Choosing the Right Helmet
Posted October 8, 2004
This article presents information on how to choose a new helmet for beginning riders. Experienced riders may also find useful information here, but beginners are the intended audience.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a motorcycle safety or helmet expert. I am a non-professional rider of about 9 years experience. This article contains many statements which are my opinion. They're not facts, and you should not read them as if they were. Helmets are important safety equipment which can increase your chance of surviving a crash, but they cannot prevent all injuries. You need to be well-informed in selecting and using helmets, and should by no means use this single article as your sole source of information. Engage your brain.
A motorcycle helmet serves two important goals: first, it protects your head in a crash. Second, but equally importantly, it protects your head and keeps you comfortable while riding. People commonly forget this second goal (particularly in some safety-oriented articles), but doing so is unwise, since you'll spend the overwhelming majority of your helmet ownership riding, rather than crashing.
Helmets are mandated by law in some states of the US. I am unaware of which states do or don't require helmets. I am also unaware of non-US regulations. You must become familiar with your local helmet laws before you begin riding a motorcycle.
I personally have one helmet that I wear any time I'm riding. Some riders have multiple helmets, and they choose which helmet to wear based on the riding they're doing. If you're starting out in motorcycling, I recommend you find one helmet according to the information below, and use it until you find that you really need a second for some reason.
There are four current standards for motorcycle helmets in the US. The most basic standard is the DOT (Department of Transportation) test. Any helmet sold for on-road use in the US is required to pass the DOT test. It is not especially rigorous.
Snell doesn't test flip-face helmets, so you can't buy a Snell certified flip-up helmet. Don't let this necessarily stop you.
There are two international standards which apply to motorcycle helmets: the British BSI and the European ECE. I haven't been able to locate online copies of the standards documents, but the Motorcyclist article linked below explains them to some extent. My understanding is that the BSI standard is like a lower-energy Snell, and the ECE standard is a step up from the DOT standard. There are numerous articles available online discussing the difference between these standards in more or less detail.
Motorcyclist Online has an excellent article discussing helmet testing methods. I highly recommend reading this article.
My personal belief is that wearing a DOT- and ECE-approved helmet will offer you the best real-world protection. The Snell standard, as detailed in the MO article linked above, is unrealistic. It's difficult to find a familiar-brand helmet which doesn't also meet the Snell standard, but many of the new crop of sub-$200 helmets meet DOT and ECE without meeting Snell.
Types of Helmets
There are four basic types of helmets: full-face, 3/4 helmets, half helmets, and flip-face (or modular) helmets. I'll explain each one. The pictures are just what I found by scrounging around with Google, they're not endorsements of any particular brand.
Crash Protection Offered
Motorcycle helmets primarily offer two types of protection in a crash: impact protection, and abrasion protection. They also offer some protection against puncture, and the insulation means that heat or cold won't immediately cause damage (such as if you end up with your face pressed into the engine of your motorcycle).
Impact protection is the big one for motorcycle helmets. Brain damage from motorcycle crashes comes from rapid acceleration of the brain into the skull. A helmet protects against this by having a layer of crushable material, usually stiff styrofoam, as the inner liner.
The crushable material deforms in a crash, absorbing energy that would have otherwise been transfered to the brain. Different manufacturers will have different formulations of what exact material goes into the crushable layer, but it all serves the purpose of absorbing impact energy.
After the impact phase of a crash, there's often a period of sliding. This is where abrasion protection comes in. The outer layer of a helmet, commonly made up of fiberglass, plastic, kevlar or carbon fiber (usually a mix of different materials) provides most of the abrasion protection.
The outer later, being relatively slick, also encourages sliding rather than impeding it. This helps avoid neck injuries, since there's no "extra" force tugging on the head and neck while sliding.
My personal "favorite" pro-full-face helmet anecdote describes a situation in which the motorcyclist was involved in a collision, and "woke up" to see the pavement speeding past, an inch and a half from his eyes, helmet bobbling along the ground. He was sliding on his chest, and unable to lift his head. Had he been wearing a 3/4 or half helmet and survived, he wouldn't have had a face any more. Protection from that situation alone was enough to convince me that I would never wear anything that didn't offer full-face protection.
Non-Crash Benefits Offered
There are many benefits to wearing a helmet in daily riding situations. They're primarily centered around wrapping your head in a protective layer -- your eyes are covered, you aren't punished by the wind, flying rocks, road debris and bugs can't punch you, cold and rain are kept at bay, etc.
Anti-helmet activists within the motorcycling community have raised a number of concerns with helmets. For instance, I've read the claim that helmets reduce a rider's ability to hear. Absolutely, helmets reduce overwhelming road and wind noise. However, this is not a bad thing. Riding without any hearing protection (with a half-helmet for instance) subjects a rider to damaging levels of noise even at 40 MPH. An hour of riding like this can permanently damage your hearing. Freeway speeds are much worse. Many motorcyclists (myself included) not only wear full-face helmets that reduce noise, they wear earplugs rated to 25 and 30 dB of noise reduction to protect their hearing.
Another claim I've read is that helmets reduce peripheral vision. I challenge you to find a full-face helmet that impedes on your peripheral vision at all. They don't exist, and all you have to do is put one on your head for a minute in a motorcycle shop to prove that to yourself.
A Brief Note on Color
One of the factors cited in nearly all car-motorcycle collisions is, "I never even saw him" by the car driver. Motorcycles are incredibly small targets, and anything you can do to increase your visibility can help. Flashy graphics may appear to be pretty stunning in the store, but from 50 feet, they're just a blur of color, and from 100 feet they dissappear into the medium grey of the pavement. Solid white or flourescent colors (orange, green, yellow) are far more visible. Red is a good color if you're going to be riding exclusively in daylight, but it immediately dissappears in the blue light of twilight and night, where white and flourescents in particular will stand out.
