According to CDC figures, wearing a motorcycle helmet reduces the risk of death by 37% and serious head injury by 69% but choosing the wrong helmet can leave you vulnerable. There’s a reason that some helmets are referred to as “brain buckets”. Unfortunately, there is a market for novelty helmets that prioritize style and low pricing over safety. A 50 mph crash on a motorcycle requires a good fit and a solid, safe helmet that can absorb the forces of such a crash. In this blog, I’ll talk about some basics of what to look for and the designations that certain helmets have which assure that your brain is protected, no matter if you are at the track doing triple digits or just running to the coffee shop to get some coffee.
Avoid Novelty Helmets
We all have them and they make for a great conversation piece at bike night, but buyer and rider beware. As a motorcycle accident attorney, I have seen far too many police reports with excerpts stating how the helmet worn by the rider was found some distance away and they always note that the tag on the inside states “for novelty use only”. In fact, I just screened a death case where the cheap plastic buckle on the novelty helmet broke and the rider expired at the scene from his head injuries. Remember: it may look good in the mirror, but if it falls off during a crash, or breaks in half, then the novelty quickly wears off. Trust me on this.
Depending on what part of the planet you are on, there are at least 5 different safety standards that I know of: DOT, ECE, SNELL, FIM, and SHARP. If you live in the US, you can concentrate on DOT and SNELL. If the helmet you are looking at does not have a DOT and/or SNELL rating, DO NOT BUY IT. It’s a novelty helmet and can cost you your life. If you plan on taking your bike to the track, “tech” requires a DOT or SNELL helmet that is less than 10 years old. Scratches, damages, or evidence of a “crashed” helmet will also fail Tech for most track day events or race associations, so keep this in mind before you pay your track entry fees. If you show up to a track day with that cool Star Wars Storm Trooper helmet that is not DOT/SNELL rated, they will not let you ride.
Helmet Coverage & Weight
The more a helmet covers, the more protection it can provide. Having built-in eye protection can save your life and full-face novelty helmets are almost unheard of. If you like your jaw and eyes intact and attached to your head, full-face motorcycle helmets are the way to go. Weight is simple: if it feels flimsy, it probably is. Novelty helmets can weigh as little as a pound or less while DOT Certified helmets generally weigh about 3 pounds. The difference in weight can seem subtle but the DOT-certified helmet will definitely feel more substantial. DOT Certified helmets typically have an expanded polystyrene (stiff foam) inner layer that is at least 3/4” thick. The inner layer may not be visible, many helmets have a comfort layer over top, but you’ll still be able to feel the thickness. Unsafe helmets may have a thin foam layer or none at all. If you’re worried about it feeling too heavy, bulky, or hot, you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you go try some helmets on. I have a Shoei GT-Air II that is so light and has such great ventilation, I barely notice that I’m wearing it, even on 100-degree New Orleans days. It’s just a matter of finding the helmet that fits your head shape perfectly and is geared to your needs.
Motorcycle Helmet Fit
Fit is crucial. DOT certification is only valid for a correctly sized helmet. If there’s a gap between the inside of your helmet and your head, it can’t absorb the impact as it’s designed to do so you’re going to get smacked by the inside of your helmet with all that force. We don’t buy helmets online because we can’t try them on. Sometimes, certain brands or styles are more suited to different head shapes so even with your size and measurements correct, it might not fit properly. A helmet should fit snuggly on your skull and not have any pinch points which make it uncomfortable to wear over a long period of time. Pinch points are places on the helmet where you feel that your skull is pressing a bit more against the interior of the helmet than in other areas. If you feel those pinch points during an initial fitting, that could turn into a headache after a long ride. You want a uniform, snug fit.
A new helmet should be snug enough to push your cheeks up and doesn’t move when you shake your head quickly left and right or up and down. Most riders what instant comfort, so they tend to upsize and avoid feeling that snug fit. But they forget that the cheek pads and interior padding will break in and give way a bit, especially after you sweat in it a few times. Err on the side of snugness when buying and never buy a used helmet off craigslist or from a friend. You want to break in your new helmet and make it custom to your particular skull shape. If you think it is too snug, just give it a week or so and watch that padding relax to conform to your skull.
When I was getting into track riding and received my Amateur Race number and registration, I wanted to get a proper fitting for my new track helmet. The local shops had a mix and mash of nice helmets, but none felt like they fit properly. I heard about a tradeshow in Houston, Texas, and every major helmet manufacturer on the planet was going to be there so I took the ride and I received quite the education. Arai, Shoei, AGV, Shark, Nolan, HJC, Bell, etc. were all in attendance. No helmets could be purchased onsite but they were showing the latest and greatest designs and had their most knowledgeable brand representatives in attendance.
I won’t try and boil down all I learned, but the rep from Arai gave me a virtual Ph.D. in helmets. He explained that most helmets I would try fit “a majority of skulls” but for true track day performance, I would have to dig deeper. He went on the explain that skulls from different parts of the world are shaped differently, and those differences could be boiled down to a specific line from Arai. I was intrigued. He noted that Japanese heads were more round and “pea-shaped”, while American skulls were more ovoid. He mentioned a half dozen other differences but the basics are shown below. Also of note: padding can be changed out to enhance the basic shape and fit. He recommended thicker snap-in cheek pads which he had on hand.
After measuring my skull, assessing my general shape, ad swapping out some of the paddings, he determined that my skull was best served by a special helmet line called the “Profile”. It was an $850 helmet, which gave me some indigestion, but when he put it on my head, it felt like it was part of me. My checks pushed up toward my eye sockets when I adjusted it in place, but when buckled and set, it was an amazing fit. I eventually ordered 2 of them, and, as promised, the padding relaxed a bit, my cheeks came down, and the fit got even better. As for comfort, no single part of my skull pressed through the padding and gave me any discomfort. At 140 mph, I could lift up from behind my windscreen and not feel the helmet moving on my skull from wind buffeting. So, my track helmet (and street helmet) was chosen and set!
New or Used
Please, please, don’t buy a used motorcycle helmet. If you’re looking to save money, you might not end up with a helmet that fits properly or you could get a helmet that’s been damaged. Helmets are a single-use item and if they’ve already been in a crash, even a minor one, they are no longer safe to wear and should be retired. Even a bad drop could compromise the structural integrity of the helmet and there’s just no way to be sure. We generally replace our helmets every 5 years or so, even if they haven’t been damaged because the materials naturally degrade over time and we don’t take chances with our brains. If you really need to save a buck, get fitted and figure out what your dream helmet is, and then follow the shops that sell it on Instagram and subscribe to their email lists. Eventually, there will be a sale or a coupon, but keep in mind that your helmet is literally the last place on earth you should cheap out.
If you don’t have time to drive 6 hours to get your helmet education, at least sit with a professional at a reputable bike equipment shop and have them assist with measurement, fitting, and choice. Once fitted properly, you can shop online if you must, using the information you have learned about your shape and proper fit. The most important thing is to end up with a motorcycle helmet you like. If you like it, you’re much more likely to actually wear it. A helmet that is the perfect pinnacle of military-grade safety is useless if it’s not on your head. Choosing the right motorcycle helmet is about finding the right balance of comfort, safety, and style for you. Find a helmet that fits perfectly and hit the road. If you want to learn more about us and why we might know a thing or two about safety check out our About Us page.