The freedom of the open road and the wind running across you as you ride is a feeling hard to describe. But, with the excess freedom you get from motorcycling comes the responsibility to ride with a suitable, safe motorcycle and safety gear. In this article, we’ll break down everything you need to know when choosing the safest motorcycle helmet. Whether your state requires wearing a motorcycle helmet by law, you should ALWAYS ride with a helmet; in 2017, motorcycle helmets saved an estimated 1,872 lives, and could have saved an additional 749 lives, had the motorcyclist worn a helmet (read our Motorcycle Accident Statistics article).
We’ve assembled a guide on the different things to look for when choosing the safest motorcycle helmet, from motorcycle helmet types and safety standards to helmet fit and safety features.
THE SAFEST MOTORCYCLE HELMET TYPE
There are numerous types of helmets, but the three main designs are the full face, ¾, and the ½ helmet. The full-face helmet is the safest choice of the three. The full-face helmet offers the most coverage surrounding your head and neck. In addition, a full-face helmet protects you from the environment you’re riding in, whether it be inclement weather or debris and bugs hitting your visor. One of the distinguishing features of a full-face helmet is a chin bar, which ¾ and ½ helmets lack. And according to one European study, the chin encounters fifty percent of severe impacts during an accident. So riders should consider when gauging how much protection they’d like to wear.
THE 3 MAIN FEATURES OF THE SAFEST MOTORCYCLE HELMETS
Current helmet technology involves an inner liner to absorb shock, made of EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam. In addition, there is a comfort liner that riders often mistake for a protective component, which also does provide some padding. A helmet should also have EPS foam in the lower area to properly protect the face and jaw.
- When considering a helmet, always look for a shell-built design. The first line of defense protects your head to avoid direct contact with the road. Choose another helmet if the helmet you picked doesn’t have thermoplastic or reinforced composite shell-like polycarbonate.
- The second feature to look for is the impact-absorbing liner. As the name suggests, it is the helmet’s inner liner, which not only gives comfort to your top head but also absorbs impact in crashes. The second line of defense protects you from severe head injuries.
- The third feature is the chin strap, a helmet can only do its job if it’s adequately strapped.
DOES MORE MONEY MEAN BETTER SAFETY WITH FULL-FACE MOTORCYCLE HELMETS?
The truth is that cost doesn’t necessarily equate to more safety. Helmet manufacturers have standardized criteria to follow, like the Snell Foundation requirements, DOT (Department of Transportation), and the current European Safety Standard 22/05. These requirements help to ensure a quality product is released to the public. Beyond those criteria, the cost is more driven by the materials used to make the helmet, the features available, and the visual aesthetics of the helmet.
HELMET SAFETY VS. BRAND REPUTATION
As happens with motorcycles, heritage, and history play a major role in consumer confidence in a particular helmet manufacturer. There are many old and new helmet brands on the market, that said, there’s nothing wrong with choosing a relatively young brand name. Sure, there are experienced brands such as HJC, AGV, Shoei, and Arai, but other brand names are good examples for themselves in their quest to create safe lids for motorcyclists. Our advice? Do some research and ensure that the helmet company you choose invests more in product safety than just marketing.
MOTORCYCLE HELMET SAFETY STANDARDS
There are several safety standards for motorcycle helmets, and knowing what they cover can be confusing. The most important criterion of a helmet is its safety rating. Here are the primary safety standards and what you need to know about each:
SNELL MEMORIAL FOUNDATION (M-95 / M2000)
The Snell Foundation certification is not a requirement by law anywhere. However, they go above and beyond the minimum criteria to thoroughly test helmets in many respects. They also test for bicycling, karting, and professional motorsports. Below are the safety features they test for:
- Impact Testing: The impact test uses controlled impacts to simulate different impact surfaces. The object is to measure gravitational (G) force or acceleration. If the peak acceleration in any test exceeds a value, the helmet is rejected.
- Positional Stability (Roll-Off) Test: A head form is mounted to point the face downward at an angle of 135 degrees. The helmet is placed on the head form, and the straps and buckles are adjusted to obtain the best-fit condition. Weight is connected via wire rope and dropped from a determined height. The helmet is turned 180 degrees, and the test is conducted again. The helmet may shift but must not roll off the head form to pass the test.
