Touring Tip: Protecting the Space Between Your Ears, Part 2

Dec 07, 2012 View Comments by

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed how vital the human brain is for doing even the simplest tasks in our everyday life. We also noted how easily the brain is irreparably damaged from head trauma and that wearing a motorcycle helmet is key to mitigating the risk of brain injury in a motorcycle accident. In this final installment we review the benefits and risks posed by wearing different types of motorcycle helmets, what some of the safety designations mean, and how to obtain a proper fit.

Helmet Types: Although most of our readers may already know much of this information, here are the main types of helmets, ranked in descending order of safety:

Full-face Helmets: Covering the entire head, full-face helmets offer the highest level of protection, because a significant percentage of motorcycle crashes involve impact to the face, chin, and jaw area. Full-face helmets also provide the best rider comfort and protection when weather conditions turn nasty.


Modular/“Flip-up” Helmets: These helmets provide basically the same benefits as a non-flip-up full-face helmet, but with the added convenience of being able to lift the lower section of the helmet up for talking, taking photos, eating, drinking, etc. Because of the internal hinge mechanism, these helmets tend to be a little heavier than a comparable regular full-face helmet. Riding with the chin bar of the helmet in the up position obviously compromises protection to the face and chin.

Off-road Helmets: With their elongated visor and chin bar and partially open face, off-road helmets are designed to give riders extra protection while wearing goggles and unhindered airflow during the physical exertion associated with this type of riding.


Open-face or ¾ Helmets: While this type of helmet provides the same rear protection as a full-face helmet, they provide little protection to the face. On the two occasions when I’ve personally had to rely on my helmet in a crash, the point of impact was in the front. Because I was wearing a full-face model, no injuries were sustained.


Half or “Shorty” Helmets: Because of their limited coverage area, these helmets offer little protection to the front, rear, or sides of a rider’s head. As with the open-face model, riders are well advised to use some type of additional eye protection, such as goggles or wrap-around sunglasses, to prevent injury from bugs and road debris.


Novelty/“Brain Bucket” Helmets: These types of helmets are usually just a thin plastic shell, without any expanded polystyrene foam or internal lining materials designed to absorb impact in a crash. Novelty helmets do not meet the designated safety standards of the DOT, Snell, or any of the other motorcycle helmet testing bodies. In terms of protecting a rider from traumatic brain injury in a crash, these helmets are a joke—a bad joke!

Primary Helmet Safety Standards/Designations: Although helmet safety standards vary by country and there’s an alphabet soup of accompanying acronyms, here are the most prevalent ones for U.S. riders: 

  • DOT: The U.S. DOT standard is a self-certification by helmet manufacturers. They conduct the required tests of their helmets in their laboratories and, if a helmet meets the prescribed standard, it can be sold with the DOT sticker attached to it. Annually, the Department of Transportation conducts compliance testing to determine if helmets being sold in the U.S. actually meet the Federal standard. Results are posted by the DOT on its website ( in a pass/fail form. Visual clues for spotting a DOT compliant helmet include: approximately one-inch of polystyrene foam, a sturdy chin strap with solid rivets, a weight of around three pounds (unsafe helmets often weigh a pound or less), nothing extending more than two-tenths of an inch from the helmet, and, of course, the DOT sticker (although some unscrupulous sellers attach DOT stickers to non-qualifying helmets).
  • Snell/ANSI: Private non-profit helmet certification organizations, such as the Snell Memorial Foundation and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), also may have stickers attached to the inside (or back) of a helmet. The Snell certification sticker indicates that a helmet’s chin bar also has been tested.
  • ECE 22.05: The Economic Community of Europe (ECE) 22.05 is the most common international certification. One of the advantages of this certification is that it requires mandatory batch testing of each helmet production run before they leave the factory.

While testing protocols vary under the different standards, and since it’s not possible to anticipate and simulate every impact dynamic of a motorcycle crash, the combination of DOT and ECE 22.05 certifications on a full-face helmet provides street riders with a high level of impact protection. And there are even higher levels of protection specified for helmets worn at many track events, such as the UK’s Auto-Cycle Union Gold standard. 

Obtaining a Proper Fit: Without a proper fit to the rider’s head, however, a helmet won’t provide the expected level of protection. An ill-fitting, uncomfortable helmet also compromises the pleasure a motorcyclist feels during a ride. Here are key steps for obtaining that all important exact fit: 

  • Measure Your Noggin: Start this process by measuring the widest part of your head, which is usually just above the eyebrows, over the ears, and around the back. It’s probably a good idea to take several measurements and average the results. A helmet size conversion chart will translate inches, centimeters, and hat size into the most common helmet sizes, which generally run from XXS to 2XL.


  • Try Several On: Because head shapes and sizes can vary among both people and helmet manufacturers, it’s critically important to try helmets on for fit and comfort. Here are the key steps and things to look for: 
  1. Slip the Helmet On: The fit should be tight, but not binding, and there shouldn’t be any pressure points or gaps between your head and the helmet’s padding. On a full-face helmet your eyes should be at, or very close to, the middle of the eye port. Lean toward a helmet fitting too tight versus too loose, because most helmets will loosen slightly as they’re broken in.
  2. Fasten the Chin Strap: Move your head back and forth in all four directions to make sure the helmet does not slide or roll. A proper fitting helmet will cause your skin to move as your head moves.
  3. Slip the Helmet Off: Any residual soreness indicates that the helmet has pressure points, which can cause headaches over longer periods of wear.
  4. Repeat: Continue trying on different brands, shapes, and sizes of helmets until a comfortable properly fitting one is found.

In making your final helmet selection, it’s important to remember that price isn’t necessarily an accurate indicator of comfort, proper fit, or safety. In the final analysis, protecting the most important organ in your body really is … so to speak … a no-brainer: it’s a helmet that fits properly, is comfortable, covers your entire head, and, at a minimum, meets U.S. Federal safety standards.

Missed part 1? Read it here:
Protecting the Space Between Your Ears, Part 1 


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