Choosing a Helmet
Selecting a helmet is necessarily a personal choice. Read through this article, understand the salient points of helmet construction and design, and pick the style that fits best what you want in a helmet. If you have no idea, the safest choice is a popular-brand, DOT- and ECE- certified full-face helmet. A helmet with a Snell rating isn't a bad choice, but may not be as protective in real-life street-riding crashes.
As far as choosing a brand, I don't have strong recommendations. I have personally owned a Shoei RF-800, an Arai Quantum/f and a Shoei X-Eleven. I have liked them all, and had problems with them all.
Far more important than choosing a particular brand, is choosing a helmet that has the features you want and fits you well.
I also recommend searching the Net for individual helmet reviews, but three good sites that have collected reviews are:
You should never buy a used helmet, period. Helmets are perishable, and one that's 2 years old offers measurably less protection than a new one. The materials that make up the helmet degrade over time, and particularly with use. If you're going to spend money on a helmet, it should be for a brand new one, as fresh from the manufacturer as possible. Yes, this also means you should plan on buying a new helmet every 3-4 years.
Fitting a helmet to your head is easy to do and hard to describe. However, I'll give it a shot. You should be heading to your local motorcycle shop to do any fitting -- they'll have salespeople who can help you find a helmet that fits correctly.
The first thing is that the helmet should be tight, but not binding. There should be no "hot spots" or pressure areas that feel much tighter than anywhere else. Different brands and models have different shapes, so try on a number of different helmets before you decide you've found "the one."
A properly fitting helmet should be tight enough that if you push it back and forth on your head (like shaking your head "no"), it can't really move, and what movement it does have pulls your forehead and cheek skin with the helmet.
With the strap fastened, you should not be able to roll the helmet off your head at all (like nodding "yes"), either forward or backward. Likewise, moving the helmet side to side (like trying to touch each ear to your shoulder) shouldn't allow the helmet to pull off.
If you have a choice between a helmet that fits a little bit too tight and one that fits a bit loose, choose the tight one. The helmet will break in over the course of a few weeks' riding, and will loosen up a bit.
When you've found a helmet that you think fits, put it on and wear it around the store for at least 10 minutes. This will allow any hot spots to fully develop, so you can be aware of them. If the store will let you and it won't distract you from riding, take a short test ride with the helmet on. Any deficiencies in fit will be immediately apparent.
Some helmet models include provision to replace cheek or forehead pads with similar or different sized pads. This allows a more-customized fit, and allows you to replace the pads if they become smelly or compress too much. A good shop will have different-sized pads in stock, and sizing at purchase shouldn't cost anything. Replacement pads, or buying different-sized pads after you've worn the helmet for a while aren't terribly expensive, compared to the initial cost of the helmet.
Finally, this is a matter of personal conscience, but if you can afford to buy the helmet from the store where you did the fitting, please do so. Yes, helmets are cheaper online and by mail order, but your local shop just spent an hour or two helping you out. If you honestly can't afford it, buy the right helmet however you have to. This is not one of those situations where saving $20 is that important, if it keeps the local shop around. Without them, you might be exchanging helmets (or uselessly buying them and not being able to return them) for months with an online store.
If you're interested in racing, consult with your racing organization as far as what they require in a helmet. Every racing organization I know of requires a full-face helmet. They seem to be flexible on standards such as Snell, ECE and BSI.
For racing, you can ignore some of my advice: specifically, color is unimportant -- go for the cool graphics. I still prefer light-colored helmets, just because they absorb less heat on sunny days. You may also be more worried about features like venting or low price, since crashes are more likely while racing.
If you do crash and your helmet touches down, it's trash. Cut it in half so no one ever tries to use it, or send it back to the manufacturer for inspection. They can always use crashed helmets to improve their designs, or it's just possible they'll send it back, saying it's still ok.
This is the part where I really flex my opinions, so feel free to skip it if you don't care.
I feel that new riders should be buying solid white, flourescent or yellow, ECE approved, full-face helmets. I don't have a strong brand preference, and I think that any of the major brands (HJC, Shoei, Arai, Suomy, AGC, etc.) make fine helmets. Some of the "cheap" helmets are getting good reviews, and meet the important standards.
You should only consider a flip-face helmet if you feel you have legitimate need of the feature. I wear glasses at all times, and have never had a problem with a full-face helmet. If you do decide to get a flip-face helmet, examine the latching mechanism carefully. If it looks or feels weak or cheezy to you, forget it. Schuberth and Nolan flip-face helmets have come highly recommended to me, but they'll never be as strong and safe as a fixed full-face helmet.
Three-quarter and half helmets are only suitable for morons. Don't spend money on one, and if you got one with your bike, throw it away or sell it to a moron on Ebay. You might as well ride around with no helmet and enjoy the wind in your hair.
This article is far from the last word on motorcycle helmets. Load up Google and search a bit. Lots of people have written extensively on this topic, and some of them even know what they're talking about! My hope is that this article has helped you understand what options are available, and start you down the path of choosing the right helmet for you.
If you have any feedback for me, particularly if I've included incorrect factual information, please send me email at reaper at obairlann dot net. I may not respond immediately, but I always appreciate feedback.
Copyright 2008 by Ian Johnston. Questions? Please mail me at reaper at obairlann dot net.