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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
There are many helmets to choose from, and aside from safety standard ratings, it’s difficult to define what the “safest” helmet is. We’ve compiled a list of our top 11 safest motorcycle helmet recommendations ranging from every price point below:
The X-Fourteen is Shoei’s professional-grade full-face sportbike helmet. The highest quality of safety and aerodynamics mixed into one helmet with all sorts of shapes, ridges, edges crafted to increase stability and stream when racing. Rated high in comfort and noise suppression (noise suppression isn’t the highest of priorities for a track helmet), just about every component inside the helmet is removable and adjustable.
The helmet also comes with Pinlock Evo anti-fog insert to prevent visor fog, fitting for the price you pay. While it may not be practical for the everyday rider, this is definitely worth the look if you’re looking for something high-end.
The Signet-X comprises a multi-layered fiberglass shell reinforced with a polystyrene liner to offer a better absorption rate. The helmet packs with a deeper comfort liner made from the antimicrobial material “Evo Pure” and foam spring-loaded cheek pads. The foam installs to push against the jaw for an even tighter, snug fit.
Arai also equipped the Signet-X with its version of an emergency quick removal system (EQRS). The EQRS makes it easier to remove your helmet while preventing further injury to your spine if the situation calls for it. Let’s hope it doesn’t.
A Pinlock max vision 120 anti-fog insert is included in the box and completes the package of a very high-quality piece of engineering from Arai.
The Pista GP is AGV’s top-end sport bike helmet and the most expensive helmet on our list. It is made with a carbon fiber shell for high energy absorption with a polystyrene shock-absorbing lining. Given the carbon fiber make, the GP-R weighs in at 2.9lbs/1.3kg, making it feel as light as air.
Another neat little add-on is that the GP-R comes integrated with a hydration system. So essentially, you have a tube that’s wired through the helmet to the chin guard to give you a CamelBak effect.
Some complaints about the Pista GP have been in the ventilation category. Some say that the chin vent doesn’t provide as much flow as it should, and the helmet could use a Pinlock insert to deal with fog.
Shoei makes the list yet again with the RF-SR – a more affordable option than some of the other models we’ve showcased.
Of the five Shoei helmets with AIM+ technology, four have scored a 5/5 rating from SHARP, which speaks volumes about their initiative toward safety. The RF-SR comes in four shell sizes, which means the efficiency of the material is high. The heavier the helmet you have, the more danger implied as inertia increases during impact.
If you’re looking for a high-quality, all-around helmet that’s top end for safety but still within a reasonable budget, the Shoei RF-SR is a great pick.
Despite the potentially confusing model name, Shark’s Evo-One 2 is a new and improved, compact version of their previous Evo-One, which was already touted very highly for quality and safety.
Shark has made the modular-to-open-face option a very smooth transition with their engineering, and this helmet is a great example. Shark’s “auto-up-, auto-down” technology enables you to open the shield automatically as you’re opening the chin guard. If you happen to be in open-face mode, pulling the chin guard back over enables the shield to move up and let the guard close.
The Evo-One 2 has had mixed to negative reviews regarding how the helmet handles noise(like most feedback on noise with helmets). So if you’re in the market for something quiet, then this may not be the best buy for you.
HJC’s C70 model is our cheapest featured helmet, which should already excite you! This helmet is REPLACING a helmet that has already scored a 5-star SHARP rating — and this newer, improved version is no different, scoring five stars of its own.
Like the IS17, the C70 is a polycarbonate shell with a drop-down sun visor, micrometric fastener, and easy-release main visor. The helmet is also Pinlock ready; however, there’s no Pinlock included, which you can expect at this price.
Aside from a re-designed shell for better aerodynamics and some other minor tweaks, the C70 is very similar to its predecessor. It’s a great, affordable option for an all-around helmet that’s high in safety standards.
Of course, you’d like to see more shell sizes for this model but understand that — at the price this helmet goes for — it’s probably wishful thinking. As far as cost is concerned, what’s not to like?
