A motorcycle helmet is one of the most important pieces of gear you can wear. As riders, we have more vulnerability to dangers out on the road. Not only do helmets protect us from the elements and things like bugs and rocks, but they also are lifesaving. While helmets won’t stop you from getting into accidents, they can prevent and limit injury and death. According to the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), helmets saved the lives of riders by 37%. Further, more than 25,000 lives have been saved from 2002-2017 by wearing helmets.
How do motorcycle helmets work?
Beyond advancements in helmet technology that gives riders access to things such as Bluetooth, communication and even navigation, the main function of a helmet is to protect riders' heads. How does it do this effectively? Most helmets are designed with an outer shell and inner foam lining that are made of impact absorbing material. A face shield protects riders from the outside elements and the chin strap secures the helmet to the riders head. The innermost layer features comfort padding usually made of lightweight cloth and foam materials. The design and materials work together to distort the helmet shape, to disperse the energy from impact, thus weakening the blow to the rider’s skull.
The outer layer of helmets are usually made of polycarbonate plastic, fiberglass or Kevlar. The function of the outer shell is to provide protection from objects that may puncture the skull, as well as protecting the inner layer from completely being destroyed upon impact.
The inner layer is typically made of thick, soft polystyrene or polypropylene (EPS) foam layers. The inner layer is designed to “crush” during impact, helping the brain from moving around inside your skull. By extending the head’s stopping distance, helmets are capable of reducing peak impact to the brain.
A common misconception is that the helmets are more so designed to help riders' skulls being split open, and while that is quite helpful, what helmets are really responsible for is protecting the brain from impacting the inner skull—which are when motorcycle accidents can get deadly. Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBIs) are the most common cause of death in the event of a motorcycle accident, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) reports. At high speeds, motorcycle accidents can have severe effects on the brain and can lead to things such as paralysis and even death.
Types Of Helmets
Aside from the basic construction of motorcycle helmets, there are six primary different types of helmets, all based on the type of riding you do and the style you like. However based on lots of questions and popularity regarding graphic and character themed motorcycle helmets, I will include those in this list at the end.
Full Face Helmets are typically your most protective type of motorcycle helmet. One feature that sets these apart from the other five helmets is the chin bar that is attached all around to the molding of the helmet. Studies have shown that as many as 35% of motorcycle accidents have a direct impact on the chin and jaw.
Some features that full-face helmets have are ventilation slots that help the rider get airflow, as well as reduce fog that can accumulate on the visor. In the winter, these vents can be closed depending on the helmet, and will keep riders warm.
In the most recent models of full face helmets, there are provided Bluetooth features, as well as adjustable visors and even carbon fiber and fiberglass materials that give riders lightweight wearability.
These are great for riders who adopt the upright and sport riding position, as they are typically more lightweight and have better aerodynamics than half-helmets, for example.
Modular helmets offer second-best safety to riders. These helmets are ideal for those who need to communicate with other riders often, such as policemen, riding instructors or delivery people.
These helmets are a blend of full face helmets and ¾ (open face) helmets. The chin bar and visors can flip up if need be, and in newer models, there is a flip down sunglasses feature.
Most modulars are made of the same materials as full face helmets and follow closely the same design. These helmets also are slightly heavier than full-face helmets as they have more features to accommodate for.
The reason these helmets are slightly less safe than full-face helmets is because they include a hinge in the design for the flip-up mechanic, which could potentially break off in the event of an accident.
These helmets also include bluetooth features in newer models, as well as dual-visors for added eye protection.
¾ Helmet (Open Face)
Open face ¾ helmets offer protection around the head, ears, upper neck and forehead. However, these helmets offer significantly less protection than full face or modulars, as they completely leave the face exposed.
Despite this, they still have benefits such as great breathability, no fog, are lightweight and have decent neck support.
In some open-face helmets, there are added eye protection/visors included. Some of these are detachable and work great for riders that like to wear goggles or sunglasses. While these helmets are not as safe, they still give riders pretty decent protection against the elements, especially rain, as there won’t be any fogging.
Half helmets only cover the tops of riders' heads. These helmets are sometimes referred to as brain buckets, given their design and offer little-no protection to the face.
These helmets are popular amongst the cruiser and scooter crowds, as they give a more relaxed and lightweight feel to riding. A lot of riders prefer these helmets to any other, as they let them get the most natural feel of motorcycle riding – such as the wind in your face, the rumble of the engine and the open air.
According to a recent study, motorcycle riders wearing half-helmets were twice as likely to receive head injuries, compared to those wearing full face helmets. All in all, these helmets are not as safe as full face helmets, but are still better than wearing nothing.
Because off-road activities tend to be more rugged and dirtier experience, the helmets for the sports that fall under this class need to be just as rugged in design.
An extended chin bar that juts out and an overhanging forehead design help riders navigate their way through obstacles, dirt, and anything that competitors' back tires may skid out at them.
