How to Decide on the Best Motorcycle Helmet for You

Motorcycle helmets are a top controversial topic among riders. Some see them as life savers while others see them as hindering their experience of the open road. Depending on what state you ride in (or will be riding through), wearing a helmet may be less of a choice and more of a legal requirement.

Half Helmet with Skull Flame Design

Half Helmet with Skull Flame Design

Whether you would never consider riding without a helmet or it’s something your state has mandated, helmets have been shown to reduce the likelihood of serious injury in a motorcycle accident. Thirty years ago the Hurt Report, officially titled Motorcycle Accident Cause Factors and Identification of Countermeasures, Volume 1: Technical Report, provided data that showed a significant reduction in accident deaths and brain injuries when riders were wearing helmets, and today’s helmet are even more effective and heavily designed than when the report first came out.

Types of Helmets

There are basically four types of legal helmets for a biker to choose from, each with a different level of coverage to fit what you need.

Full-face helmets provide the most coverage by completely covering the head and face. A shield over the eyes provides an opening for vision that can be flipped up when the rider is stopped. This style of helmet protects your entire head as well as your mouth, nose and eyes from scraping on the pavement. For maximum protection the chinbar should have the same EPS foam as the rest of the helmet liner. Face protection from the wind, rain and bug splatter is an added benefit of this type of helmet. 

Flip-up helmets (also called modular helmets) provide a similar level of protection to full-face helmets, but the entire front faceplate can be flipped up, usually by pushing a button or lever. This allows you to leave your helmet on when running into a store or getting gas without having your face covered. The drawback to this style is that the helmets are usually heavier, by about 2 ounces, and in some circumstances there is the possibility of the faceplate coming up in an impact.

Three-quarter helmets (or open-face helmets) allow riders to feel the wind on their faces (and the occasional bug) and are lighter then either of the full-coverage helmet styles. They cover the sides and back of the head but not the face. They may be a good compromise if the full-face helmet is too uncomfortable or makes you feel claustrophobic. The disadvantage is that you will have no protection for your face in a crash and will be exposed to the elements when riding in the rain.

Half helmets (also called shorties or beanies) may be the option if you’d rather not be wearing a helmet but are required to by state law. They are legal in the U.S. as long as they are DOT approved, and they are the lightest and least restrictive style of helmet. They are popular with Harley riders. When wearing this type of helmet, you’ll need to wear some kind of eye protection, either goggles or sturdy sunglasses if your head rises above your bike’s windshield. Be sure the helmet is properly secured because half helmets have been known to roll off under impact.

How Helmets Work

If you’ve ever wondered why a helmet that’s been in an accident or even a helmet that has been dropped on the ground is no longer safe to wear, the answer has to do with the way helmets are designed to absorb impact. A helmet is made up of three layers. First is the interior liner that helps with comfort and fit, then is a layer of closed-cell expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam, and finally the outer shell is made of plastic, fiberglass or composite fibers that diffuse the impact. The EPS foam is designed to crush at a controlled rate when it meets an impact. It disperses the energy and stops it from being absorbed directly into the rider’s skull. Because the foam is designed to crush on impact, once it has been in an accident or dropped it is “used-up” and you’ll need to replace the helmet. The foam liner is made of a similar type of foam to Styrofoam drink cups and is about an inch thick inside the helmet.

Safety Standards

For a helmet to be sold legally for motorcycle use in the United States, it needs to be approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). The DOT sets certain minimum standards for impact absorption. An approved helmet will pass no more than 400 g’s (meaning 400 times the force of gravity) to a rider’s head when tested from two controlled drops. The first is 72 inches at a minimum fall speed of 19.7 feet/second and the second is 54.5 inches at a minimum fall speed of 17.1 feet/second. And, no, the DOT doesn’t drop actual riders in their tests. A headform with instruments to measure the forces is used instead.

All DOT helmets will have a DOT sticker attached to the back. If it doesn’t have that sticker, it is most likely a novelty helmet and won’t provide adequate protection in an accident.

DOT isn’t the only standard, however. The Snell standard tests for an even more stringent limit of only 300 g’s passed to the rider’s head. Other standards you might see on helmets are the BSI (British standard) and the ECE (European Community) standard.