January 1, 2024
By Michael Padway
Table of Contents

In the event of a crash, the right helmet can mean the difference between living and dying.

I am frequently asked to make a recommendation for the best motorcycle helmets. As a motorcycle journalist, and a practicing attorney handling head injury and occasional defective helmet cases, I have many years of personal experience with helmet use and vicarious experience with helmet performance in actual accidents.

Choosing a helmet always seems to start with the question of whether a helmet should be a half, three-quarters, or full face helmet. Are you kidding? Unless you are Highway Patrol with a need that interferes with the choice of a full face helmet, this is a non-decision. I belong to an Internet motorcycle list, one of whose members suffered what should have been a minor injury crash. However, because the helmet was convertible style, the chin protection was flipped up and the rider suffered an injury to the mouth and jaw. The result? Death.

If you are even considering anything other than a full face helmet, do a little bit of research on the internet about facial injuries suffered in motorcycle accidents. Are you really willing to risk hitting your teeth on a curb?

DOT & Snell Standard

The United States utilizes two standard rating systems to help you distinguish between helmet specifications, the DOT standard (US Department of Transportation) and the Snell standard (private firm). The DOT standard is a set of guidelines required of all helmet manufacturers for a helmet to be legal. The Snell standard is a tougher standard that involves a standard impact replication test with two strikes to the exact same spot. It measures the effect on the EPS liner and determines if the helmet passes. Both of these standards are limited because it is impossible to duplicate how a helmet functions in the real world.

Many top experts in the motorcycle helmet field are highly critical of the Snell standard because it causes helmets to be too rigid. They point out in particular that the ability to withstand two hits in the same place has nothing whatever to do with real-world crashes. By making the helmet too rigid instead of softer, many preventable head injuries occur in more common lower impact accidents. Some experts seriously recommend not purchasing a Snell certified helmet, particularly since Snell upped its standard a few years back. I discussed this at length with an MD who rides motorcycles and his response was to purchase a European helmet because it was softer. Given that this issue is so well-known, it seems reasonable to expect a change in the not too distant future.

ECE Standard

As a solution, I recommend looking into European manufacturers. The ECE 22.05 (UN Economic Commission for Europe) has a standard level of protection for helmets in Europe similar to the DOT standard. There is a major difference between the European and US approach to helmet design, directly related to the hardness and softness of various helmet components. In some impacts, a harder material provides better protection; in others, a softer material provides better protection. In gross terms, the softer material is better for greater impact protection, while the harder material works better in more common but lesser impact situations.

EPS Foam Lining

Current helmet technology involves an inner liner to absorb shock, made of EPS foam, similar to a harder version of Styrofoam. There is a comfort liner that riders often mistake for a protective component, which normally also provides some padding. A proper helmet should also have EPS foam in the lower area if it is to properly protect the face and jaw.

Even the safest helmets have some technological limitations. First, many head injuries result from rotation. The brain floats in fluid inside the skull. If the head is snapped in rotation, the motion can induce tearing of the brain, even if the skull and outer layer of skin remain in perfect condition. Similarly, the brain can be slammed back and forth in the skull, resulting in injury to the rough contours of the inside of the skull. At least one company is marketing a helmet that has a loose moveable outer membrane, with the claim that it can reduce rotational brain injuries by 65%. To date, I have been unsuccessful in purchasing a full face model of this helmet for shipping to the United States.

A second limitation is that the EPS foam only absorbs force in direct relationship to its thickness. A significant blow will overwhelm the foam. Several companies have begun to experiment with “non-Newtonian” materials. These materials are made up of polymers with long molecules. Like too many big rigs trying to exit the city, in response to a hard force, the polymer molecules lock, causing the material to become inflexible, and spread force over its entirety. These materials are lighter in weight for a given level of protection, are of a softer consistency, and mold to your contours when warm so they fit better. Further, some forms of them are liquid, which could be particularly beneficial if a liquid layer could be incorporated in a helmet, which would lock molecules on contact. The downside of these materials will be the cost and the fact that they degrade over 2-3 years.

Finding A Fit

Fit is essential to finding the best helmet for you. What needs to fit is the EPS liner, not the comfort liner. Heads are different not only in size but in shape. Here are some additional tips on how to find the correct fitting helmet:

  • A rough measurement should be taken from above the eyebrows, around the head at the furthest point of the back of the head, and around.
  • A helmet must always be tried on and checked for fit.
  • The chin strap should be tightened so that only two fingers will fit between the strap and the head. To test the chin strap, look down toward your chest, and see if the back of the helmet can be pushed upward.
  • There should be no gaps at the top, front, back, or side of the head, although it should not be painfully tight.
  • The helmet should be worn for a few minutes to gauge the fit.
  • If you attempt to rotate the helmet, your cheeks should move. If the helmet moves or slips with rotation, or up and down, it is not a good fit.

Keep in mind that there are non-safety factors that make a big difference. These include the feel of the safety liner, the amount of airflow, and the size and shape of the eye opening. Sound level is somewhat of a safety consideration because it affects what is heard, and because wind noise will damage your hearing over time. Weight is more a comfort factor than a safety factor, but in an accident, the physics of weight may make a difference

At the end of the day, the most important thing is that the helmet fits your head correctly, and that the chin strap holds it on your head.

