<font color="red"> DISCLAIMER
First off, I am not a helmet expert by any stretch of the imagination. I am just a stupid Paramedic that has taken the time to gather some information about helmets. I can't guarantee all of my information to be correct or up to date. I cannot be liable for any of the advice/information. You should always consult with an expert when purchasing protective gear. Improper use of protective gear can cause great harm or even death to yourself or others. Although safety gear can save your arse, it's by no means the "answer all". Safe riding is always encouraged. Use my information at your own risk.
SO YOU WANT TO BUY A HELMET??
By no means is this writing exhaustive. My intent is to shed some light on what to look for when purchasing your new lid. Think of this writing as a "primer".
You will not purchase a more important piece of personal protective equipment than your helmet. One crack of your noggin on the ground could spell the end of motorcycle riding (or living), as you know it.
In this article I will be covering topics such as:
Snell and DOT labels.
Care of your new lid.
How long will my helmets last?
Precautions and Misc.
Generally, helmets are constructed of either thermoplastics, and/or fiber-reinforced materials.
Thermoplastics are easily and cheaply mass-produced. Hence, most helmet shells are made of thermoplastics. Due to a lack of strength, thermoplastics need to be made thicker than fiber-reinforced helmet shells. This inherently makes thermoplastic helmets heavier. Unfortunately, thermoplastic helmets are not very resistant to ultra violet rays, chemicals and adhesives.
Fiber-reinforced helmet shells are light and are as strong, if not stronger, than thermoplastic shells. The trade off is that fiber-reinforced shells are more difficult to produce and will cost you more money. In comparison there are several more steps in producing fiber-reinforced shells compared to thermoplastics. Fiber-reinforced helmets are made from carbon, Kevlar, a combination of carbon/Kevlar and several other high-tech materials.
Helmet liners are almost always made of a polystyrene material due to its lightweight and energy absorbing properties. High-end helmets will layer several different grades of polystyrene. This increases protection and evenly distributes weight through the helmet.
Padding comes in a variety of materials with comfort being a major consideration. Liners can be made of fabrics such as CoolMax, which wicks moisture away from your skin. They even use anti-allergic materials in liners. Many manufactures have removable/washable liners. If you've ever tried to wash the non-removable liner of your helmet, undoubtedly you will know what a luxury this feature is.
Several companies also produce removable cheek pads of various sizes in insure a perfect fit.
The "gold standard" for fasteners is the double-D-ring. The double-D-ring is relatively quick to employ and allows for a precise tension adjustment. They are strong and reliable.
The seat belt style fastener has gained acceptance among many riders as of late. This style of fastener works in much the same way as the seat belt in your automobile. The upside of this style of fastener is that making the connection with gloves on is much easier than with the double-D-ring. The downside of this fastener is that tension adjustments can be daunting.
I will just touch on the different styles of helmets.
FULL FACE: The most widely accepted helmet for sport bike riders. Provides superior protection but can obscure vision.
FLIP-UP STYLE: The chin piece on this helmet is hinged and you can pull it up and away from your face. This style of helmet makes conversation much easier with you mates or the person behind the counter at the gas station. These helmets are great for motorcycle tourists. If you check you will learn that the front chin piece is actually for cosmetic or aerodynamic purposes only. It does not provide the protection for your face or chin that you get from a full-face helmet. They are actually listed as an open face helmet by industry safety standards.
OPEN FACE: Usually reserved for the Harley and off-road (motocross, ATV....) riders. Open face helmets are usually cooler than full-face helmets because they have better airflow. Offers little to no face or chin protection. This style also decreases aerodynamics, which increases neck strain.
If you ride in hot/humid climates, venting will be of importance to you. Helmets can be vented on the top, at the brow, over the chin or any combination of the above. Common sense would lead you to believe that the more vents there are, the better the cooling effect. This isn't always true though. It's a fact that some helmet venting systems are better than others. I won't tell you which manufacturer I think has the best system because everyone has his or her own opinion.
