Choosing the Right Helmet
This article presents information on how to choose a new helmet for beginning riders. Experienced riders may also find useful information here, but beginners are the intended audience.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a motorcycle safety or helmet expert. I am a non-professional rider of about seven years' experience. This article contains many statements which are my opinion. They're not facts, and you should not read them as if they were. Helmets are important safety equipment which can increase your chance of surviving a crash. You need to be well-informed in selecting and using helmets, and should by no means use this single article as your sole source of information. Engage your brain.
A motorcycle helmet serves two important goals: first, it protects your head in a crash. Second, but equally importantly, it protects your head and keeps you comfortable while riding. People commonly forget this second goal (particularly in some safety-oriented articles), but doing so is unwise, since you'll spend the overwhelming majority of your helmet ownership riding, rather than crashing.
Helmets are mandated by law in some states of the US. You must become familiar with your local helmet laws before you begin riding a motorcycle.
I personally have one helmet that I wear any time I'm riding. Some riders have multiple helmets, and they choose which helmet to wear based on the riding they're doing. If you're starting out in motorcycling, I recommend you find one helmet according to the information below, and use it until you find that you really need a second for some reason.
There are three current standards for motorcycle helmets in the US. The most basic standard is the DOT (Department of Transportation) test. Any helmet sold for on-road use in the US is required to pass the DOT test. It is not especially rigorous.
A more comprehensive (and some argue lesser) test is the Snell 2010 certification. I don't personally understand the arguments against the Snell test, but a few minutes with Google will uncover them, and you can make your own choice. Most folks tend to agree that a Snell certified helmet is safer than one which is not Snell certified.
Snell doesn't test flip-face helmets, so you can't buy a Snell certified flip-up helmet. Don't let this necessarily stop you.
Another standard is the BSI standard, which is an international standard. The DOT and Snell standards only apply to US-market helmets.
An important thing to keep in mind regarding certification of helmets is that both DOT and Snell tests are minimum standards. Any helmet which passes either test is guaranteed to be at least as protective as the standard, but some helmets can surpass the standards by quite a bit. For this reason, it is not accurate to say that "any Snell approved helmet will protect as well as any other Snell certified helmet." Unfortunately, verifiable proof of surpassing the standards is hard to come by, so buying a helmet must rely to some extent on reputation and anecdotal evidence.
My personal belief is that wearing a DOT and Snell-approved helmet is more likely to protect your head in a crash. I would not personally consider buying a full-face helmet that didn't have a Snell sticker.
Types of Helmets
There are four basic types of helmets: full-face, 3/4 helmets, half helmets, and flip-face helmets. I'll explain each one. The pictures are just what I found by scrounging around with Google, they're not endorsements of any particular brand.
Full-face helmets wrap fully around your head, and offer the best protection both while riding, and in a crash. All full-face helmets have a flip-up visor, which is typically removeable without tools. This is the type of helmet nearly all board members own, unless they have a flip-face.
Flip-up helmets are a compromise between the protection of a full-face helmet and the convenience of a 3/4 helmet. Being a compromise, they are neither as protective as a full-face, nor as convenient as a 3/4. However, if you can't stand the thought of a full-face helmet because of glasses, or being able to talk to people with your helmet on, a flip-up may be a good choice for you. I am personally undecided on them, but stay with a full-face because I don't feel hampered by it. A good flip-face helmet is a far better choice than a 3/4.
The three-quarter helmet was very popular in the 1970s, when there was a huge surge in motorcycle ownership in the US. Full face helmets of that time were bulky and heavy, making a 3/4 helmet a much more comfortable choice. This is no longer the case, and 3/4 helmets are not a wise choice. They leave your chin and face exposed, both to oncoming objects like rocks and bugs, and to the pavement in a crash. Take a look at the diagram below, which shows where crashed helmets took hits. Note how the area with the largest single percentage is the chinbar.
Half helmets, also called "brain buckets" and "puddin' cups", offer very little protection either in a crash or while riding. The market for these helmets seems to be cruiser riders who want to project a tough or scofflaw image. They have the greatest feeling of freedom of all types of DOT-approved helmets. If you value your life at all, avoid half helmets.