Helmet Recommendations

If you want some direct recommendations, here are my top 11 safest motorcycle helmet picks:

  1. arai corsair v

    ARAI Corsair V

    Arai Corsair V
    Helmet Standard: DOT/Snell Approved

    The structural integrity of the Corsair V is reinforced by its peripheral belting which extends across the forehead. This feature does not increase the size of the shell and maintains flexibility while still remaining lightweight. This means that the force from impacts will be distributed more evenly causing less injury. The Corsair also features an Emergency Cheek pad Release System creating access for medical personnel in the event of an accident.

  2. Shoei X-12

    Shoei X-12

    Shoei X-12
    Helmet Standard: DOT/Snell Approved

    The Shoei X-12’s The construction technology used by this company to produce the shell combines fibers to create material for the shell. It requires a laser to cut and evenly distributes force from impacts. The Shoei X-12 features the Emergency Quick Release System for cheek pads. In the event that the helmet must be removed by medical personnel, the process is rapid while eliminating as much further injury as possible to the rider.

  3. HJC CL-16
    Safety Standard: DOT/Snell Approved

    HJC CL-16

    HJC CL-16

    The HJC CL-16’s shell is lightweight and has been fabricated with Computer Aided Design technology. It requires no tools for quick shield installation and removal with a RapidFire Shield Replacement System. The superior quality face shield offers 95% protection from UV rays, however, it does not offer all of the safety features of other helmets.

  4. Scorpion EXO-R2000
    Safety Standard: Snell Approved
    Cost: ~$400

    Scorpion EXO-R2000

    Scorpion EXO-R2000

    The Scorpion EXO-R2000 features a TCT Composite Shell and is designed from five layers which consist of Aramid, fiberglass, and polyresin fibers that are organic. This helmet includes the cheek pad Emergency Release System for quick and simple removal during traumatic situations.The state-of-the-art EverClear face shield is fog-free. It features inflatable AirFit cheek pads for an optimal fit and added protection. The Scorpion EXO-2000 provides many of the same technologically advanced safety features as other more expensive helmets at a more affordable price.

  5. Arai RX-Q
    Safety Standard: DOT/Snell Approved

    The Arai RX-Q offers a face shield similar to that of the manufacturer’s Corsair model. The new cheek pads feature the Emergency Release System which allows medical technicians expedient and simple access in the event of a crash. The Arai Company states that fiberglass is the most suitable material for constructing helmet shells and use it to build each of these helmets by hand.

  6. Bell Star
    Safety Standard: DOT/Snell Approved

    The Bell Star is designed with a TriMatrix composite consisting of extremely lightweight Kevlar, fiberglass, and carbon fiber. Kevlar is specially created to and used for impact distribution and absorption. The 3Mode, ClickRelease face shield features an anti-fog coating.

  7. Bell RS-1
    Safety Standard: Snell Approved

    The Bell RS-1 is designed from a fiberglass/Kevlar shell making it very durable. This combination creates a lightweight composite which does not interfere with maneuverability. Kevlar first effectively absorbs the force from impact then distributes it evenly greatly reducing injuries. It features a quick, click release face shield which is treated with an anti-fog coating.

  8. Shoei RF-1200
    Safety Standard: DOT/Snell Approved

    The Shoei RF-1200 liner features a double layer possessing two different impact density levels. It is also designed with a wide base for quick, easy removal. It has been constructed with a Quick Release Self-Adjusting face shield base plate which is spring loaded. Both the Quick Emergency Release shield and wider base provides simple accessibility to medical technicians in the event of an accident.

  9. Shark Evoline
    Safety Standard: DOT/ECE 22.05 Certidied
    Cost: ~$450

    The Shark Evoline has been designed with a Lexan Polycarbonate shell which effectively provides high impact protection. The chinbar Auto-Up System offers easy manipulation and is ECE 22.05 certified in the closed and open positions. The Shark Evoline has been constructed to weigh around a half of a pound or 200 grams. Its streamlined design effectively cuts buffeting and noise levels.

  10. Schuberth SR1
    Safety Standard: DOT/Snell Certified

    The Schuberth SR1 helmet is both Dot and ECE approved. The aerodynamic design prevents uplift in accelerated speed and high winds. The duroplast matrix is created with a superior glass fiber reinforcement which includes a carbon layer thereby reducing the helmet’s overall weight. The A.R.O.S. is a safety feature of all Schuberth helmets which ensures the chinstrap is adjusted and secured properly. The Schuberth SR1 helmet features an aero acoustically designed wind deflector to improve noise levels.

  11. HJC CL-17
    Safety Standard: DOT/Snell Certified

    The HJC CL-17 creators used Computer Aided Design technology to construct this Polycarbonate Composite Shell to be lightweight. Its face shield offers riders a UV protection against 95% of rays. This helmet features an extremely secure, locking, RapidFire Shield Replacement System. An air deflector that is integrated into the helmet provides effective noise reduction. The HJC CL-17 is both Snell and DOT approved up to size 2X. Beyond that the helmets are only DOT certified.

Michael Padway

Michael Padway uses his expertise in personal injury and motorcycle accidents to represent a broad spectrum of clients dealing with life-changing and permanent injuries for the first time. His offices are located at 235 Montgomery St., Ste 668, San Francisco, CA 94104 and at 3140 Chapman St. Oakland, CA 94601. For more information, please call (800) 928-1511.

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