Released in the US with a drastically different look than the previous version, the Scorpion EXO-R420 looks to make an impact (no pun intended) on the more budget-friendly safety category. The helmet is made with a polycarbonate shell, which is to be expected at this price range. However, you may not expect at this price range that the EXO-R420 comes with an emergency quick-release system (EQRS). An EQRS is implemented to help remove a helmet without damaging a rider’s spine.
In terms of comfort and fit, the consensus is that the helmet fits comfortably. However, it’s worth noting that some users had to order a size larger than usual.
Despite the first version of this helmet only being out for a couple of years, Shark has released a follow-up in the Skwal 2. The Skwal 2 is made with thermoplastic and has LEDs integrated into the front and rear.
One of the more commonly voiced weaknesses of the original Skwal version was the noise. Shark engineering has worked toward improving the auto seal shield system to address some of the noise complaints. Judging by the consensus of riders who own the Skwal 2, the helmet is slightly quieter — still, don’t expect to ride it without using earplugs.
The Skwal 2 is designed for the medium oval head and is well-known for being more comfortable.
Shark’s Race-R Pro is one of our more expensive picks in the safety/performance category — rightfully so, the helmet is designed for pro racing. Made with a carbon fiber shell and weighing in at only 2.9lbs/1.3kg, this helmet has some very impressive safety rating scores across the board.
The helmet’s very accommodating inside packs with “bamboo fiber,” which supposedly fight against moisture retention and bacteria. The fully removable/washable interior of the helmet also comes packed with a “whisper-strip” designed to cut out noise by forming a barrier along your neck.
Another impressive piece of technology, in addition to the anti-fog coating provided, is a rubber mask provided inside to help deflect your breath downward and reduce moisture. Overall, while being one of the more expensive options, the Race-R Pro doesn’t lack in quality.
Surpassing its highly-rated previous version, the X-Lite X-1004 is an interesting helmet to examine. It comes in two different versions: composite and carbon fiber. The helmet comes with various features such as Bluetooth integration, Pinlock integration, sun visor, etc. However, one concern that we have is that we were surprised to learn that it doesn’t come with a Pinlock anti-fog insert for the considerably increased price.
We’ve received generally positive reviews about the helmet’s accommodations for comfort and fit. X-Lite uses an inner lining called “Unitherm,” which includes cheek pads made from foam that provide constant pressure and don’t compress over time. The X-1004 also comes in many sizes (XXS – XXXL), which few other helmets offer. The helmet’s neck roll removes to accommodate ventilation and cooling on hotter rides.
The second most expensive helmet on our list: The Corsair X by Arai. This helmet is the famed upgrade of the Corsair V. Despite these two helmets looking almost identical, Arai has invested quite a bit into making the Corsair X a significant upgrade.
The Corsair X comprises a composite fiber shell that’s been slightly tweaked to weigh slightly less than the Corsair V while scoring higher when tested by SNELL. The helmet comes with a smoother, reinforced outer shell for glancing off surfaces even better than with the previous version.
In addition to the above, Arai has also improved the ventilation duct on the top of the helmet. With a myriad of different air vents and exhausts placed across the shell, it’s safe to say that ventilation is one of Arai’s biggest strengths.
Another area that Arai excels in is comfort and fit. With removable panels and lining along with adjustable cheek, skull, and temple areas — You can tweak the contour of this helmet in just about every way possible.
In closing, here are the key takeaways on the safest motorcycle helmets:
- The full-face helmet is the safest type of helmet
- Motorcycle Helmet features to focus on first: Shell-built design, Impact-absorbing liner, Chin strap
- A higher cost doesn’t necessarily equate to a safer helmet
- A helmet’s safety rating is the most important metric when considering helmet safety
- DOT FMVSS218 is the technical standard that defines the minimum criteria that a helmet manufacturer must certify against in the United States
- There are multiple tests you should conduct to ensure your helmet fits appropriately
- Five years is the general approximation of how often a helmet should be replaced. Ultimately, the need to replace your helmet will be determined by the amount of wear, quality of helmet, and upkeep on the helmet
- Avoid strong cleaning agents that can deteriorate your helmet over time