A downside to exceptional ventilation can be increased air noise within the helmet and leaking when rain riding.
WHAT THE HECK DOES DOT AND SNELL MEAN??
Beginning in 1974, motorcycle helmets were required to meet the minimum requirements established by FMVSS 218, the standard detailed guidelines and test criteria a helmet must pass to receive a "DOT" approval. Over the years, slight changes have been made to FMVSS 218. However, 28 years later the standard remains essentially unchanged from its original draft. Currently NHTSA has studies underway to evaluate and consider changes to FVMSS 218.
How can you tell a helmet is DOT approved?
Typically, there will be a sticker on the rear of the helmet with the letters "DOT". If not a sticker, "DOT" will be printed on the label within the helmet.
How does the DOT monitor compliance with FMVSS 218?
Would you be surprised to learn it's based on the honor system? Yes, you read that correct. The government relies on the manufacturer's word that the helmet was tested and passed!
Does the government do any testing?
Yes, they do very, very limited testing of helmets. How limited? In 2001, they tested 40 helmets. Under the honor system, we shouldn't have to test any helmets.
What if a helmet fails?
They publish the data and rely on the manufacturer to bring the product into compliance. In 2001, 20% of the tested helmets failed the performance tests. Helmets manufactured by AFX, Fulmer, HJC, M2R, NEXL and THH. At a 20% failure rate, do you think there are others out there that might fail the performance test?
SNELL Memorial Foundation:
The foundation is named after William "Pete" Snell, a racecar driver that died in 1956 of massive head injuries sustained in a racing accident. His friends and associates formed the Snell Memorial Foundation (SMF) in 1957, a not-for-profit organization. The foundation's goals were to investigate and understand the mechanisms of head injuries in automotive sports and to encourage the development of truly protective helmets.
Today, the SMF tests various kinds of helmets and certifies them for use in prescribed activities. It currently publishes standards for protective headgear for use in automotive racing, carting, motorcycling, bicycling, non-motorized sports, harness racing and equestrian sports, competitive skiing and snowboarding. The foundation is interested in just about every kind of headgear worn to protect against crash impact injury.
The Snell approval Process.
Helmet manufacturers submit their products for certification. If their helmets pass the demanding series of performance tests, the manufacturers are invited to enter into a contract with the SMF. The contract entitles the manufacturer to use the SNELL name and logo on their packaging and in their advertising. The manufacturer also purchases certification decals for use on their certified products.
Under the contract with the SMF, the manufacturer is required to maintain their high standards for all of their certified products. Verification is achieved through a random sample test program. In this program, the SMF acquires helmets and tests them to certify the continuing quality of the products.
The SMF takes pains to see that these random sample helmets are drawn from the same supply as those sold in stores; thus they are able to monitor the quality of the helmets sold directly to the consumer.
DOT vs. SNELL testing.
Both DOT and SNELL position a helmet on a test head form and then drop that helmeted head form onto a fixed steel anvil. Impact severity is a matter of head mass and drop height. The higher the fall or the heavier the head form, the more severe the impact. Each test helmet is impacted on at least four different sites against either a flat or hemispherical shaped anvil. The difference between DOT and SNELL tests are impact severity and impact criteria.
SNELL requires helmets withstand substantially larger impacts while transmitting less force than DOT.
Unfortunately, it's not the fall that does the damage; it's the sudden stop. Both SNELL and DOT measure the suddenness of the stop with an accelerometer fixed inside the head form. When the helmet smacks into the anvil, the accelerometer measures the head form deceleration through out the duration of the impact event. This acceleration pulse is generally plotted as G's verses milliseconds. The testers analyze the acceleration pulse to determine whether the helmet passed or failed the test. SNELL and DOT use different methods to analyze the results.