- Dynamic Retention Test: The helmet is placed on a head form with the chin strap fastened under a device representing the jaw. The jaw piece has a 23 kg weight applied for around one minute. The retention system is tested by removing the 23 kg weight and applying a 38 kg mass in an abrupt guided fall. The retention system fails if it cannot support the mechanical loads or if the maximum instantaneous deflection (stretch) exceeds 30 mm (1.18 inches).
- Chin Bar Test: The test helmet is attached to a base with the chin bar facing upward. A 5 kg weight is dropped to hit the central portion of the chin bar. The maximum downward deflection of the chin bar must not exceed the stated distance.
- Shell Penetration Test: The test helmet is attached to a base. A sharp-pointed 3-kg object is dropped from a prescribed height. The test striker must not penetrate the helmet or even achieve momentary contact with the head from inside the helmet.
- Face Shield Penetration Test: The face shield (also called a visor) is attached to a test helmet and shot along the centerline in three places with an air rifle. The rifle shoots sharp, soft lead pellets at approximately 500 kph (310 mph). The pellets must not penetrate the visor for it to pass the test.
D.O.T. (DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION FMVSS218)
FMVSS218 is the technical standard that defines the minimum criteria a helmet manufacturer must certify against in the United States. It’s known as the DOT helmet standard certification generally. The tests are very similar to the Snell Memorial tests. Still, the judged values are slightly different on criteria for impact, severity, and test equipment used. As a result, the Snell certification is more difficult to pass than the DOT testing. One additional note is that the manufacturer certifies their helmets in their labs. In contrast, Snell tests and certifies any helmet submitted to them from any manufacturer.
EUROPEAN STANDARD 22/05
The European standard is similar to the DOT and Snell testing. The values and tests vary slightly on most criteria, and it also adds a retention standard testing for slipping, abrasion, retention, and durability. One additional test for helmet shell rigidity is done under the ECE 22/05 standard, not done under Snell or DOT.
EUROPEAN BSI 6658-85 TYPE A
Europe also has a second standard that helmets are measured by, which is very close to the Snell testing scheme. Passing values on specific tests vary slightly from the Snell standard. Still, many of the categories list the benefits as the “same as the Snell M2005 test” as a reference. The BSI tests also incorporate the chin strap slippage, retention, and abrasion testing seen on the ECE 22/05.
SHARP is a testing and rating system only available for helmets sold in the UK (United Kingdom / England). It measures the impact protection of the helmet based on similar testing to the other standards and rates helmets with a star rating system instead of a pass/fails result. The ratings are shown from 1 to 5 stars.
When To Replace Your Motorcycle Helmet
A common consensus insists helmets should be replaced every five years, even assuming you have not had any direct impacts that would jeopardize the impact protection of the helmet. This recommendation is mainly from helmet manufacturers and the Snell Memorial Foundation after studying the effects on a helmet from regular use. There is no evidence we’re aware of that suggests a well-maintained, undamaged helmet will suddenly lose its ability after five years. Deterioration is gradual, and many variables can slow down or speed up that process.
Motorcycle Helmet Degradation
Helmet degradation happens from normal wear and tear, hair oils, body fluids, and cosmetics. Cleaners, paints, fuels, and other materials affect the liner materials and overall helmet performance. Here are some tips to help prolong helmet degradation:
- Follow the manufacturer’s care instructions for your helmet
- Use the mildest soap recommended
- Exposure to potent cleaning agents can cause the helmet to decompose and lose protective value. Avoid any petroleum-based cleaning fluids, especially with polycarbonate helmets.
- Keep your helmet’s face shield clean. Typically, mild soap and warm water with a cloth will work. If it gets scratched and vision is impaired, replace it.
Really, there is no evidence that these super premium helmets provide any better protection than the DOT full face helmets that you can get at Cycle Gear for $49.99. If there is, I would like to see it. Me, personally, I use a 2010 Bell Star, but that is because of comfort and features, not because I think it provides more protection than other Snell approved helmets costing hundreds less.
