You can argue that the most critical piece of safety gear when riding a motorcycle is the helmet. In 2015 alone, motorcycle helmets saved an estimated 1,772 motorcyclist lives. Helmets could have saved an additional 740 lives had the motorcyclist been wearing one when they had an accident. Your state may or may not require that you wear a helmet by law, but you should ALWAYS ride with a helmet.
We’ve delved into the safest motorcycle helmets, but there are additional questions worth answering.
How do specific types of motorcycle helmets compare when it comes to safety?
What features should you look for to keep you safe while riding?
How should a helmet properly fit your head?
We’ve got the answers to these questions so you can confidently search for your next helmet!
There are six primary motorcycle helmets types:
- Half Helmets
Full-Face Helmet Coverage
The full-face helmet offers the most coverage around your head and neck. As a result, it is considered the safest type of motorcycle helmet to protect you from potential impact.
A full-face helmet is a versatile choice for all riders, regardless of the type of motorcycle you ride or where you ride it. A full-face helmet varies depending on the riding that you do. Sports riders have a crouched riding position and need a helmet that doesn’t lift at high speeds. Therefore, they usually opt for a helmet with a higher chin bar, and a visor opening angled slightly towards the top of the helmet.
Full-Face Helmet Design and Features
A distinguishing feature of the full-face helmet is the chin bar, which is a crucial safety feature that many helmets lack. The chin encounters fifty percent of severe impacts during an accident, and only a full-face helmet can provide you with protection for your chin and jaw.
Most full-face helmets have ventilation through the helmet to evaporate sweat, reduce visor fogging, and keep you cool while riding. In the colder months, the ventilation can be closed to reduce the airflow.
New features have been added to full-face helmets in recent years, including Bluetooth technology, high-visibility designs, and visors that adjust to sunlight conditions.
Modular Helmet Coverage
Modular helmets, also known as flip-up helmets, are a mix between a ¾ helmet and a full-face helmet. The reason is that the chin bar and visor can flip up to open the front of the helmet.
Modular Helmet Design and Features
Materials and fitment are similar to the full-face helmet. They include a visor for eye protection and occasionally include a secondary internal visor for additional eye protection from the sunlight.
Modular helmets tend to weigh slightly more than the traditional full-face helmet due to the extra design hinge features incorporated into the flip-up front area.
Rider safety is slightly reduced because of the hinge structure, as there is a slight fissure vs. a uniform entity of a full-face helmet. Still, it provides more protection than the ¾ or ½ helmet due to the added chin protection.
The modular helmet is designed with an upright riding position and is often used by tourers, cruisers, and adventure riders. The eye openings are more straightforward, and the chin bar sits lower on the face.
Bluetooth speakers are a welcomed addition and have a dual visor system and anti-fogging coating on the primary visor.
Open-Face Helmet Coverage
Open face helmets, also known as ¾ helmets, cover your head’s top back and sides but leave your face exposed. They are popular amongst scooters, cafe racers, tourers, and cruisers, as the face area is kept open to feel the wind on their skin. The distinguishing feature of a ¾ helmet is the lack of a chin bar, which significantly reduces the safety of the motorcycle helmet.
Open-Face Helmet Design and Features
Open face helmets are considered structurally equal to full-face helmets in terms of safety in their coverage areas. The weight is slightly less than the full-face helmet due to the absence of the chin bar, but it isn’t a significant reduction. In addition, because of the openness of the helmet, it does not protect you against weather conditions and road debris. They either come equipped with partial or full-face visors to protect the eyes and face from sunlight, or they may require you to purchase the part separately.
Half Helmet Coverage
Half helmets only cover the top of your head and the area from your forehead to your brows and provide minimal protection. Some may offer a bit more coverage on the back of your neck and ears but leaves the rest of your face exposed.
Although these helmets provide excellent airflow, they offer significantly less protection than a full face or ¾ helmet. That said, you can still find half-helmets that are DOT-approved.
