Whether you are buying a new motorcycle helmet or evaluating your existing head protection, there is a lot to consider when deciding which helmet is right for you.
To make sure your helmet does what you need it to, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has issued a standard that certifies helmet models that pass rigorous laboratory testing.
When you shop for a helmet, the first thing you'll want to see is the DOT sticker proving the helmet design meets the DOT safety standards and provides these primary functions:
- Impact protection
- Penetration protection
Your helmet protects you from impact by distributing the force across the outer shell and the impact-absorbing liner―expanded polystyrene, or EPS. You should know that once you have suffered an impact, the shell and EPS systems are compromised and you'll need to replace the helmet. Take comfort in knowing your helmet did its job.
Penetration protection comes from the outer shell, which is designed and tested against typical road hazards like flying objects. Some shells are also scratch resistant, which means they won't be marked by rogue bugs, rocks, or sticks.
Finally, the retention system must keep the helmet on your head during an impact. The DOT-certified models are tested for retention. How well your helmet fastens and stays on your head will depend on not only the retention system, but also the fit.
Fit and comfort aren't always the same thing. Your helmet must fit snugly, tight enough so that you can't pull it off by grabbing the back and yanking forward. You should feel your skin moving with the helmet as you wiggle the shell around.
Many helmets come with adjustable padding to help shape the helmet to your head. You should feel the padding against the top and front of your head. If you have a full-face or open-face helmet, the padding will lock in your cheeks and chin, too.
Some riders try on dozens of helmets before they are satisfied with the fit. If your helmet doesn't fit snugly, you won't get the protection you expect. Testing the helmet on a short bike ride is a great way to measure the fit and the comfort.
Comfort features include air vents, padding, and noise control. Many helmets have vents on the top of the helmet to cool your crown and on the front (full-face only) to cool your face and chin. Air vents can change the flow of air over the helmet, with the disadvantage of extra drag. Still, the flow of fresh air often outweighs the decrease in aerodynamics in the minds of riders.
Padding can be adjustable to fit your face. Everyone has different features and your cheekbones, nose, forehead, and jaw will be the most comfortable if you can personalize the padding and comfort liner. You will want to feel pressure from the padding, but not enough to become painful or distracting.
Padding around the ears can also add to the comfort of your ride. Many motorcycle safety specialists believe that a tight seal around the ear helps to block out wind sounds and improve attunement to engine noises. If your hearing seems muffled at first, be patient and you may grow to like the effect―especially on long trips.
Many factors contribute to the cost of your helmet, and settling on a budget can be difficult because it's hard to put a price on safety. Fortunately, there are many good DOT-certified helmets available in a wide range of styles and prices.
Special graphics can increase the cost of your helmet. If you're willing to forgo some style, you can save money. Extras like air vents and adjustable padding can also drive up the helmet cost. Even face shields, which seem standard today, add to the cost.
Sometimes you can negotiate the helmet price if you are also buying a motorcycle. Many dealers recognize the advantage of keeping you as a satisfied customer for many years to come; perhaps they'll budge a little on the helmet price.
There are several major categories of helmet styles:
- Full coverage.
- Open face.
The full-coverage style has a chin bar as part of the outer shell. This style offers the most protection from impact and penetration hazards―add a face shield, and you're protected from the neck up.
You may opt for the open-face helmet; think of a more traditional look, with a chin strap and no face shield. This helmet has more coverage than a shorty, but without the face shield you give up protection from insects and wind.
Shorty helmets are popular with many bikers because they resemble old-fashioned helmets. Although there is less coverage, this style still passes the DOT standard for impact and penetration protection. A shorty helmet must fit snugly enough to stay on during a crash.
When deciding on your helmet style, consider color, too. A bright, conspicuous color will improve your chances of being seen by other drivers. Many bikers are hit by cars because the motorist didn't even see the motorcycle.
As you can see, selecting a helmet might take you just as long as choosing a motorcycle. You want your riding experience to be fun and safe; selecting the helmet that is right for your head is a critical part of your safety gear. If you are ever in a crash, you will be glad you invested the time and money in a quality motorcycle helmet.