It sounds legit to me, if you think about it, those $50 plastic buckets with cheap liners cannot be near as safe as, an engineered for safety, high-end material that stands up to a much more rigorous set of standards. If the cheap helmet could pass those test they would do it and proudly announce it has same quality at a fraction of the cost.
Well, it’s not exactly styrofoam, and that’s for a reason. There is a HUGE difference between styrofoam and the EPS foam used in helmets. Your suggestion of gel has a slight issue with the gel technology available right now. Most ‘soft, cushiony’ gels will not absorb enough energy to protect you in a 50mph crash. Recently, we have seen technologies such as D3O that can absorb more energy, and some helmets utilize these gels as intermediate layers between solid crash protection – EPS polystyrene. Styrofoam crumbles between your fingers; EPS can take a 50mph direct impact and protect your brain. Your logic is correct in saying that you want multiple density layers, because different densities of EPS foam absorb different amounts of energy. For example, a layer of EPS that is built to withstand a 50mph impact is going to feel awfully hard in a 20mph impact, and likewise, a layer of EPS for 20mph protection will be crushed in a 50mph impact. I have seen motorcyclists ride with bicycle helmets because ‘it’s good protection’, but the foam used in those is built for low-speed cushioning, not freeway-speed protection. Here is where many helmets, such as the ones above, excel in comparison to the $50 plebeian helmets suggested above. The helmets above may be a bit more expensive, but they have lots of technology (such as many layers of impact-absorbing material, great aerodynamics and appropriate ventilation to prevent hearing loss from 115dB wind, etc). While you might save a bit of money at the cashier when you buy the bargain helmet, you are putting your own life at risk.
Are you aware of the impact velocity snell and DOT use? It is not nearly 50mph. It is more closely associated with the impact velocity from gravity at the average height a motocyclists head will be from the pavement. Like 5 feet. This equates to IIRC about 19mph. This is the force a helmet is designed to withstand to prevent a 300g force to the brain.
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The idea of not wearing a helmet being safe is so stupid you’d think no one would be dumb enough to suggest it. I think it should be a personal choice but there’s no way in hell I would ride without one. I had a helmet save my life (again) on January 25, 2015 when I hit gravel in a blind turn on a back country road when I went through a barbwire fence at 50+ MPH. I had a small hematoma on the front of my brain as well as swelling along the side of my head but fortunately all was back to normal in a few days. Without a helmet I would surely be dead. I was wearing a full face modular at the time.
I think all of helmet you mention is safest . Of-course you select these on experience. But What about modular helmet, are these safe for rider.
Outstanding and well written article. First-time or new buyers generally ignore Helmet certifications and buy helmets without knowing it. You explained those certifications very easily.
Motorcycle riders should also consider following things like; Don’t hang your helmet on motorcycle mirror or suspend it next to the hot engine. This will help you maintain an outstanding durability. If you are a learner rider, go for a lighter model instead of the heavier one. This is because maintaining balance on your ride is every compliment to a safe ride.
Hi Michael Padway, thanks for this great article all helmets are amazing but i like Fly Racing Street Revolt FS Liberator most because his look is very amazing. all safest bike helmet are very nice
Thanks for such a nice content. Apppreciate it 🙂
“Motorcycle helmets should be replaced every five years (…) This recommendation is from a consensus of helmet manufacturers and the Snell Memorial Foundation (…).” There is absolutely no reason to replace helmet after 5 years if there was no impact. What you should replace are inserts but the main body of helmet can be used way more then 5 years. But of course manufacturers will tell you “BUY, BUY, BUY”. The other reason to replace helmet earlier may be if there is significant improvement in structure of new helmet and it is just simple safer but the rule “replace after 5 years” is simply wrong.
helmet make an extra layer for the head and in this manner shield the wearer from a portion of the more extreme types of horrible mind injury. A protective helmet means to lessen the danger of genuine head and mind wounds by decreasing the effect of a power or crash to the head.
When you argue about price i always recall bells slogan from the seventies “A ten dollar hat for a ten dollar head” so what’s your life worth?