For a new rider, buying a helmet may be more daunting than choosing a bike. Unless he or she has studied the subject, asked a lot of people for information, and done some window shopping, the matter may be an afterthought at the end of a bike sale or something that you have to rush to get done before riding the used bike you are buying. As a result, you may simply buy a helmet that looks like you want it to or one that the dealer suggests. Doing so can make your riding experience substantially less enjoyable than if you get a helmet that works properly on your head.
Even an experienced rider who is just replacing an old helmet may find the process intimidating and difficult. Dealers may not carry the make, model or size you are interested in. You may not even be sure what size to ask for. Friends may offer advice about fit or comfort that isn't true in you case because your head is different. There is a maze of certifications and features that you aren't sure about. You might have specific graphic requirements in mind. And you don't know which ones offer the best protection.
You can find helmets, like...
You can find helmets, like this Nolan, offering all sorts of features, but you may not want or need them all.
The April 2003 issue of Motorcycle...
Let's stop and discuss the claims that you are more likely to get in an accident if you are wearing a helmet. All studies of the matter from U.S. and other places in the world, indicate that riders who wear helmets crash less frequently and suffer fewer injuries and deaths if they do crash. They are less likely to suffer long-term or permanent disablement caused by head or neck injuries. A helmet that meets the D.O.T. standard offers significant protection if you crash. By cutting down ambient wind noise, helmets can actually help you hear other sounds better. By reducing fatigue from the wind, they keep you more alert. By protecting your eyes from the wind, they allow you to see better. A full-face helmet can keep you from being distracted when a large insect hits your face. And if you bright a bright-colored visible one, you will be more conspicuous in traffic, making it easier for other motorists to see and avoid you.
To aid in your quest for the best helmet for you, we have compiled the following guide, organized into ten steps, starting with the most important steps first and moving on to lesser considerations.
1. DOT Certification
A helmet is of no use if it doesn't provide protection, and that D.O.T. (U.S. Department of Transportation) sticker on the back is your assurance that when the day comes, the helmet will perform. The D.O.T. standard (officially designated Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard no. 218) requires, among other things, that a helmet soak up a significant amount of impact energy, prevent most penetration, and have a fastening system that will withstand significant force.
Helmets are tested in facilities...
Helmets are tested in facilities such as the Head Protection Research Labratory shown here. Drop tests with an instrumented head form measure a helmet's ability to absorb energy in a crash. Photo by Art Friedman.
The D.O.T. standard works like this. If the manufacturer certifies that its helmet passes the D.O.T standard, it can make and sell that helmet with a D.O.T. sticker. The division of the Department responsible for such things periodically buys helmets and send them to independent labs for testing to confirm that they actually do meet the standard. The D.O.T. posts the results on its website in a pass/fail form. A helmet that fails can fail for performance (it allowed too much energy through in the impact testing or the chin strap failed), which the buyer should be concerned with or for labeling (which isn't likely to matter to the buyer). The results may be found at the NHTSA site.
You can make a case that it's worth getting a helmet that meets some of the other standards, notably those of the Snell Foundation. For one thing, when a manufacturer has gone the distance to meet both D.O.T. and Snell, it has usually made the effort to provide other features and benefits. However, the difference between the protection offered by a "novelty" helmet that does not meet any standards and a basic D.O.T. helmet is huge--the difference between life and death or the difference between animal and vegetable--while the difference between a D.O.T. helmet and a Snell helmet (which also meets D.O.T. requirements) is comparatively minor.
Though this Harley helmet...
Though this Harley helmet looks like a novelty helmet, it is actually built to DOT standards and will provide significant protection in the area that it covers. With any shorty helmet, it is essential that you perform the roll-off test discussed here.
The Snell Memorial Foundation has useful information for helmet buyers on its website.
There are many differences between phony helmets and real D.O.T.-blessed types, but one of the most important is the use of an expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam liner (which resembles Styrofoam) inside a real helmet. It is the EPS that actually absorbs the energy of an impact. In doing so, it gets crushed, and unlike the foam-rubber comfort liner, it is non-resilient. Once crushed, it has lost its energy-absorbing capability, which is why a helmet should be replaced once you taken a hit in it. Look for the EPS liner if you have any doubts about the helmet being a genuine D.O.T.-compliant model.
A helmet is also no good if it doesn't stay on when you get off unexpectedly. You should check if the helmet you are trying on will stay on your head using a simple test. Fasten the strap snugly (you should feel some force on your chin). Then grab the rear of the helmet and try to lift it up and roll it forward off your head. Even when it hurts, you should not be able to get the helmet off. This is more likely to be an issue on half helmets or open-face helmets, but we have seen some full-coverage chinbar-style helmets that failed this roll-off test on some riders. Motorcycle Cruiser's own Andy Cherney has a head shape that many helmets can roll off of, so he needs to be certain that the helmet will stay on his head by using this test whenever he gets new one. On most helmets, the strap will fasten by passing through two D-rings. Though there have been a number of quick-fasten buckles and other ideas introduced over the years, we think this remains the most effective, convenient and comfortable fastening system.
An essential test before buying...
An essential test before buying or using a helmet, is the roll-off test. With the strap securely fastened, grab the rear lip of the helmet and try to roll it forward off your head. Don't stop just becuase it hurts a bit. If it comes off, you need a different helmet. Photo by Art Friedman
The Feds are looking at revising the standards to include standards for roll-off prevention, but the only standard that matters will continue to be whether you can pull a fastened helmet off your own head.
Part of retention is fit. Most helmets come with advice for fit and sizing. Most dealer accessory-sales personnel also have some training in fitting a helmet. Basically, the helmet should fit snugly so that it is stable when you shake your head side-to-side, front-to-back or up and down. A full-face helmet should grip your cheeks and jaw as well as the top and sides of your head. A helmet that is too loose may come off in a crash, and one that is too tight will be uncomfortable (see the next section for more detail). If it only contacts the top of your head, that will soon become uncomfortable. Proper fit means that it is snug enough that your skin moves with it when you try to move the helmet on your head.
The fact that you wear a Medium in one brand and model does not mean that another model will fit you best in the same size. Though my preferred helmet is size L, I need an XL in another model from the same maker and occasionally find a Medium that fits comfortably too.
A full-face or open-face helmet...
A full-face or open-face helmet should grip the cheeks slightly as well as the rest of the head. This one looks a little large. Photo by Art Friedman.