Feeling the freedom of the open road and the wind running across you as you ride is 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. In 2015, motorcycle helmets saved an estimated 1,772 lives, and could have saved an additional 740 lives, had the motorcyclist worn a helmet. Whether your state requires wearing a motorcycle helmet by law, you should ALWAYS ride with a helmet. 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.
MOTORCYCLE SAFETY HELMET FEATURES
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 adequately protect the face and jaw. When considering a helmet, always look for a shell-built design. It is the first line of defense that 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. It is the second line of defense that 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 materials used to make the helmet, features available, and the visual aesthetics of the helmet.
HELMET SAFETY VS. BRAND REPUTATION
Like motorcycles, heritage and history play a major role in consumer confidence in a particular manufacturer. There are many old and new helmet brands on the market, but some of the new brands are not in the old, and that’s history. That said, there’s nothing wrong with choosing a relatively young brand name. Sure, there are experienced brands such as HJC, AGV, Shoei, Arai, but other brand names are good examples for themselves in their quest to create safe lids for motorcyclists. Our advice? Do a research and make sure 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 so that it points 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 separate 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 that 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 very 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 testing.
SHARP is a testing and rating system only available for helmets sold in the UK (United Kingdom / England). It measures 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/fail 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 a gradual process, 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 also 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.