Half Helmet Design and Features
Most half helmets do not come equipped with a visor or face shield, so you need to purchase eye protection in the form of riding glasses or goggles.
There are minimal technological features, such as Bluetooth speakers, found on the helmets, as there isn’t any space for the features to be implemented. Therefore, there are minimal upgrade options for the helmet.
Off-road Helmet Coverage
Off-road helmets are designed just as their name suggests, to ride away from the streets and on dirt roads. They aren’t the best option for city and highway use but are ideal for places requiring knobby tires.
Off-road helmets usually do not offer eye protection, so riders should be prepared to ride with glasses or goggles. If you’re riding in dirt or mud, goggles will be the preference as they can seal against the rider’s face to prevent debris intrusion while riding.
Off-road Helmet Design and Features
They are designed differently than the full and ¾ helmets, equipped with a larger visor and a more accentuated chin bar for better airflow. They typically are designed for maximum protection, minimum weight, and flowing ventilation for riding during the warmer months, so don’t expect lush creature comforts like Bluetooth speakers.
There are many composite options available, including fiberglass, Kevlar, and carbon fiber. These materials offer great strength and are lightweight to keep your head and neck from becoming fatigued after a long day of riding. If you’re interested, feel free to check out our other article about different lightweight helmet options.
Off-road Helmet Best Practices
If you plan to wear body armor or a neck brace, be sure to try the helmet on with the extra gear to test fitting before you purchase the helmet. Also, be sure to test your goggles with the helmet to ensure the goggles seal to your face well. Some helmets are shaped differently around the eyes and won’t fit all goggle styles perfectly. If one manufacturer offers eyewear and helmets, check for a matching set, if available.
Dual-Sport Helmet Coverage
Dual-sport helmets are a mix between an off-road helmet and a full-face helmet. Dual-sport helmets offer a larger eye protection visor than a full face, but they can also snap into an up position for the use of goggles. The visor is aerodynamic; therefore, it does not lift in the wind like an off-road helmet. In addition, the chin bar is not a protrusive as an off-road helmet, so there is better soundproofing and not as much airflow.
Dual-Sport Helmet Design and Features
It has an exterior styling similar to an off-road helmet with a large visor and lower chin bar. Dual-Sports offer more interior padding and comfort, similar to a full-face helmet. These act as the halfway point between each style, as they designate to be used both on the road and off-road.
These helmets are a great option when you mix terrain on the same riding day. Use the visor down on the street to the trail, then snap it up for goggles and maximum airflow.
When deciding on the type of motorcycle helmet that best fits your riding style, it’s essential to find one that meets motorcycle helmet safety standards.
In the United States, a DOT (Department of Transportation) helmet may be a requirement by law in your state. A helmet must have a DOT certification to be sold in the US as well. Other countries or regions around the world have similar certifications, and there are 3rd parties that offer certification too.
Most certifications are similar in what they test on each helmet, with slight variations on the certification values to meet or exceed for impact forces, energy distribution, and the rider’s head retention.
If you choose to wear a helmet — which we highly recommend — make sure it meets the testing standard or goes beyond what is required for your location.
The motorcycle helmet is constantly evolving to keep up with technological advancements. This includes things like the use of lighter materials for reduced neck strain, additional padding for extra comfort, Bluetooth speakers to allow you to take advantage of your smartphone’s capabilities.
Although motorcycle helmets continue to build out these innovative features, the core anatomy of the motorcycle helmet has remained the same for decades.
The motorcycle helmet has four main components: the outer shell, impact-absorbing liner, padded comfort layer, and retention system/chin strap. The components of the helmet each serve a specific purpose and contribute to keeping your head safe.
The rigid outer shell is the outermost, colored part of the helmet you view from the outside. This usually consists of Kevlar, carbon fiber, polycarbonate, molded plastics, or a combination of those materials. Its primary function is to protect your head in the event of impact or abrasion and to prevent penetration from outside objects, such as rocks, insects, etc.
