The most fundamental item of motorcycle gear is also, frequently, the most misunderstood. Let’s clear up the conventional wisdom and marketing obfuscation, then put the best, safest helmet possible on your head.
What’s The Best/Safest Helmet I Can Buy?
The best/safest helmet you can buy is the one that fits you best. Period. Fit is the single most important factor when choosing a helmet; so much so that it outweighs pretty much every other merit or feature a helmet can have.
To determine if a helmet fits you properly, visit a large brick and mortar motorcycle dealer or motorcycle apparel retail store and try a bunch on. Like everything in the store. A helmet should fit evenly around your entire skull with firm, but not overly tight pressure. Avoid any with obvious contact gaps anywhere but over your ears and especially any with any pressure points. To determine if a helmet is tight enough, use your hands to try to twist it around your head while resisting that movement with your head. The helmet shouldn’t rotate beyond just the deformation of the comfort liner. Next, sit on the motorcycle you intend to use the helmet with, move through various riding positions and examine the visibility. Can you see ahead without straining your neck? If so, then you’ve found the right helmet for you.
Next, determine if the store you’re in has a sign out front reading “Pro Italia,” “MotoCorsa,” “RevZilla,” “D-Store,” or “Transportation Revolution.” If not, then that store exists for the sole purpose of screwing you. Place the helmet back on the shelf, walk out and order it online. Do so from a reputable retailer, not an Amazon reseller, not from eBay, not from your friend Dave and not from a forum. A helmet should be brand new, unworn, wearing all its stickers and in its original packaging.
Everyone has their own unique head shape, hence the need to jump through these hurdles. These are generalized into four or five categories, but even within those, fit varies by brand and model. Never purchase a helmet without trying it on first.
Arai is the only manufacturer to make helmets in all categories of shape, but even then, another manufacturer may offers something that fits you uniquely well.
Helmet Components And What They Do
Let’s work from the outside in. The helmet’s shell is made from a strong, but deformable material like plastic or carbon fiber. Its job is to both act as a chassis, holding all the other parts together, while also spreading impact forces across a wide area, shearing them off to the sides and deforming to absorb some of those forces. Safety wise, one material isn’t better than another. Well executed plastic is better than cheap carbon.
The visor — sometimes called a “shield” because America is weird — is the clear part you look through. These things have to be optically clear while resisting impacts and penetration, which is why they’re expensive. You’ll want a clear one for low light and a dark one for day time riding.
The visor mechanism is what the visor pivots on and what attaches it to the helmet. Every manufacturer has their own take on this and all are surprisingly fragile. Learn how to use them, then do so carefully. On some helmets, you can tweak the way the visor fits against the seal with an adjustment screw.
Mounted to the outside of some helmets may be wings, vents, peaks or other ephemera. These are designed to control airflow, either through vent holes or around the helmet. These must break off in an accident so they don’t catch stuff and twist your neck around, so tend to be necessarily fragile.
Vent holes come in either 10 or 20mm varieties, the latter obviously flowing more air. Ones in the back draw air through the helmet from ones in the front, providing a cooling and/or de-fogging effect. All holes should feature switchable covers. Even/especially the ones in the back since they create the draw. More/larger holes don’t necessarily ventilate better if actual research is put into the location of them. Read the marketing material, the reviews and make a smart choice about your ventilation needs. Brow vents really help in hot weather. Are those 10 or 20mm in diameter and how many of them are there? Can they be fully sealed-off when it gets cold?
The helmet’s liner is made from styrofoam. Yes, the exact same material you get Chinese takeout in and which wraps stuff you order from Amazon. No one’s invented a better energy absorber that’s cost-effective yet. In your helmet, its densities are precisely varied to slow the deceleration of your head to a survivable level.
The comfort liner is the foam and fabric that touches your head providing, wait for it, comfort. A helmet that fits your skull precisely needs very little padding; beware heavily padded helmets. Look for nice, soft, long-lasting fabrics that will spoil your scalp and face; you’ll be spending days at a time pressed against this stuff. Bonus points for wicking and antimicrobial properties. Some helmets include press-on adjustment pads that allow you tweak the fit a little bit. These work, but only in very small amounts; a long oval helmet can’t be made to fit a spherical skull using press-on pads. Think of them as a final 1% bit of tailoring.
