. As long as what you have on your head looks like it’s intended for use on a motorcycle, covers your ears and has a strap that passes under your chin (chin cups are still very much a no-no) you can call it a crash helmet and the cops can’t argue with you.

Obviously that rules out the silly little ‘doppies’ and German coal-scuttle type helmets, which is a very good thing, because they offer you exactly zero protection in a crash. With those dishonourable exceptions, the type of helmet you wear – and what condition it’s in – is entirely up to you. So we’ll end with a line from a helmet advertisement in an American motorcycle magazine from 20 years ago, which said simply: “If you have a $10 head, wear a $10 helmet.”

IOL Motoring

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