Motorcycle Helmet Tips - Street Survival


This spring, when Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger collided with a car that turned left in front of him, breaking his face and causing a concussion, it triggered a media uproar about the need for helmet laws. Few remarked on the irony or hypocrisy of the situation, the fact that the soapboxes came out when a sports star merely sustained recoverable injuries, but not when dozens of other riders in the same state died because they weren't wearing helmets. The life and death of Joe Rider apparently doesn't much interest editors and readers of general-interest publications, but the chance that a star quarterback might not be fit for football season is a big deal, one that should be prevented with helmet laws or even banning all players from riding motorcycles, as some teams do.

The press devoted much less attention to the revelation that Roethlisberger, who had previously said he didn't believe he needed a helmet because he rode carefully, didn't even have a license. Riding without a license isn't smart. In fact, unlicensed riders are more likely to crash than those who get properly licensed. In Pennsylvania, you have to be licensed before you can ride without a helmet. So not only is riding without a license not smart, it's also breaking the law. One witness to the accident reportedly said the quarterback seemed to be looking somewhere other than at the car that was preparing to turn left, which also doesn't sound very wise.

No one paid much attention to the guy who said that even if there had been a helmet law and Roethlisberger had been wearing a helmet as a result, it might not have made a lot of difference. You should note it, however, because the guy who said that was Harry Hurt, the lead author of Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures (a.k.a. the Hurt Report), which 25 years later is still the most comprehensive study of motorcycle crashes in America. Hurt also runs the Head Protection Research Laboratory (, which tests and studies helmet performance and motorcycle accidents.

In a letter to a Pasadena, California, newspaper, Hurt commented that the Roethlisberger crash was not an unusual one in terms of the events that caused it, the way the rider went facefirst into the car's relatively soft windshield (colliding with the front of the roof or one of its pillars could have resulted in much more severe brain injuries), and the injuries sustained by the rider. Hurt went on to say that merely complying with a law that required motorcyclists to wear a helmet wouldn't necessarily have made a difference. Unless Roethlisberger had worn a full-coverage helmet with an EPS chin bar, his uncovered face would still have been susceptible to the same sort of injuries. In such face-first impacts, wearing a helmet with a chin bar can also save your life by keeping facial bones from being pushed into your brain.

Nonetheless, open-face helmets offer some real comfort advantages over the full-face helmets I and the rest of this magazine's editors favor. They tend to be slightly lighter than full-face-coverage hats. Oddly, they are sometimes quieter than full-coverage models. Because it's exposed to the world, your face cools off better on a hot day. Of course, that also exposes it to bugs, gravel, and rain. I don't even like to think about being caught in a hailstorm with an open-face lid or what an errant bird could do.

I bought my first full-face helmet back in1968, when Bell put the first one, the Star, into production. (Yeah, it was orange too.) It took me a few days to adjust, but then I used it for a three-month ride through Mexico. That first Star was a work in progress back then, mostly because of the eyeport. It was substantially smaller than the eyeports on today's full-coverage shells, and the faceshield was fixed inside the molding of the eyeport. You couldn't flip it up for cooling or to put on sunglasses. If you wanted to use a dark shield, you had to pry out the clear shield and coax the tinted one into the eyeport's molding. But there was EPS foam (the material that actually absorbs the energy of an impact) all the way around your head and on the chin bar. I was very pleased to have it when a bird smashed into the top of my chin bar at about 60 mph.

By the time we returned from the ride through Mexico, wearing an open-face helmet made me feel unprotected. I wore one around the block once after that and never went back. (Actually, that's not true. I sometimes wear an open-face motorcycle helmet while riding my bicycle.) However, the flip-up-shield kit that was soon available was a real advance, and the second Star I owned had a larger eyeport, so my peripheral vision was no longer limited.

