The Importance of Wearing a Properly Fitting Motorcycle Helmet
The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that road traffic injuries are a leading cause of death and injury around the world and that for accidents involving motorcycles, injuries to the head and neck are the primary cause of death, severe injury, and disability.1 Motorcycle helmets have been specifically engineered to protect our heads based on research and an understanding of what actually happens to our heads in the event of an accident. Wearing a helmet creates an additional layer of protection for our head and significantly reduces the risk of severe and traumatic head and brain injuries in the event of a crash.
There is no other piece of motorcycle gear that can be purchased that provides more protection to motorcycle riders, however, helmets are tested and certified based on a proper fit for your head. A helmet that has not been tested and certified or one that does not fit properly will not offer the intended level of protection and can, in some cases, increase the risk of brain injury in the event of an accident. And, if a helmet doesn’t fit well, it can become uncomfortable when riding and lead to dangerous distractions.
Motorcycle Helmet Safety Standards and Ratings
There are several different motorcycle helmet safety certification ratings that are approved for use in the US. These include DOT, ECE, and SNELL. Helmets meeting these standards should have stickers on them that indicate the type of certification they hold.
- DOT: These are the basic safety standards that the US Department of Transportation requires all motorcycle helmets to meet to be sold in the US (federal standard FMVSS 218). The DOT standard defines the minimum performance levels that a helmet must meet to protect the head and brain in the event of an accident.2
- ECE: The ECE standards are the basic certification standards determined by the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE 22.05 standard).
- SNELL: This set of standards (SNELL M2020) was developed by the Snell Foundation which is an organization committed to research, testing, and development of safety standards for helmets and is considered the ‘gold’ standard for helmet safety in the US. Helmets that are certified to meet this standard can be more expensive than helmets meeting DOT and ECE standards. This foundation was established in 1957 in memory of sports car race drive William ‘Pete’ Snell following his death which was caused by severe head trauma he experienced in a crash when the helmet he was wearing failed to properly protect his head.
- You may also find helmets with certifications for some additional standards such as FIM and SHARP. FIM is a standard used by the global motorcycle racing organization to certify helmets for track use and SHARP is a standard that relies on testing designed based on European specific data but does not include data associated with US riding conditions.
How to Select and Fit a Motorcycle Helmet
The importance of a properly fitting helmet cannot be emphasized enough. Regardless of the type of safety certification rating, a helmet has been issued, the rating is applied to the helmet based on the helmet fitting properly and doesn’t apply to one that is either too big or loose-fitting or to one that fits too tightly. And, because as unique individuals we have different head shapes and sizes, there are a few steps that need to be taken to find a helmet that will provide a proper fit for your specific head shape and size. Before starting your search for a helmet, you should learn what your personal head shape and size are as all helmet models and styles may not be available in the size you need.
Head and Helmet Shape:
The first step in finding a helmet that fits is to determine the general shape of your head. There are three primary head shape categories that people’s heads generally fall within. These categories are Round Oval, Intermediate Oval, and Long Oval. Using a flexible measuring tape, you can take 2 measurements of your head to determine which of the three primary head/helmet shapes apply to you. (If you don’t have a flexible measuring tape, you can use a string or a shoelace and mark these lengths and then measure them with a ruler or non-flexible measuring tape.)
Measure your head from the center of your forehead to the center of the back of your head (front to back dimension). Then, measure your head again from the center of one ear to the center of the other ear (side to side dimension). Once you have these dimensions, use the following descriptions to determine which head/helmet shape applies:
- Round Oval – a head that is very round and has almost identical front to back and side to side measurements
- Intermediate Oval – a head that has a slightly longer front to back dimension than the side to side dimension. This is the most common category.
- Long Oval – a head that has a noticeably longer front to back dimension than its side to side dimension.
Once you’ve determined your head shape, the next step is to determine your helmet size.
Helmet sizes (S, M, L, XL, etc.) vary with manufacturers and helmet models so it’s important to determine the actual circumference of your head in order to find the correct helmet size. And, as some helmet sizes are presented using metric measurements in size charts you should the circumference dimension in both inches and centimeters. You can then use this information to more easily determine which size of each model you look at is the correct size for your head. If the circumference of your head falls between size ranges for any specific manufacturer or model type, select the larger of the two sizes.
To measure the circumference of your head, place the measuring tape just above your eyebrows on the front of your head and then around the back of your head. It’s recommended that you take this measurement multiple times and then select the largest of the resulting dimensions to use when shopping for a helmet.
Now that you know what head/helmet shape you need and which size based on your head’s circumference, you can search for helmet styles that you like that are available in the size that’s right for you.
Through the years engineers have worked to improve the protection offered by helmets and to reduce wind noise caused by wind moving through the helmet. This has resulted in the openings on helmets becoming smaller. When trying on helmets, pull the chin straps apart and pull the helmet on over the largest part of your head first (which is usually the back of your head).
When a helmet is new, it should feel very snug and slightly tight with the inner lining coming into contact with most of your head. There shouldn’t be any places that you feel a lot of pressure or pain, but the helmet should not move around freely on your head. If your helmet is too big and can move up and down or around on your head, it might be noisy and allow more wind in than you would like. You should also keep in mind that in time, the inner lining will begin to compress and conform to the shape of your head which will cause the helmet to loosen up a little. Some additional checks you can perform to ensure the helmet fits well are:
- You should not be able to insert your fingers in between the lining of the helmet and your forehead
- The cheek pads should be touching your cheeks
- On a full-face helmet, the face shield should not touch your nose or chin when you press on the chin piece
- When the straps are fastened, move the helmet from side to side and up and down. Your skin should move with the helmet and you should feel a slight, even pressure all over your head.