SNELL limits the peak value to no more than 300 G's. Dr George Snivley, one of the SNELL's founders, had determined on the basis of his own research that young adult men could survive head crash impact accelerations at levels between 400 and 600 G's. He selected test criteria on the order of 300 G's for the SNELL standards as acceleration levels that would be safe for almost all healthy people.
The DOT standard requires that the peak acceleration not exceed 400 G's but they also put duration limits on the acceleration pulse. The period of time for which the pulse exceeds 200 G's must not be longer than 2 milliseconds. The period of time for which the pulse exceeds 150 G's must not be longer than 4 milliseconds. Duration criteria were taken from the 1971 ANSI Z90.1 standard. This criterion was dropped by ANSI in 1973 prior to the DOT standard going into effect.
The DOT standard is by no means a bad standard. SNELL is simply better. SNELL uses harder impacts while requiring lower forces to the rider. Bottom line, a SNELL certified helmet exceeds the DOT standard.
Have you heard the saying: "Spend as much as your head is worth"? Well, I agree with this to some extent.
The majority of your hard earned dollars go towards materials used to construct the helmet and to research and development. The more bells and whistles a helmet has, the more expensive it will be.
If you buy a race-replica helmet, a portion of your funds will go to that racer in endorsement fees.
My suggestion is to make a list of things that are important to you. Things such as: weight, venting, and approvals. Then, find as many manufacturers, which make helmets that fit your criteria and are within your budget.
Next, go try on as many of those helmets as you possibly can.
DOES THIS HELMET FIT ME CORRECTLY? This leads us to proper fitting of your helmet. If you measure the circumference of your head, you will know what size helmet you will need......well, sort of.
Lets say that your head is 7 1/4. With some manufacturers you may wear a medium helmet. With others, it may be a small. My point is, DON'T BUY A HELMET THAT YOU HAVN'T TRIED ON.
Sizing is extremely important. It can mean the difference between saving your life in a crash or having a splitting headache every time you put your lid on. Some even go as far as saying that sizing is the single most important factor when buying a helmet. You could spend the absolute top dollar for a helmet but without proper sizing you gain nothing from the exotic materials or fine craftsmanship.
As I said earlier; try on as many helmets as you can. DON'T BUY A HELMET BECAUSE IT LOOKS BETTER THAN ANOTHER. BUY ONE BECAUSE IT FITS BEST!
Once you have the helmet on and securely fastened, look straight ahead. Place both of your hands on each side of the helmet. While keeping your head facing forward and stationary, turn the helmet to the left and to the right several times.
There should be little to no movement of the helmet on your head.
Next, place your hands on the back of the helmet near the back of your neck. Try to pry the helmet off your head by pulling forward and down.
Again, there should be little to no movement.
While wearing the helmet, sit on a motorcycle. Better yet, if the dealer will allow you to sit on your own motorcycle, do so. Sit in a normal riding position and look over your left and right shoulders. You should feel comfortable, have good vision and not get pinched anywhere.
While still on the bike, crouch down into a tucked position. Does the brow of the helmet obstruct your vision? Does your neck ride on the back edge of the helmet? Is it comfortable?
Try opening the vents and the visor with your gloves on. Was it easy? If not, just imagine attempting to do this while at speed.
I would also suggest wearing the helmet around the shop for as long as you can. Pressure points may not appear within the first 5 minutes of wearing the helmet.
Here's a little information about visors. Today, visors come in about every imaginable (and some I could never dream of without hallucinogens) color/tinting.
A clear visor is the most versatile. The down side is that you will probably need to wear sunglasses on bright days.
Smoked or tinted visors are great for sunny days and look the cats-meow but in many states they are illegal. Using a dark tinted visor at night can be extremely hazardous and switching to a clear visor for night riding can be a pain. An all day ride means that you would need to carry a second visor with you.
Helmets with quick release visors make cleaning/changing a breeze (usually).
