Motorcyclist Magazine, February 1991
(Ed. Note. The newest version I have of
this is copyright, 1988, but I think its discussion is still valid)
What You Should Know About Motorcycle Helmets
Polycarbonate. Three-quarter. Full face. Fiberglass. Helmet styles and
materials vary greatly. Yet a motorcycle helmet is probably the first
piece of personal protective equipment most motorcyclists reach for
when they ride. It's also the most important piece of protective gear a
rider can use.
Today many states don't require mandatory helmet use for all riders in
their jurisdiction, yet helmet use among motorcyclists is much higher
than safety belt use among car drivers. Between 40 and 60 percent of
riders voluntarily wear helmets when they ride compared with only 15
percent of car drivers who use their seat belts. And the seat belt is
already in the car!
A rider's skill is an important factor in preventing motorcycle
accidents. Rider education programs and improved license standards and
testing procedures assist in developing safer motorcyclists. But in the
event of an accident, a rider's protective clothing can help minimize
injuries. Protective clothing doesn't end with a help, either. Every
rider should wear a face shield or goggles, gloves, over- the-ankle
boots and durable, long sleeved jacket and long pants.
Since head injuries account for the majority of motorcycle fatalities,
head protection is of vital importance. While even the best helmet
can't guarantee complete immunity from injury, without a helmet you are
up to five times more likely to sustain a critical head injury in an
accident, than a helmeted rider.
Standards and Testing
Helmets actually protect your head in two ways. The outer shell resists
penetration and abrasion and absorbs the large initial shock in an
accident. The inner liner absorbs the rest of the shock by slowly
collapsing under impact. Both the shell and the liner essentially
self-destruct by spreading the forces of impact throughout the helmet
material. That's why, in most cases, if a helmet has been damaged in an
accident, it may be of little protective value in another mishap.
When you shop, look for stickers on the inside or outside of the helmet
confirming compliance with the standards from one or several of these
agencies: U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the Snell Memorial
Foundation, or the American Nation Standards Institute (ANSI).
[ed. note. ANSI compliance is less common these days]
Each organization has established rigid procedures to evaluate:
- Impact - the shock absorbing capacity of the helmet
- Penetration - the helmet's ability to withstand a blow from a sharp
- Retention - the chin strap's ability to stay fastened without
breaking or stretching.
- Peripheral Vision - the helmet must provide a minimum side vision of
120 degrees to each side (Most people's peripheral vision is
between 110 and 115 degrees).
Department of Transportation (DOT)
The DOT sticker appears on the outside, back bottom edge of the helmet.
Since 1980 all adult-sized helmets must meet the DOT standard. Helmet
dealers and distributors must ensure that all the helmets they sell
bear the DOT sticker.
Snell Memorial Foundation
The Snell sticker is usually found on the inside lower back of the
helmet. Its use is voluntary. Snell has been testing helmets since the
1950's. Their standards have been revised six times (most recently in
1985 [ed. note. There is now a new standard, 1990, I believe]) as
helmet design and manufacturing techniques have improved. They attempt
to reproduce, under test conditions, the circumstances that represent
potential hazard to motorcyclists. For instance, Snell has begun using
a more realistic penetration test. Instead of testing penetration with
the needle-like projectile the other agencies use, Snell employs a
steel I-beam shaped like a highway guard rail. Snell also tests the
chin piece in full-face helmets.
American National Standards Institute (ANSI)
The 1979 ANSI z90.1 standard is more stringent than the DOT standard
but less demanding than the Snell Foundation's requirements in terms of
impact and penetration resistance [ed. note. This may no longer be
true, as the DOT standard has been updated]. The ANSI sticker is
usually located on the inside of the helmet. The ANSI requirement is a
voluntary standard developed by a committee or representatives from
consumer groups, helmet manufacturers, testing organizations and the
Choosing a helmet
A safety helmet consists of four primary elements:
While color, design and price may influence your decision about which
helmet to buy, protection should be your first consideration. The full
face helmet provides the most protection since it covers more of your
face. Recent design improvements in shell material and interior
ventilation have improved comfort.
- the outer shell
- a shock-absorbing liner
- a comfort liner of soft foam and fabric
- a chin strap or other retention system
The next choice in protection is the three-quarter helmet. It doesn't
offer the face and chin protection that full-face helmets do, but some
riders prefer it.
Helmet shells are primarily manufactured in one of two materials:
fiberglass or injection molded plastic. Helmet manufacturers are
constantly working to develop less expensive, stronger, and lighter
materials for helmet shell construction.
The injection molded plastic helmet generally is the lightest and least
expensive available today. It may also have a shorter life expectancy.
Its chemical composition can be changed if it is painted or decals are
applied to its surface. Damage can occur if it is stored near
gasoline, cleaning fluids, or exhaust fumes. The user should read
carefully any and all information supplied with these helmets.
Fiberglass helmets can be more expensive than injected molded
helmets,especially if the fiberglass layers are hand laminated.
Fiberglass helmets delaminate on impact to absorb shock. You can paint
them or apply decals without damage. However, because they are build to
absorb shock, they can also break or crack if severely impacted in an
accident, a fall or even if dropped sharply onto a hard surface.
The helmet liner is made of expanded polystyrene foam (or "Styrofoam").
This is an important part of the helmet, as this polystyrene liner is
non-resilient and evenly spreads the impact in an accident. The more
impact energy that can be absorbed by the liner, the less there is of
that shock energy to reach the head and do damage.
One look around your dealer's helmet display will convince you that
nearly any color and decoration you could want on a helmet is already
available. Many manufacturers are color coordinating their helmets with
the newest motorcycle models. Choose a bright colored helmet for
maximum visibility to motorists.