Impact Absorbing Liner
On the inside of the outer shell is the impact-absorbing liner, typically made from EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam. The primary function of the liner is to absorb shock and displace energy during an impact. The outer shell keeps foreign objects from penetrating the helmet. The inner layer keeps the energy of the impact from transmitting to your head. Some layers may be made from a single-density foam. Other models include a dual-density layer (two layers combined) for added energy displacement during an impact.
Padded Comfort Layer
The padded comfort layer is the area that your head rests against while you’re wearing the helmet. It typically consists of an open-cell foam covered in a second cloth material, designed to wick away sweat and keep you cool while riding. It is usually removable for cleaning purposes and is interchangeable to accommodate different head shapes. Check with your helmet manufacturer to see if they offer different comfort liner shapes to fit your head shape best.
Retention System/Chin Strap
The helmet retention system, also called the chin strap, is secured below your chin to keep the helmet on your head while you ride. It’s made from a woven material and fastened with two d-rings to stay secured. The chin strap should only allow for two fingers between the strap and your chin when adequately secured. The strap is usually partially covered with a similar cloth as the comfort liner to wick away sweat and for comfort as it rests against your skin.
The ventilation system on the helmet is meant to keep the rider’s head cool and help evaporate off the seat as best as possible. Ventilation is more prevalent on full-face and ¾ helmets but can vary by type, depending on the manufacturer. Most vents have the option to open and close for different weather conditions. You may want it fully open during warmer months, fully closed during cooler months, and somewhere in-between during other parts of the riding season. They are adjustable, which makes them a good option for each rider’s comfort.
The face shield or visor is a safety feature to keep bugs, debris, and everything else out of your helmet. They’re usually designed to be removable for cleaning purposes or swap out for another shield/ visor. They come in customizable colors and tints for different riding environments. Be sure to ride with a clear visor in low light levels so you can see the road and environment.
Full-face and ¾ helmets have cheek pads inside the helmet that rest against your cheeks. They are removable for cleaning and are customizable to accommodate different head shapes. They are an added comfort feature similar to the padded comfort liner, intended to provide extra protection to your face and help keep the helmet in place on your head.
The fit of the helmet on your head is critical to finding the best helmet for you. When you start looking for a helmet, you should take a measurement entirely around your head, just above your eyebrows. That will give you an idea of what size of the helmet you need, from an extra small to an extra-large. Each manufacturer’s helmet will fit slightly differently, so a small in one brand may fit like a medium in another.
You should always try a helmet before purchase and checked for fit. When trying it on, the chin strap should be tight enough that only two fingers will fit between the strap and the bottom of your chin. You should not feel any gaps around your head, and the helmet should not be so tight that it’s uncomfortable.
You should wear the helmet for a handful of minutes to get the feel of it, and while wearing it, you should attempt to move it around with your hands. Your cheeks should move as you move the helmet, but the helmet shouldn’t rotate or move in any direction without moving your head.
Testing the fit on the chin strap means you should look down toward your chest and try to push the back of the helmet upward. If you can push it up a lot, the helmet isn’t the best fit for you.
We’ve covered six main types of motorcycle helmets that you can consider when purchasing your first or replacement motorcycle helmet. Some of the things to keep in mind for your search include when you ride (warm months, cold weather, etc.), where you plan to ride (on streets or off-road), and what features you want in a helmet. Full face, modular, ¾, and ½ helmets are more geared towards street riding, while off-road and dual-sport are a better choice if you plan to add some dirt and mud to your riding experience. Ensure your helmet fits the shape of your head, accommodates any extra eye protection you plan on wearing, and that it works with any extra safety gear. While there are always other pieces of gear to consider, your helmet is the single most crucial piece of safety gear. It needs to be up to the challenge of keeping you comfortable in the conditions you want to ride in.