Crash Protection Offered
Chart showing percentage of damage to post-crash helmets studied:
Motorcycle helmets primarily offer two types of protection in a crash: impact protection and abrasion protection. They also offer some protection against puncture, and the insulation means that heat or cold won't immediately cause damage (such as if you end up with your face pressed into the engine of your motorcycle).
Impact protection is the big one for motorcycle helmets. Brain damage from motorcycle crashes comes from rapid acceleration of the brain into the skull. A helmet protects against this by having a layer of crushable material, usually stiff styrofoam, as the inner liner.
The crushable material deforms in a crash, absorbing energy that would have otherwise been transfered to the brain. Different manufacturers will have different formulations of what exact material goes into the crushable layer, but it all serves the purpose of absorbing impact energy.
After the impact phase of a crash, there's often a period of sliding. This is where abrasion protection comes in. The outer layer of a helmet, commonly made up of fiberglass, plastic, kevlar or carbon fiber (usually a mix of different materials) provides most of the abrasion protection.
The outer later, being relatively slick, also encourages sliding rather than impeding it. This helps avoid neck injuries, since there's no "extra" force tugging on the head and neck while sliding.
My personal "favorite" pro-full-face helmet anecdote describes a situation in which the motorcyclist was involved in a collision, and "woke up" to see the pavement speeding past, an inch and a half from his eyes, helmet bobbling along the ground. He was sliding on his chest, and unable to lift his head. Had he been wearing a 3/4 or half helmet and survived, he wouldn't have had a face any more. Protection from that situation alone was enough to convince me that I would never wear anything that didn't offer full-face protection.
Still think a 1/2 or 3/4 helmet is a good idea?
Non-Crash Benefits Offered
There are many benefits to wearing a helmet in daily riding situations. They're primarily centered around wrapping your head in a protective layer -- your eyes are covered, you aren't punished by the wind, flying rocks, road debris and bugs can't punch you, cold and rain are kept at bay, etc.
Anti-helmet activists within the motorcycling community have raised a number of concerns with helmets. For instance, I've read the claim that helmets reduce a rider's ability to hear. Absolutely, helmets reduce overwhelming road and wind noise. However, this is not a bad thing. Riding without any hearing protection (with a half-helmet, for instance) subjects a rider to damaging levels of noise even at 40 MPH. An hour of riding like this can permanently damage your hearing. Freeway speeds are much worse. Many motorcyclists (myself included) not only wear full-face helmets that reduce noise, they also wear earplugs rated to 25 and 30 dB of noise reduction to protect their hearing.
Another claim I've read is that helmets reduce peripheral vision. I challenge you to find a full-face helmet that impedes on your peripheral vision at all. They don't exist, and all you have to do is put one on your head for a minute in a motorcycle shop to prove that to yourself.
A Brief Note on Color
One of the factors cited in nearly all car-motorcycle collisions is, "I never even saw him" by the car driver. Motorcycles are incredibly small targets, and anything you can do to increase your visibility can help. Flashy graphics may appear to be pretty stunning in the store, but from 50 feet, they're just a blur of color, and from 100 feet they dissappear into the medium grey of the pavement. Solid white or flourescent colors (orange, green, yellow) are far more visible. Red is a good color if you're going to be riding exclusively in daylight, but it immediately dissappears in the blue light of twilight and night, where white and flourescents in particular will stand out.
The British Medical Journal recently published a story about this.
Choosing a Helmet
Selecting a helmet is necessarily a personal choice. Read through this article, understand the salient points of helmet construction and design, and pick the style that fits best what you want in a helmet. If you have no idea, the safest choice is a popular-brand, Snell certified full-face helmet. That's also my recommendation unless you have a specific reason to want a different helmet.
As far as choosing a brand, I don't have strong recommendations. I have personally owned a Shoei RF-800 and an Arai Quantum/f. I have liked them both, and had problems with them both.
Far more important than choosing a particular brand is choosing a helmet that has the features you want and fits you well.