Folks who have never really spent time in one imagine that full-face helmets create all sorts of problems, like muting the world around you so you can't hear other traffic or limiting your view. There is some truth to the concern about limiting vision, but just vertically. On a cruiser with tank-top instruments, the chin bar sometimes blocks your view, so you have to tilt your head forward slightly to read them. It's not enough to block your view of the road ahead, though. In some helmets, I can't even see both sides of the eyeport with my eyeballs at full-lock, so peripheral vision is not compromised. While a helmet does muffle external sounds some, that's generally a good thing, since most of the ambient noise is just that, noise. It's the sound of your engine, drivetrain, exhaust and most of all the wind passing your head. The sounds that you need to hear-the tire or engine sounds of approaching vehicles, emergency sirens, the voices of pedestrians, a change in your bike's drivetrain, something falling off the bike-have to be picked out from the general din, and that's easier when the ambient noise is knocked back a bit. In particular, a properly designed helmet shell can make your passage through the wind smoother and therefore reduce the wind's roar compared with your bare head, which is not as streamlined. Riding without a helmet or other ear protection will quickly cost you hearing capacity from the effects of wind noise. If you have a loud exhaust, the loss will happen even faster.

I can understand some of the common complaints about helmets with more coverage. Riding in stop-and-go traffic in a hot, humid climate can make more coverage less pleasant. If you are actually claustrophobic, it might get to you (but you need to try a 1968 Bell Star to get the full effect). I am less sympathetic to complaints about weight (in fact, if you ride behind a windshield that buffets, a heavier helmet can sometimes damp out the buffeting). Helmets used to be a lot heavier, and I never thought of it as an issue, though I suppose some neck conditions could make it one. I have never found a rider who says that helmets are uncomfortable who has actually tried a lot on. The complaints about full-coverage helmets may be valid if you shop at a discount auto-parts store, but there are a variety of shapes and sizing options these days, and motorcycle-helmet makers have gotten much more sophisticated about making their products comfortable. These days you no longer have to deal with tight spots, lifting at speed, faceshields that rattle and are hard to change, heavy shells or lack of ventilation. It used to be that just two or three high-end brands offered consistent comfort. These days you can find that sort of comfort and protection down in the budget end of the spectrum. With all the advances in fit, venting, faceshields and materials, finding a comfortable, convenient, well-vented, lightweight full-coverage helmet is no longer a challenge.

The universal take of the Motorcycle Cruiser staff is that full-face helmets are significantly more comfortable and convenient than other types, and certainly much more pleasant than riding any distance bareheaded. But the real payoff comes on the first bounce. Of course, no one ever expects that to happen to them, not today, not on this ride. Roethlisberger obviously didn't. Lots of folks who ended up on slabs or in long-term care from head injuries didn't. Many of them probably didn't appreciate how effective a helmet can be and what sort of devastation it can prevent.

Wearing helmets will provide protection, although a novelty helmet-that is, one without DOT approval-will do virtually nothing for you in a crash, and some riders have even been injured by fragments. You're just fooling yourself if you wear one in the belief that they will protect you from anything beyond light abrasions. Shorty helmets with DOT certification offer significant protection...if your head impacts on the area that's covered with EPS foam. That area is extended with a three-quarter, open-face helmet. But your face is right up there in front, pointed at what you will probably hit when things go wrong.

If you do a Roethlisberger and hit face-first, you may only appreciate what a full-face helmet can do for you if you aren't wearing one. Helmet wearers who take a hit that would have scrambled their eggs if they had been bareheaded often just think, "I'm glad I had that on." But it's hard to fully appreciate what you avoided.

Roethlisberger has said that if he rides again, it will be with a helmet. I'm guessing it will be a full-face helmet, since he now probably understands its value. None of his comments that I read suggest he ever bought into the BS about helmets breaking necks or contributing to accidents. He just never thought it could happen to him, at least not that day. Every day in the U.S., riders die because they didn't think they'd be in a crash or need helmets. Others see their lives devastated for the same reason. It's hard to believe any of them would have been there without the best full-coverage helmet they could take a mortgage out on had they known what was coming.

Yet every day thousands of riders still bet everything that nothing will go wrong out on the road when they decide to ride without a good helmet strapped on securely. I'm a pretty optimistic person, but I've never been starry-eyed enough to take that bet, especially since I don't see any upside. And there have been a few days when that decision has kept me from being wiped out for good.

Riding a motorcycle isn't dangerous,but crashing is. Sooner or later, most riders crash. Once that event begins, the only decision that matters on a life-changing level is whether or not you chose to wear a good helmet.

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