Some visors come with clear or tinted tear-offs. Tear-offs are very thin pieces of plastic film that cover the front of your visor. They attach to pegs built into your visor. When your visor gets dirty from bugs or road grime, you simply grab a tab that is attached to the tear-off and pull. The plastic film pulls away from your visor leaving you a clean field of view.
Tear-offs are commonly stacked on top of each other in several layers for multiple uses. Convenient? Yes. Expensive? Relatively.
CARE FOR YOUR HELMET
Always follow manufacturers recommendations when cleaning your helmet. Each manufacturer is different.
Avoid using caustic/abrasive cleaners on your lid. Use only cleaners/waxes specifically designed for helmets and approved by the helmet manufacturer. Never use solvent-based cleaners.
Clean your helmet on a regular basis. Store it in a cool, dry, dark place and in the helmet bag if provided.
Removable liners can be put in a washing net and washed in cool water in a clothes washer. Air-dry the liner in a cool, dry area that is out of direct sunlight.
Never submerge helmets in any liquid unless otherwise indicated by the manufacturer.
If your padding or liner is not removable, wipe the interior clean by using a damp cloth or sponge with luke-warm water. Again, do not submerge your helmet or soak the interior in any fashion. Allow it to air dry in a cool, dry area out of direct sunlight.
WHAT'S THE USABLE LIFE SPAN OF MY HELMET?
Helmets should last between 3 and 5 years depending on how you treat it. If you crash in it, toss it out. Helmets are designed to crash in once and once only. Many insurance companies will replace your protective gear if you retain receipts for them.
If you wear your helmet on a daily basis or frequently in harsh conditions (high heat, rain...) it will not last as long.
Even though your helmet may not have any visible imperfections, the materials will break down over time. Even dropping the helmet on the ground can have deleterious effects. Microscopic cracks can form and depending on how hard the helmet hit the ground, the polystyrene interior may compress. In any event, your safety could be compromised.
Never hang your helmet on your mirrors or rest it on the seat.
NEVER PURCHASE A USED HELMET. You have no guarantee what kind of life the helmet lived.
Take advantage of free helmet inspections. Many manufacturers have free inspections. I've personally seen inspections performed at racing events, track days, in dealerships and at trade shows. The inspectors are usually experts and do a comprehensive job. Don't be afraid to ask them questions!
Don't put extra do-dads on your helmet. Adding a stick-on strobe light or fuzzy bunny ears may seem cool but they can actually be dangerous. Your helmet was tested without these add-ons and may cause energy to be focused in the event of an impact. Again, helmets are designed to absorb and disperse as much energy in the shortest amount of time as possible. If the manufacturer of your helmet didn't design it specifically for your helmet, don't add it on.
Check to see what kind of warranty the manufacturer offers. There is always the off chance that you will need to take advantage of a warranty.
If you have a problem with fogging, you can purchase face (nose) masks that redirect moist exhaled air away from your visor. You can also purchase anti-fogging sprays that are applied directly to your visor.
Helmet cases will protect your expensive lid when not in use.
Wind noise is often an issue. An easy fix is to use foam-type earplugs. You can also have custom fit earplugs made. Prices range from $20.00 to hundreds of dollars. (They can even mould in speakers to your plugs!).
Protect your extra visors with a visor bag. Nothing is worse than putting a huge scratch down the front of your visor.
Reflective stickers add safety. Just make sure your helmets manufacturer approves the adhesive.
Want to look different than the rest of the crowd? Have your helmet custom painted by a reputable helmet painter. Make sure that the paints/chemicals the painter uses are safe for your lid.
This next item is for "informational" purposes only. I would highly discourage you from purchasing this based upon its potential distraction factor. Built in Blue Tooth wireless technology allows you to answer your mobile phone or listen to music without being plugged into anything.
Well, I hope this has given you some insight into purchasing your first/next helmet. Again, a helmet is the single most important piece of safety equipment that you will purchase. Don't skimp when it comes to your protection.
Good luck and feel free to PM me if you have any questions or comments.
A quick thanks to the following publications for information about helmets: