Motorcycle Helmets - Ultimate Guide [2017 Edition]
Introduction: Why wear a Lid?
Question: Do helmets make you look less cool when you’re riding?
Answer: You won’t give a damn if you’re dead.
The right helmet can save your life. That’s a fact. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says:
- Per mile traveled in 2014, there were 27 times more motorcycle fatalities than car crashes.
- Motorcycle helmets prevent head injuries 67% of the time.
- They prevent deaths 37% of the time.
Just like those annoying seat belt laws, state-mandated helmet laws were not designed to ensure you have helmet head when you walk into work. Instead, they protect your most valuable asset while you’re getting there.
While we want you to stay safe by wearing the latest helmets, jackets, and other gear, we also support your rights as a motorcyclist to make your own decisions about your life. That’s why we’re offering you this 101 on motorcycle helmets so you can stay informed about the latest brands and innovations, understand what to look for in safety features, and make the best purchase decisions for your gear.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- The latest motorcycle helmet features.
- Which companies are making these helmets.
- How to understand the safety standards.
- How to ensure the best fit.
- And, finally, how to get the best bang for your buck.
Ready? Strap yourself in—we’re going for a ride.
Chapter 1 - The brain bucket low down.
A review of the standard versus non-standard motorcycle helmet features.
To start, motorcycle helmets are broken into five categories:
- Full face covers that ugly mug of yours and usually has a flip lid so you can smoke a stogie.
- Dual sport means the helmet is rated to wear on the pavement or on the dirt.
- Half shell helmets provide the minimum head protection allowed by law. Picture a big bowl turned upside down on your head—a “shorty” is kind of like that. You can add goggles to increase the cool.
- Modular bridges the gap between full face and open face, with a visor you can take off or flip up. Accessing your face means you’ll be able to eat a chilidog while riding, if you really want to. (Actually, most hybrids are designed to be closed while riding.)
- Open face, also called a ¾ helmet, lacks the full-face chin bar. Most come with a snap on visor because who really wants to get a bug in their eye at 70 miles an hour?
Before you can figure out what type of helmet to buy, you need to start thinking about how you’re going to use it:
Are you riding off road?
Unless you want to buy two helmets, dual sport is for you.
Are you riding long distances?
You might want to spend more to reap the benefits of added features.
Are you an experienced or novice rider?
If you’re a biker baby, you might want to spend a little less on a helmet while you figure out if you’re going to like this lifestyle.
Will you be riding in a group?
You might want to start thinking about Bluetooth helmets.
Now it’s time to think about features. There are three categories to consider:
The weight, fit, and looks of your helmet.
Full-face helmets range between 1400 to 1800 grams. But the fit is really everything. An ill-fitting lightweight helmet will pressure the neck and shoulders, potentially destroying the ride. Personal preferences dictate your look. You can ride with flat matte black, the hottest red, or anything in between.
For the most part, motorcycle helmets are made from safety tested (see chapter three) and impact resistant plastic. You can also find fiberglass, Kevlar, and carbon fiber helmets. Fiberglass is both lightweight and super impact resistant, making it very popular. Racing helmets are heavier and made of the more exotic Kevlar or carbon fiber. Inside the shell is an impact absorbing foam liner that provides crash protection, and comfort padding that makes the helmet more comfortable to wear. Finally, the retention system (chin strap) keeps the brain bucket right where it belongs.
This is the fun stuff, like the communication and sound system, or how the face shield adjusts, or how much visibility you might have. We recommend a helmet with padding that comes out for washing. Also, the more air vents, the better, in our opinion. But the rest of the options are kind of up to you.
The motorcycle accessory industry is anything but boring, so it's likely that we'll continue to see innovations as time goes on.
Chapter 2 - What’s in a name?
Who are some of the key manufacturers in the motorcycle helmet industry?
From safety to coordinating your helmet to your outfit, or to your bike, these are some of the top-of-the-line helmet manufacturers. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but simply an exercise in getting you familiar with what’s out there in the marketplace:
Chapter 3 - What’s DOT and why should I care?
Exploring helmet safety standards
You’ve seen the crash test ratings for cars in Consumer Reports. Motorcycle helmets are put through similar rigorous testing procedures to measure:
- Impact resistance, which measures the shock absorbing capacity of impact.
- Penetration resistance, which tracks how much of a blow from something sharp your helmet can withstand.
- Peripheral vision measurement with a minimum of 105 degrees on either side.
- Retention, which measures how well the chinstrap holds the helmet on your head before, during, and after impact.
Three primary safety regulatory agencies test and rate helmets around the globe:
- DOT stands for the United States Department of Transportation. All on-highway adult helmets must meet DOT minimum requirements.