I also recommend searching the Net for individual helmet reviews, but some good sites that have collected reviews are:
You should never buy a used helmet, period. Helmets are perishable, and one that's 2 years old offers measurably less protection than a new one. The materials that make up the helmet degrade over time, and particularly with use. If you're going to spend money on a helmet, it should be for a brand new one, as fresh from the manufacturer as possible. Yes, this also means you should plan on buying a new helmet every 3-4 years.
Fitting a helmet to your head is easy to do and hard to describe. However, I'll give it a shot. You should be heading to your local motorcycle shop to do any fitting -- they'll have salespeople who can help you find a helmet that fits correctly.
The first thing is that the helmet should be tight, but not binding. There should be no "hot spots" or pressure areas that feel much tighter than anywhere else. Different brands and models have different shapes, so try on a number of different helmets before you decide you've found "the one."
Once you've found a helmet that feels like it's touching your head almost everywhere, you need to select the right size. This is done by finding a helmet that's not loose at all on your head (ie, if you move the helmet, you should also feel it moving your skin a bit), but which is also not tight. You shouldn't feel hard pressure on your head anywhere; it should all be gentle, firm pressure. It's normal to have a bit more pressure on your cheeks than everywhere else.
A properly fitting helmet should be tight enough that if you push it back and forth on your head (like shaking your head "no"), it can't really move, and what movement it does have pulls your forehead and cheek skin with the helmet.
With the strap fastened, you should not be able to roll the helmet off your head at all (like nodding "yes"), either forward or backward. Likewise, moving the helmet side to side (like trying to touch each ear to your shoulder) shouldn't allow the helmet to pull off.
If you have a choice between a helmet that fits a little bit too tight and one that fits a bit loose, choose the tight one. The helmet will break in over the course of a few weeks' riding, and will loosen up a bit.
Once you've found the right shape and size of helmet, put it on and leave it on for at least 10 minutes, preferrably 15-20. In that time, you shouldn't feel any hotspots develop, or get a headache, or anything. When you take it off, you shouldn't feel any weird patches or see any red spots on your forehead. You're going to be wearing this thing for possibly hours at a time, so you really want it to fit right.
Most helmet models include provision to replace cheek or forehead pads with similar or different sized pads. This allows a more-customized fit, and allows you to replace the pads if they become smelly or compress too much. A good shop will have different-sized pads in stock, and sizing at purchase shouldn't cost anything. Replacement pads, or buying different-sized pads after you've worn the helmet for a while aren't terribly expensive, compared to the initial cost of the helmet.
Finally, this is a matter of personal conscience, but if you can afford to buy the helmet from the store where you did the fitting, please do so. Yes, helmets are cheaper online and by mail order, but your local shop just spent an hour or two helping you out. If you honestly can't afford it, buy the right helmet however you have to. This is not one of those situations where saving $20 is that important, if it keeps the local shop around. Without them, you might be exchanging helmets (or uselessly buying them and not being able to return them) for months with an online store.
This is the part where I really flex my opinions, so feel free to skip it if you don't care.
I feel that new riders should be buying solid white, flourescent or yellow, Snell approved, full-face helmets. I don't have a strong brand preference, and I think that any of the major brands (HJC, Shoei, Arai, Suomy, AGV, etc.) make fine helmets.
You should only consider a flip-face helmet if you feel you have legitimate need of the feature. I wear glasses at all times, and have never had a problem with a full-face helmet. If you do decide to get a flip-face helmet, examine the latching mechanism carefully. If it looks or feels weak or cheezy to you, forget it. Schuberth and Nolan flip-face helmets have come highly recommended to me, but they'll never be as strong and safe as a fixed full-face helmet.
Three-quarter and half helmets are only suitable for morons. Don't spend money on one, and if you got one with your bike, throw it away or sell it to a moron on Ebay. You might as well ride around with no helmet and enjoy the wind in your hair.
This article is far from the last word on motorcycle helmets. Load up Google and search a bit. Lots of people have written extensively on this topic, and some of them even know what they're talking about! My hope is that this article has helped you understand what options are available, and start you down the path of choosing the right helmet for you.