As mentioned above, your helmet will loosen up some with wear so when purchasing a new helmet it should fit as tightly as you can comfortably wear it.
Shell Material Options
Legally, all helmets sold in the US are required to meet the DOT safety standards as described above so there are really no unsafe materials that are used in producing helmets that meet these standards. However, there are differences in the weight and strength characteristics of these materials.
Injection Molded, reinforced plastic helmets are considered the more budget-friendly helmets because the material is inexpensive and easy to form. However, because the plastic materials are not as strong as some others, the shells are thicker and weigh more. This material is more flexible than fiberglass on impact which can be an advantage in lower-speed crashes.
Helmets made from fiberglass stronger, lighter, and much more rigid which enables them to withstand a much higher impact speed. These helmets also offer a lower helmet weight and greater noise reduction. However, fiberglass cracks are susceptible to cracking upon impact which means that although it absorbs energy well, it will very likely have to be replaced more frequently. Fiberglass helmets are generally more expensive than injection-molded plastic helmets.
Composite and Carbon/Kevlar helmets combine fiberglass with carbon, Kevlar, and other materials to produce extremely durable helmets with the same benefits as the fiberglass helmets (lower weight, increased noise reduction). These range in price considerably and can be much more expensive than plastic or fiberglass helmets.
Breaking Your New Helmet In
It’s recommended that before you plan to wear your new helmet on a long drive that you take the time to break it in (just as you would a new pair of shoes). The only way to break in a new helmet is to wear it. Consider wearing it around the house for about 30 minutes a day for several days. Wearing the helmet for a total of about 15 to 20 hours should be a sufficient amount of time for the lining to begin to conform to the shape of your face. As time passes the foam will continue to wear and deflate even more to improve the fit against the contour of your face.
If you want to make this process move more quickly, you can try to remove the foam lining and place it under some weighted items. This may help to begin to break up the padding.
Helmet Handling and Care
Given the investment of time and money you make in the selection, purchase, and breaking in of your helmet, it’s important to treat it with great care.
- Establish a regular storage location that is cool and dry (such as a closet shelf) and return your helmet to this location after each use
- Don’t toss your helmet around – whenever removing it, set it down intentionally in a safe place
- Don’t hang your helmet by the chin straps as they are not intended for that purpose and the helmet could be easily knocked off and damaged
- Don’t hang or hook your helmet over your handlebar or mirror of your motorcycle as this can damage the liner
- If you’re transporting your helmet from one location to another, place it in a secure spot where it won’t roll or bounce around.
- Ensure your helmet is stored away from extreme heat as exposing it to high temperatures can damage the integrity of the helmet’s ability to absorb impact adequately.
- Don’t store your helmet where it will be in direct sunlight
- Don’t store it in a garage or cabinet where it can potentially be damaged by chemicals and solvents
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions when cleaning your helmet (i.e. remove the liner and padding, etc.)
- Only use a soft cloth and mild soap and water to wash the helmet’s shell
- Keep the face shield clean using a soft cloth and the only manufacturer recommended products or mild soap and water
- Don’t decorate the shell with stickers (some adhesives or attempts to remove adhesive residue can damage the shell). If you want to decorate the shell, only use vinyl graphic materials that are designed specifically for this purpose with compatible adhesive.
- Do not apply paint or solvents to the shell
Normal Helmet Wear and Tear
It’s important to monitor the condition of your helmet through normal use for wear and tear. Because the shell of your helmet is made of materials that can crack, it will not maintain its integrity through multiple impacts such as accidental drops, abrasions, or crashes. And, as mentioned above, excessive heat and chemical damage can also reduce your helmet’s ability to protect your head in the event of an accident. Face shields can become scratched which can distort your vision (particularly at night with oncoming headlights). The liner can begin to lose value through compression and as the material and adhesives begin to age and come in contact with chemicals contained in natural hair oils and hair products. Chin straps can become torn.
If you notice that any of these issues are beginning to occur with your helmet, this should be addressed immediately. If the issue can be repaired (such as replacing a face shield), have the repair made before you attempt to wear the helmet again. If you’re unable to repair the damage that’s occurred to your helmet, you should not continue to use it.
When To Replace Your Helmet
According to most manufacturers and as recommended by the Snell Foundation7 helmets should be replaced after five years of normal use. Additionally, you should replace your helmet if:
- It has been damaged in an accident (i.e., experienced and impact or has abrasion marks)
- Has been dropped or fallen to the ground and has visible shell damage (i.e., a crack or abrasion marks)
- The liner has become compressed and the helmet no longer fits tightly as described above (i.e., your head can move inside the helmet)
- You do not have any way to determine how old the helmet is (no manufacture date on the helmet)
- You do not have any way to determine what type of safety certification applies to the helmet (certification labels are missing)
- The webbing or chin strap is torn or damaged
- The webbing or chin strap rivets are loose or missing
Modifications and Addition of Helmet Accessories
Modifications should not be made to helmets after purchase as this can reduce their effectiveness and invalidate the safety certification rating.
When considering adding accessories inside your helmet such as Bluetooth sound accessories, these should only be added if they were specifically designed, certified, or approved by the helmet manufacturer. And, any externally mounted items such as GoPros are not recommended as during an impact these can become a point of concentrated force and could potentially puncture the shell of the helmet in an accident.