Buying a helmet or determining whether a helmet is still worth using are big questions, especially if you’re very pro-safety on a motorcycle—as all riders should be anyway. Riding a bike is filled with risks, and one must equip themselves with the skills and the knowledge to keep safe on the roads, or off of it.
A motorcycle helmet is the quintessential piece of equipment that you need to keep with you all the time. Brain damage is all too serious and life-changing to be taken lightly, and even some helmets that look like they’re serviceable may just fail on you when you need it the most, and you don’t want that.
Use a MOTORCYCLE helmet
First of all, your helmet must be appropriate for the vehicle you are riding. That means no bicycle helmets, skateboard helmets, and no hard hats.
Motorcycle helmets are built differently compared to other forms of headgear. Hard hats consist of a shell and some space between the fasteners and the shell in order to redirect the impact coming from a falling object. There is also no foam layer or impact-absorbing layer in a hard hat, in short, your brain will take the brunt of the force if you happen to hit your head on the way down during a crash.
Bicycle and skateboard helmets are better than hard hats, but they’re still not as good as a full-fledged motorcycle helmet, and they’re also illegal to use on a motorcycle. The key here is coverage and the level of impact attenuation. Bicycle helmets and skateboard helmets are designed and tested for lower speeds, meaning the foam used in creating these helmets is often less dense in comparison to a motorcycle helmet. Not to mention other items like visors, chin bars, and fit. Also, consider that motorcycle helmets are designed to stay in place on your head better with a higher speed threshold using secure straps, linings, and pads.
Is it from a reputable brand?
Just like a motorcycle, heritage and history play a big role in the trust that consumers place with a certain manufacturer. There are a lot of new and old helmet brands out in the market, but the newer brands have what the older ones don’t, and that is history. A good track record of safety and continuous improvement is the name of the game when it comes to safety. The proof is in the pudding as they all say, and going with a reputable brand is likely to keep your insides from ending up like pudding should a crash ever happen.
That being said, there is nothing wrong with going with a relatively young brand name. Sure, you have the more veteran brands out there like HJC, AGV, Shoei, and Arai, but other brand names are making good cases for themselves by putting in the effort to create safe lids for motorcyclists. Just do your research and make sure that the helmet company you are choosing to go with invests more into their products’ safety, rather than outright marketing and just marketing.
What type of riding and what type of motorcycle do you have?
You need a better helmet the faster you go. Pay attention to what a helmet is designed for. Scooter and commuter riders are often seen with open-face helmets. That’s acceptable given the speed at which scooters travel. However, a full-face helmet is still safer in comparison and will be a better choice on highways or roads with a higher average speed.
Sportbike and sport-naked riders will definitely be traveling at higher speeds, and will thus require a more protective helmet. Meanwhile, dirt riders and adventure riders have different requirements as well. As such, helmets need to be ventilated because passing out due to heat exhaustion on your motorcycle is a definite safety hazard. While you can manage with just one full-face helmet, it would certainly be a quality of life improvement to get a different lid should you find yourself in different riding disciplines and conditions.
Is it in good condition?
Condition is key when it comes to helmets. Even if you’ve never crashed, there are other factors that may deem a helmet unsafe to ride in.
It’s all too often that you see a lot of riders on the road riding without a face shield, or with a face shield that is extremely difficult to see out of. Riding with a hazy visor is almost like riding blind. Your ability to see what is happening on the road is crucial for your safety, and riding without a visor is also dangerous especially at speed. With your face exposed, your eyes will struggle to fight the wind resistance and potentially distracting or dangerous debris that might fly straight to your face and cause you to take your eyes off the road.
After years of use, it’s likely that the interior of your helmet smells worse for wear, and it fits significantly looser compared to when it was brand new. A smelly interior can distract you from other hazards on the road, and a loose fit means that your helmet will shift on you if you do hit your head or scrape it on the ground. As a rule of thumb, you want your helmet to fit snuggly on your head. You must not be able to chew gum comfortably, and the crown of your head should not feel any hot spots while wearing the helmet.
The most important part of your helmet will be the EPS layer or the impact foam layer. Remove the cheek pads and the liner and reveal the protective foam layer of your helmet. Run your fingers through the entirety of it, and make sure there are no dents and deformations in the foam. If you happen to find any, that means that you need to get a new helmet because that layer will protect you only once. On top of that, you want to make sure that the shell is not cracked in any way, and is still one continuous piece. Any crack in the shell will render it compromised in terms of safety, and should be replaced at the soonest.
So how do you tell a helmet is safe without first-hand experience? You turn to certifications and other testing bodies that do the work for you. There is quite a handful of certifying bodies in the industry, some better than others.
DOT is the most common and attainable form of certification for most manufacturers, but that doesn’t make it the safest. While it is a baseline certification for a helmet, there are better certifications out there. Essentially, DOT-rated helmets are left to the manufacturers to self-certify, meaning that the certifying body doesn’t receive helmets and instead leaves it up to the helmet manufacturer to build to specifications.
ECE, meanwhile, tests helmets, and the most common standard from the certifying body is ECE 22.05. The newest, however, is ECE 22.06 and the new standard adds a battery of new tests that include rotational acceleration testing which impact tests the helmets at a 45-degree angle. Due to the proliferation of motorcycle comms systems like Cardo and Sena units, ECE 22.06 also tests with these extra attachments. Lastly, the list of scenarios grows longer for ECE 22.06, which now includes a wider variety of speeds and angles for the helmet to go through to pass certification.
Sharp, is also another certifying body that is based in the United Kingdom, that uses star ratings to give customers a better idea of how the helmet did in the standard testing of Sharp. The body also has a website where you can compare and contrast the different helmet models out in the market based on their safety testing. Helmets are rated from zero to five stars for Sharp. This isn’t the be-all-end-all, either, but it’s yet another opinion backed up by impact testing criteria.
Snell, on the other hand, is based in the United States and continuously updates its testing criteria every 5 years or so. The last update happened in 2020, with Snell M2020. Subsequent revisions like Snell M2020D were made to allow the certification to be compatible with DOT standards for legal use in the United States. Meanwhile, Snell M2020R is for inter-compatibility with the ECE 22 homologation. As far as priorities go, Snell helmets are bigger to attenuate more impact forces on the head and are also quite secure, often found with a double-D ring for the strap and a well-fitting interior to ensure that the helmet stays on.
FIM stepped into the scene with the intent of making a helmet certification standard for motorcycle racing. This means that FIM helmets are likely if not the safest out in the market. Because motorcycle racing is a demanding sport where riders constantly find themselves pushing the bikes to their absolute limits, FIM-certified helmets must be up to the task in order to save a rider’s life should he find himself in a crash. Only a handful of helmets are FIM-certified, and a lot of the helmets certified by the body are no bargain-bin items.
As a rule of thumb, the absolute minimum that you want to go with is DOT, but even that is rolling the dice a little bit, especially since you’re dealing with a helmet that is self-certified by the manufacturer. For us, the optimal choice will be to go with a helmet that is ECE 22.05, better if it is 22.06 homologated. Everything else is icing on the cake, a good Sharp rating of 3-stars or higher, Snell certified, and FIM certification tends to drive home the point of safety for most riders. It's hard to find a helmet with all certifications. You will likely get combinations like DOT-ECE, ECE-only, DOT-Snell, or a combination of a few, but in our book, prioritize that ECE rating, or Snell if you want optimal certification.