Getting the Right Fit
There's more to fitting a helmet than just buying the one that matches
your hat size or guessing at small, medium, or large. Your hat size is
a good starting pointer, however, if you don't know your hat size, you
can use the chart below. Measure your head at its largest circumference
- usually just above your eyebrows in front, over your ears and around
to the back. You may need to take severely measurements to get the
largest one. If your head size falls between the numbers listed, use
the next largest hat size. Since some helmets are simply marked as S,
M, L, or XL, you may need to contact the helmet manufacturer for size
equivalencies, as they vary.
Here's the best way to try on your helmet:
|21 1/4||6 3/4
|21 5/8||6 7/8
|22 3/8||7 1/8
|22 3/4||7 1/4
|23 1/8||7 3/8
|23 1/2||7 1/2
|23 7/8||7 5/8
|24 1/4||7 3/4
|24 3/4||7 7/8
If you're still unsure about the helmet's fit, wear it around the store
for a while to make sure it is completely comfortable. A helmet is an
important investment, no matter what its price. Be sure the one you
choose is right for you.
- Hold it by the chin straps. The front of the helmet should face
you with the top pointing down.
- Put your thumbs on the inside of the straps, balancing the
helmet with your fingertips.
- Spread the sides of the helmet apart slightly and slip it down
over your head.
- The helmet should fit snugly and may even feel a bit too tight
until it's in place correctly. Be sure it sits squarely on your
head. Remember, if your helmet is too large it can be very
annoying to wear because it's noisy and lets in the wind. And,
in the even of an accident, it may come off!
- Once the helmet is on your head, make a few other checks of its
fit, before fastening the chin strap.
- The cheek pads should touch your cheeks without pressing
- There should be no gaps between your temples and the brow
- If the helmet has a neck roll, it shouldn't push the helmet
away from the back of your neck.
- With the helmet still on and securely fastened, move it from
side to side and up and down with your hands. If it fits right,
your skin should move as the helmet is moved. You should feel
as if a slight, even pressure is being exerted all over your
head by the helmet. Remember too, that a helmet gets "broken
in" as you use it, so a new one should be as tight as you can
comfortably wear it.
- Now, with the chin strap still securely fastened and your head
straight, try rolling the helmet forward off your head. You
shouldn't be able to pull it off. If you can the helmet is too
- Take off the helmet. Does your head feel sore anywhere. Are
there any red spots on your forehead? Pressure points can be
uncomfortable and can cause a headache after a long ride, so be
sure your helmet isn't causing any. If it is, choose the next
larger size or try a different brand of helmet.
A word About Chin Straps
Always fasten your helmet's chin strap or other retention system
snugly. A helmet will do you no good if it comes off during an
Replacing your helmet
Plan to replace your helmet if it has been involved in an accident.
Some helmet manufacturers will inspect and, when possible, repair a
damaged helmet. If your helmet has been dropped and you think it might
be damaged, you may want to take advantage of this service.
Most helmet manufacturers recommend that, under normal use, you should
replace your helmet every two to four years. If you notice any signs of
damage before then, replace it sooner. As mentioned above, fiberglass
helmets may crack or break if dropped. And, if you see any light brown
spots near the rivets of a polycarbonate helmet, it is probably damaged
and should be replaced.
Why replace a helmet every few years if it doesn't appear damaged? Its
protective qualities may deteriorate over time. The interior padding
compresses, offering less protection. The chin strap may fray or loosen
at its attaching points. And the shell may be chipped or banged.
Probably the best reason, however, is the constant improvements in
design and protective qualities of helmets. Chances are the helmet you
buy in a couple of years will be better than the one you have now -
even if the cost is about the same.
Since 1974, all helmet manufacturers must stamp the month and date of
production on the helmet's chin strap. If you can't remember when you
bought your present helmet, just check the strap. If there's no date at
all, you definitely should replace your helmet now.
Tips on Helmet Care
Follow the manufacturer's direction on caring for your helmet. Use only
the mildest soap recommended. Avoid any petroleum-based cleaning
fluids, especially if you own a polycarbonate helmet. Exposure to
strong cleaning agents can cause the polycarbonate helmet to decompose
and lose protective value.
Never hang your helmet on the motorcycle's mirror, turn signals, or
sissy bar. The inner liner can easily be damaged from such handling and
may lose its protective qualities. In fact, avoid carrying a spare
helmet on your cycle, unless it's carefully protected or on your
passenger's head. Even the bumps and jarring from normal riding can
easily damage a spare helmet carried on your cycle.
Before you do any of your own helmet decorating, such as painting,
pinstriping,or applying decals, check the manufacturer's
recommendations. Follow them closely.
If you plan to use a CB radio when you ride, find a model that doesn't
necessitate drilling speaker holes in your helmet. Even a tiny hole can
spread and weaken the helmet's structure. Before you purchase your
speakers, check your state's laws regulating their use in helmets. Some
states prohibit them altogether.
Many states require a specific amount of retroreflective material on a
reflective helmet. Check with your dealer to be sure the helmet you
plan to purchase meets the requirements or won't be damaged if you
apply retroreflective tape to it. Your local motor vehicle department
can give you exact information on the location and number of square
inches, of retroreflective material required in your state. The
Motorcycle Safety Foundation has two styles of retroreflective decals
available for use on helmets.
There are many considerations when deciding which helmet to buy. Talk
with an MSF-registered motorcycle safety instructor, your local
motorcycle dealer, other riders, and consult recent motorcycle
enthusiast magazines for the most up-to-date information to help in
Copyright MSF, March 1988
People are more violently opposed to fur than leather because it's
safer to harass rich women than motorcycle gangs.