- 02 s the U.N. Economic Commission for Europe, which rates lids manufactured and worn overseas.
- Snell2010 is a U.S. non-profit dedicated to better helmet safety in this country. Snell testing is voluntary, so if there’s a Snell rating that’s viewed as a plus in some circles because it’s said to be more rigorous than either the DOT or ECE22.02 rating.
There’s a sticker on the inside of the brain bucket that will signify its compliance with these agencies. Interestingly, price does not correlate with safety in motorcycle helmets. Generally, the safety levels are the same whether you’re paying $200 or $600. But it’s the features that’ll jack the price, along with the name brand. Painting, venting, communication system, the trim, and more, all jack up the price. If you’re a newbie rider on a budget, a good $300 helmet is a good place to start.
An important note: one of the reasons why the Snell rating is so revered is because, while the DOT standard is mandatory, helmet manufacturers can say they conform to DOT standards and label their product as complying. There is no regulatory reporting mechanism in place currently to prove their claims and the U.S. government doesn’t have time to test all helmets. It isn’t until the government gets around to testing the helmet (if they do at all) that we'll know if the manufacturer was fibbing. On the flip side, the penalty for such a big lie is $5,000 per helmet.
The other thing to keep in mind is that these tests only simulate real-world situations. While automobile crashes are quite predictable and use "crash test dummies," motorcycle accidents are much more complex, with more variables related to speed, environmental factors, surfaces, whether another vehicle is involved, and so on. There’s no easy way to simulate all the potential for harm that can come from a real crash scenario.
Chapter 4 - Size is everything. Really.
Ensuring you pick the perfect fitting helmet.
It's possible we should have placed this chapter first because getting the right fit means that much. If you go for a slider on some hot asphalt, you should not have a helmet that wobbles around like a bobble head.
Not only does the right fit matter when some distracted teenager hits the gas instead of the brake, but poorly fitting helmets can make for an uncomfortable ride. Too much head pressure or excessive wind noise can give you a big fat headache, taking the pleasure right out of the ride.
If you have a cone head, we can't help you. In the helmet world, we focus on your egg-shaped head. Helmets are fit for heads that are long oval, intermediate oval, or round oval. If you can’t figure it out, have your friend look down at the top of your head. Is it shaped like a football or a pumpkin?
When you try on a helmet, does it put pressure on your forehead or the sides of your head? If you’re trying it on, wear it around the store for a few minutes to see if you can find hot spots that will really rub you the wrong way over time. Focus on the crown of your head because the cheek pads in a helmet can be added or subtracted.
You can measure the circumference of your noggin with a cloth tape measure from above your eyebrows to the thickest point on the back of your skull. You’ll get a measurement in inches that can be compared to helmet sizing charts that come with any lid. Check customer reviews, because just like clothes, some brands run larger or smaller.
When you’ve got the right fit, the helmet will move a little but will catch on your forehead and cheeks, preventing bobble head or other large movements.
You can adjust the fit on any full-face helmet by moving the liners and cheek pads around. These pieces are usually machine washable and can be completely removed to allow more room. Some helmet manufacturers like Scorpion have an air pump that inflates or deflates the cheek pads, which is pretty awesome.
Generally, your helmet should be snug because over time it will fit more loosely as the padding inside compresses.
Getting exactly what you pay for.
If you’re on a budget, focus on the features that are “must have.”
Now you know that helmets come in a variety of styles and features, so it’s going to be difficult to figure out which one is best for you. Once you’ve decided on the look you want and the fit you need, just go straight to budget to help you narrow down your options. The price will change depending on the number of features you have and the materials in the helmet. Many times the fit on a higher priced helmet is superior, and that includes the weight you’re carrying on that skinny neck.
But again, how are you going to use the equipment? If you’re riding long distances, you may want the ability to play tunes. Also, long distances signal more emphasis on noise reduction as a feature worth the cash.
Conclusion: Let’s Ride!
Your days of heavy, uncool, cumbersome motorcycle helmets are over. Today’s helmets are as colorful, lightweight, and comfortable as you want or need them to be. There are ample features including vents and washable padding, full face or open face, with visors or goggles, and more. They also offer technology add-ons that allow you to make phone calls, listen to tunes, or intercom your fellow riders.
Each name brand offers a full selection of helmet types, and all are DOT certified for safety—which is the whole point, after all.
Given that this is likely the most important piece of safety equipment you’ll own, we hope this guide gave you the step-by-step details you need to make an informed choice.
Keep your eyes peeled on the road and stay safe out there!