The chin strap is the only thing holding your helmet on. They’re bolted through the styrofoam to the shell. Buckles can be ratchets, seatbelts or D-Rings. The first two might sound more convenient, but in the real world they’re a hassle. D-rings adjust perfectly and quickly every time without any fuss.
I Don’t Have A Cheap Head, Should I Buy A Cheap Helmet?
There is no correlation between helmet price and safety. That’s probably because there’s been virtually no technical safety innovation in helmets since about 1968. Since that first Bell Star, they’ve all been some styrofoam stuck in a shell with a hole cut in the front so you can see. Helmets have gotten much safer over time, but they still follow that same formula, so it’s not hard to do the safety thing right. Buy a brand new helmet from a reputable manufacturer being sold by a reputable retailer made to Snell M2015 or ECE 22.05 and you’ll be getting as much safety as anyone dropping $900 on an Arai.
Here, a Schuberth S2 (black line) is shown reducing nearly twice the force required by the ECE standard (dashed line). Schuberth is the only manufacturer that will ever show you actual test results like these. I wonder why?
Standards exist to define safety, to test helmets and to assure consumers that helmets meeting them work. All helmets must meet some standard, but which one is the last differentiator in determining outright efficacy. The only helmet maker to release the results of its safety tests and demonstrate the degree to which they exceed their standard (ECE 22.05) is Schuberth, and therefore we can assume they’re the only manufacturer which makes helmets that exceed that standard.
DOT is simply the minimum legal standard to which a helmet must adhere to be legally sold in the US. That means a helmet which meets DOT isn’t very safe, something made worse by DOT’s self compliance; the helmet makers test compliance themselves, supposedly. On top of DOT, two voluntary (in the US) standards give you much more assurance that you’ll live through a motorcycle crash.
ECE 22.05 is the European Union’s heavily regulated, highly studied and extremely safe standard. The Euros love them some red tape and that pays off when it comes to your safety because they really do really test a large sample of helmets, require re-certification regularly throughout a helmet’s production life to make sure tool wear or cheating doesn’t impact safety and because it was created with realistic, real world motorcycle crashes in mind. The best helmets available are made to ECE 22.05; it’s the standard worn by every single professional motorcycle racer at the World Championship level, without exception.
At some point along its way from honoring a dead racer to its current form, the American Snell standard got a little perverted by greed. Certain importers of luxury helmet brands (cough, Arai, cough, Shoei) decided they needed their own, high-cost standard to achieve a marketing benefit over rivals and so created their own, half-baked take on the whole thing that was more about obfuscation than it was your safety. Or, more specifically, that of your child or wife.
They developed a test that involves two drops - one from higher than the DOT test followed by a second at the same height of the DOT test. The idea was to entice buyers with claims that their helmets could withstand a bigger crash and, therefore, was safer. The issue is that the extra density adds weight and is more prone to giving concussions on lesser, more common crashes. Think of a crash, do you hit something twice, with the same, catastrophic force or once with a big force, then again and again and again with smaller forces? This comparison test, posted by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, is a little outdated and doesn’t include the latest Snell standards, but is a helpful guide.
A guy named Dexter Ford blew the lid off this scandal, then got fired by Motorcyclist for telling the truth in the New York Times. They’ve since revised their standard in line with his suggestions, haven’t credited him or gotten him his job back, and Snell helmet are now as close to being as safe as ECE lids for it not to matter. But they’re still a little heavier; a make and model of helmet sold in Europe and made to ECE will still be marginally lighter than the same make an model of helmet sold to Americans and certified by Snell. “M2010” was the standard in which they decided to stop killing people with small heads and “M2015” is exactly the same, but they changed the sticker for reasons I can’t be bothered to remember or repeat here. Isn’t the American motorcycle industry fun?