The angular design helps with aerodynamics as well as speed and agility. Most off-road helmets are made of kevlar or carbon fiber materials that keep them protective, as well as lightweight. Additionally, they have customization capabilities so that riders can add or detach certain gear components to maximize their safety and comfort.
A happy medium between an off-road helmet and a street helmet, is the dual-sport helmet. With similar fairings and sun-peaks for added weather protection, the dual-sport offers riders the best of both worlds.
This is a great helmet choice for riders seeking a lightweight and versatile helmet, however because the visor has different mechanics than classic full face helmets, these can sometimes be difficult.
Overall, dual-sport helmets offer pretty good protection, however aren’t quite as good as full face. But for what they’re made for (adventure and street riding), these helmets get the job done.
Lots of motorcycle riders want to look cool and unique on the road. In recent years there has been a rise in popularity of Venom motorcycle helmets, Batman, Iron Man and even American flag helmets, for example. Some of these helmets can get pretty pricey, and a lot of them can even be cheaply made.
However, many you can find to have DOT and ECE ratings, and even be made by trusted brands, such as HJC's Venom graphic helmet, which is both DOT and ECE approved.
It is imperative that if you’re considering buying these cool helmets that you do some research and check to see if they have at the minimum DOT ratings. Another thing, don’t get your Batman motorcycle helmet confused for a cosplay helmet. One will save your life and one will shatter to pieces in the event of an accident.
How To Buy A Helmet
When you’re first buying a helmet there are a few things you should consider. What type of helmet you should get, what fit is right for you, what’s your price range and how safe should your helmet be. The best thing you can do is to go into a store near you, and try on different helmets and get fitted. This way, you'll know your options and can actually see what is comfortable for you.
When it comes to buying helmets, sure there are different sizes available (XS-XXL), but that all goes out the window when you consider head shapes. There are three different head shapes that helmets land under. Usually, these differ by brand models.
The three head shapes are as follows:
This is the most common head shape people have, meaning you’ll find an easier time finding the right helmet for you, given that most companies push models that have intermediate oval shapes. The front to back sizing is just a bit longer than from ear to ear.
Both front to back and ear to ear sizes are very similar, giving a round appearance.
This means the measurement from forehead to the back of the skull is longer than ear to ear.
As a beginner, you probably don’t want to spend a ton of money on expensive helmets, when you’ve already had to buy the bike, the classes and the license fees. Expensive gear just seems like more and more money added on to this hobby. Don’t be discouraged, because you can find really nice helmets that are budget and beginner friendly.
It must be said though that the more expensive you buy the more comfortable, lightweight and potentially safer the helmet will be. Some helmets can even go up to $4,000+. Those usually have fancy features and have flashy graphics. At the bare minimum, all you’ll need is a solid helmet you can find for under $200. If you’re just starting out, there are great helmets on the market that are inexpensive, that should do you fine until you get through a few riding seasons.
There are different safety standards of helmets across the world. The most common are the United States’ DOT and Snell, the European ECE and FIM and the Japanese JIS. In order to receive a rating of any of these organizations, helmets must undergo rounds of testing that in the end will determine if they’re suitable for wear and protection.
Out of all of these different standards, the FIM (homologation testing) is arguably the best sticker you can have on your helmet. This European testing standard stands out from the rest, due to what they test for—the helmet’s resistance to rotational forces. Which, as discussed before, is one of the leading causes of motorcycle accidents (brain injury). The testing to get an FIM rated helmet is considerably harder than any other rating, which is why these helmets are used in MotoGP races and are understandably pricier.
This doesn’t mean you have to spend a pretty penny to be safe on your bike, however before you consider your purchase it’s just something to take into account for. As long as you at least have on a decent helmet, you should be good to go.
Motorcycle Helmet Laws
Now, some states do not even require riders to use a helmet. Some require those just under 18 to wear a helmet. Some states require all riders, no matter the age to wear helmets. Despite these laws, I encourage riders to just wear one anyway. You’ll hear the same in any MSF courses you plan on taking—you can’t prevent accidents from happening but you can prevent injury, and that is by wearing your gear and especially a helmet.
States that don’t require helmets:
States with age requirements for wearing helmets (Under 18):
Arkansas (Under 21)
Delaware (Under 19)
Florida (Under 21)
Kentucky (Under 21)
Michigan (Under 21)
Missouri (Under 26)
Pennsylvania (Under 21)
Rhode Island (Under 21)
South Carolina (Under 21)
Texas (Under 21)
States that require all riders to wear helmets:
So...Should You Wear A Motorcycle Helmet? Overall, the short answer is yes, always. If you need more convincing, there are tons of viral videos showing gruesome outcomes for riders who don’t wear gear, specifically helmets. What kind of helmet is ultimately up to you, but the least you can do is just wear one. Your safety comes first, so wearing proper gear is invaluable, and so are you. There are many different types of helmets you can choose, depending on your style of riding and head shape. It all comes down to your preferences to comfort and safety. The most helpful thing you can do when you're on the lookout for a helmet is to actually go to a store and get sized and fitted.
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