Helmet Help

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

Let's get this out of the way up front: whether you wear a helmet is your choice - or not, depending on where you ride. You do the research, you decide. I never ride without one for three reasons: good or bad, I like my face the shape it is; wind in your hair and bugs in your teeth are seriously overrated; and I feel naked without one. If you've made it this far, you probably will be buying a new helmet sometime, and these are some of the considerations to keep in mind beforehand.

Style

I get to wear lots of different makes and types of helmets, but I always come back to the basic full-face models. It's the most practical all-round style for street riding, and it offers the best protection. Research shows that a typical impact between a rider's head and the deck is a glancing blow, and an open-front helmet won't save your good looks in a face plant. Flip-ups? They're more convenient (especially for photography), but I typically find they don't fit as snugly and they're noisier. If you choose one, make sure the latch will open with one hand. Some early models required two hands - never safe when you have to open it on the fly.

Fit

I remember the first time I tried a full-face helmet. It felt like my head was in a vise. But a really snug fit is important because the padding will lose density over time, making the helmet looser. If you can turn the helmet relative to your head when you try it on, you need a smaller size.

Some riders will tell you they have a "Nolan" head or a "Shoei" head, and fit certainly varies considerably between manufacturers. Better to get a helmet that fits properly than a particular brand: whatever works for you, just as long as it's certified.

DOT certification

Don't even consider a helmet that's not DOT approved (unless it's been tested by a similarly reputable organization, and bears their mark, such as the British Standards Institute's BS6658 or UN Economic Commission's ECE22). The Snell Foundation also tests safety helmets, and you may find their mark too. Snell is a voluntary standard, but many, mostly high-end, helmets are Snell tested and approved. Motorcyclist magazine provoked a storm of controversy a couple of years back by challenging the Snell testing process, which, they claimed, required helmets to be too hard to adequately absorb impact.

Bottom line: DOT (or equivalent certification) for sure; Snell, you decide.

Materials

You'll find three types of helmet shell on the shelf: fiberglass, thermoplastic (usually polycarbonate), and carbon fiber. Thermoplastic is usually cheapest, and carbon fiber is super expensive. As long as a helmet meets certification standards, the material is less important.

Take a look inside the helmet, though, and inspect the materials that will be in contact with your head. This is where helmet makers often cut costs. How durable and comfortable is the liner? Is it removable for washing? Is the liner adjustable for fit? Does the chinstrap have a D-ring or quick-release buckle? My experience is that D-rings work better because they're easier to adjust and less likely to get snagged on your jacket collar.

Cost

What does a good helmet cost? Well, how much do you want to pay? That may sound trite, but you can buy a DOT-approved, comfortable, and reasonably durable full-face helmet for under $ 100 if you shop around, or you can pay over $ 1,000. Although there will be differences in the quality of materials and assembly in a more expensive lid, you're also paying for marketing costs, a more prestigious brand name, and royalties, especially if it's painted in your favorite racer's design.

Visor

Check that the visor is easy to open, that it's easy to remove and refit, and that replacements are easy to get. I also like to ride with my visor opened a crack for extra air; some helmets will let you do that, others won't. Also make sure the visor fits and seals properly. I have one helmet that allows an annoying draft through when closed, and it leaks in the rain. Not good.

Noise

Difficult to test this in the store, but some helmets create and transmit far more wind noise than others. Look for smooth contours, especially around the visor hinges. I always wear earplugs anyway, and so should you. Hearing loss is a major issue for long-term riders.

Peripheral vision

You will need to have a good range of vision to the side and up and down with the helmet on, which varies considerably from brand to brand. I have a couple of helmets that make it difficult for me to see up, and this really restricts my forward vision when riding uphill on a sportbike. Not safe. All other things being equal, choose the helmet with the best peripheral vision.

Buy used?

Don't. Not ever. A helmet is only good for one impact (the expanded polystyrene liner permanently deforms to absorb energy), and the shell may not betray past hits. Always buy new from a reputable dealer.

And I sincerely wish that you never have to test how well your helmet really works!