Do you like having a face? How much is your brain worth to you? These two questions, though rhetorical, are the first thoughts you should have when deciding on what helmet to purchase. Luckily, most states have a helmet law for motorcyclists, so the decision to make is not if you should buy a helmet, but which to buy. According to the NHTSA 2008 Traffic Safety Facts (PDF) “helmets are estimated to be 37-percent effective in preventing fatal injuries to motorcycle riders.” That means that out of 100 unhelmeted riders who die in an accident, 37 of them would still be around today had they protected their heads. Although a couple of my posts have talked about pushing your own limits with some possible sacrifice of safety, I cannot stress enough how important it is to ride with the most protective gear you can get your hands on. There’s acceptable risk, and then there’s stupid.

Helmet Crash Zones

Likelihood of damage by region (Courtesy of cdc.gov)

First on your shopping list, and for good reason, should be a full faced helmet. Not a three-quarters helmet. Not a brain bucket. You need a sturdy helmet that will protect your face when, not if, you go down. If you look at the diagram above, you’ll see that the most likely place for damage to occur is on the lower half of your face, which if you value your teeth, you’ll guard. At any speed over 5 miles an hour, sliding on pavement is equivalent to pressing up against a belt sander. Don’t kiss the belt sander.

Other than protecting you from catastrophic injury, a full faced helmet is going to keep rocks, bugs and road debris out of your eyes and mouth. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been traveling at freeway speeds and had a rock bounce off my visor. There’s no way I’d be able to keep riding if I just got hit in the face by a fastball, could you?

Helmets that cover your whole face come in two varieties: a solid, single piece where the only major moving part is the visor; or a modular helmet, which has a hinge that allows the face portion of the helmet to swing up and out of the way. When properly worn, either of these styles will do well in protecting your head and face from impact and abrasion.

US law states that if a helmet is to be sold stateside for the purposes of on-road motorcycle safety, it has to undergo testing and be certified by the DOT. If you check the back of your helmet, I bet you’ll see the three big letters proudly displayed. In addition to DOT certification, many manufacturers will submit their helmets to testing by the Snell Memorial Foundation. The idea behind all these tests is to place a weighted “headform” inside the helmet and drop the helmet at speed as a simulation of a high speed crash. Each dummy head has sophisticated sensors that measure just how much force the helmet let through during the test measured in units of gravitational acceleration, g. Each organization that tests and certifies helmets has slightly different requirements for passing, each one with its own benefits, but all have a variety of shapes used for the weighted head. For example, the DOT Motorcycle Helmet Test (PDF) has a maximum allowed shock of 250g and favors a helmet that better absorbs the shock of the first impact, while the Snell M2010 helmet standard test has a higher tolerance of 275g and favors a durable helmet for multiple impacts. The European Union also has its own testing process, similar to our own DOT’s, which is accepted in almost all other countries around the world. Certain brands sold here in the US carry the ECE certification not because they have to, but because it inspires consumer confidence.

It is very possible (and common) for a helmet to receive Snell certification but not ECE, or vice-versa, due to peculiarities in the testing process and ECE’s preference for “soft” helmets versus Snell’s for durable ones. To make this simple, get a helmet with DOT sticker and ignore everything else, it really is good enough.

Helmet Shape

Intermediate oval is the most common shape (Courtesy of revzilla.com)

After the safety certification, the most important criteria for a helmet are the shape and sizing. There are three basic head shapes, and most helmets would be a better fit for one than the others, they are: round, intermediate oval and long oval. Sizing can vary with each manufacturer, but most measure in centimeters and can accommodate even the largest, or smallest, heads. Doing research online can really help you eliminate which brands or models would definitely not fit you, but the only way to know which suit you best is to walk into a store and try them on.

To figure out your size, use a soft tape measure, making sure to measure above the eyebrows and over the largest part of your head. It will be a lot easier if you can find someone to help you with this part. Take several measurements until you and your buddy are confident you have the right number, since this will save you lots of time when looking for your lid. When putting a helmet on for the first time, note how difficult it is to pull it on. If it is too easy to pull on, it will be too easy to pull off. If it is too difficult to put on and hurts you each time, regardless of final fit, you’ll never be happy with your choice. Remember that a properly fitting helmet will feel snug, maybe tighter than you expected, but shouldn’t cause any discomfort.

Once you’ve got the helmet firmly seated, comfortably tighten the chin strap and shake your head around. If you feel the helmet wobble or slide around, you’ve picked a size too big for your head. Grab the helmet by the chin bar and try to shift it up and down or side to side without moving your head. It should not be possible to move the helmet without moving you along with it. Imagine how bad it would be if your helmet spun around on your head during an accident, and how broken your nose would be if that happened.

Once you’ve got a few models that will work for you in terms of fit, decide how important ventilation is to you. Some helmets have a couple vents in the front and an exhaust port in the back while some use a plethora of vents to create a significant flow. During the winter, a proper chin vent will help keep your visor free of fog, while during hot summers, you’ll want every vent you can get your hands on. Just keep in mind that the more vents you have open, the louder your ride will be.

Unless you plan on never riding more than a couple miles at a time, you really should consider the weight of your helmet as integral to its comfort. Wear the helmet around the store for a bit before committing, check for pressure points or just plain itchy liner. If your neck feels sore after wearing it for only 15 minutes in-store, imagine how much you’ll hate it after a long, bumpy ride.

Your final concern, and it really shouldn’t sway your decision at any point before this, is cost. The reason I mention cost at the very end is that safety, features and comfort should account for 99% of your decision. If you’ve found two helmets that are absolutely perfect for you, then pick the one whose price you feel more comfortable with. At this point, you’ve done your due diligence and there is no wrong choice. It will be difficult to find the perfect helmet, but the effort is worth it, I promise.

Helmet Post Crash

Don’t let this be your face. (Courtesy of bmwdean.com)