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How Motorcycle Helmets Work - Protecting your Noggin

Author / Coordinator: Gareth Marples
March 2007

Ahhh – the sun’s out. There’s a gentle breeze. The road is calling you. The perfect day for a ride on your motorcycle. Your bike is all shined up. Your gas tank is full. You’re ready. Call up your riding partner ( either a fellow rider or a passenger) and away you go. But wait – don’t forget your helmet! That’s the most important part of your riding gear. Do you know why? We do, and we’d like to share that information with you. You need to know how motorcycle helmets work. Then you’ll appreciate what they do for you. And you’ll know why you should never go out riding without a motorcycle helmet.


Why do you need a motorcycle helmet?


Have you seen the statistics surrounding motorcycle helmets? They’re a bit gruesome, but that’s reality! There are many surveys and tests conducted around the controversial subject of motorcycle helmets. We’ll look at the controversy in a minute. Right now, we’re going to look at a study done by the University of Southern California (USC). Although this study was done back in 1990, the facts haven’t changed. And we’re citing California because they have the highest number of motorcycle riders and the highest number of motorcycle fatalities. You’ll see why you need to wear a motorcycle helmet every time you ride your bike.


USC’s study took into account 900 motorcycle crashes. Out of these 900 crashes, there were 980 head and neck injuries – obviously more than one per crash. The conclusion of the study was that the single biggest factor in preventing or reducing head and neck injuries was whether the riders were wearing helmets.


Every single test taken, every single survey conducted, every single study done makes the same conclusion – if you ride a motorcycle without a helmet, your chances of survival in a crash aren’t very high. Is it worth it? You’ll have to decide that for yourself. We mentioned the controversy – well, that’s it. Many motorcycle riders want to decide for themselves. They’ve gone as high as the U.S. Supreme Court to fight mandatory helmet laws. They believe it’s their constitutional right to have the freedom of choice whether they wear a helmet or not.


In Canada, the federal government has put their foot down. There’s a national mandatory helmet law. The National Safety Council has decided that it’s better to take away a motorcycle rider’s choice, if the result is fewer injuries and fatalities. It’s also a proven fact that victims of motorcycle accidents cost the taxpayers more in hospitalization costs – another reason to take away the choice.


So, again, if you live in the U.S., you’ll just have to make that decision for yourself. Think about it. Look at the statistics. If you don’t want to be a part of those negative numbers, then wear your helmet!


What type of motorcycle helmet should you choose?


There are many different brands and types of helmets. First we’ll look at some of the more well-known brand names.


Arai Helmet has been ranked #1 in customer satisfaction for years. That means that their helmets are widely-accepted as being able to do the job. J.D. Power & Associates have done periodic motorcycle helmet satisfaction studies (that’s where the #1 ranking came from). The Arai RX-7 model was the highest-rated helmet in J.D.Power’s 2003 study. Perhaps the reason their helmets are so good is that they sell the exact same model for street use as they do for professional racers. And racing carries with it some very high standards.


Bell Motorcycle Helmets is another well-known and well-respected helmet manufacturer. If you’re interested in vintage helmets, they have a good selection of those. You can also get open face helmets, full face helmets, or ATV (all-terrain vehicle) helmets . You can get graphic models with clearcoat overpaint. Bell also has one of the largest selections of accessories, such as goggles, radios, helmets bags, intercom systems and much more.


Another very popular motorcycle helmet manufacturer, and perhaps the most well-known worldwide, is Shoei Helmets. Shoei’s been around since 1958. Their factory workers are one of the biggest reasons for their success. They take great pride in each and every helmet, treating each one as a special project, taking great care to check for every detail. Shoei is also well-known for their innovative ventilation system, which allows air not only to get into the helmet, but forces the stale air out – a very important factor for a motorcycle rider.


There are other manufacturers, too, like HJC, Nolan, and many more. They all have a variety of models to choose from. You can get full face helmets, half helmets, even novelty helmets. All these helmets are approved by the Department of Transportation (DOT). Reviews of all helmets can be obtained from the DOT, so if you have any doubts about a helmet, just contact them.


It’s very important that you get the right model for your type of riding because different vehicles create different results during a crash. For example, an ATV crash will put you in a different position during impact than a motorcycle. And different types of motorcycles put you in different positions, too. So talk to your salesperson and make sure you get the helmet that matches your vehicle.


What should you look for in a motorcycle helmet?


Helmets are designed primarily for protection. Every helmet has an outer shell that resists penetration and abrasion, and absorbs initial impact. Then it has an inner liner that spreads out the shock of the impact as it absorbs it. This inner liner is made of polystyrene foam (styrofoam), so it’s fairly comfortable. And comfort is an important factor, too. And that’s the major challenge for motorcycle helmet manufacturers. They have to meet certain standards. These standards are set by safety agencies, most of them government.


The Department of Transportation in both the U.S. and Canada issues stickers that must be put on the inside of all helmets, indicating that they meet their standards. There is one standard for motorcycle helmets that’s recognized worldwide – the Snell Memorial Foundation. A Snell sticker in a helmet tells the wearer that it’s been tested for performance, but not materials or design. Snell just wants the motorcycle helmet to protect the rider.


So when you’re shopping for a motorcycle helmet, you should look for one that’s comfortable. A snug fit is paramount in protecting you in the case of an accident. If your helmet doesn’t fit properly, it could fly off and, with no protection, you could get a nasty knock to your noggin.


Try your helmet on before you buy it. It should fit squarely, with the cheek pads touching your face, but not too tightly. There shouldn’t be any gaps around your head. Do up the chin strap, then try to move the helmet around. It should pull your skin with it. Then try pulling the helmet forward and off – it shouldn’t come off. If everything seems to be fitting properly, take it off and check your head for pressure points. If you don’t have any red spots around your head, then you’ve found the right helmet.


Motorcycle helmets are made of different material. Manufacturers are continually trying to develop helmets that are stronger, lighter, and less expensive. The heavier ones are made of fiberglass. Fiberglass is good, but if you drop it, it might crack. The other, more popular material is injection-molded plastic. This is much lighter than fiberglass, and a lot less expensive. But it has its disadvantages, too, like it doesn’t last as long as fiberglass, and you have to take very good care of it. You can’t put any decals or paint on this material, because that could break down its composition which, of course, will weaken it and thus render it ineffective in a crash.


What about accessories?


A motorcycle helmet is your first accessory. After that, you can add all kinds of useful things. Some of the manufacturers that have large lines of accessories are AGV, HJC, M2R, Nolan, and Shoei. And some of the accessories they offer are goggles, gloves, jackets, bike covers, bandannas, motocross boots, body armor – the list goes on and on. And there’s a whole line of replacement accessories, too, like replacement lenses for goggles, replacement straps for helmets, and replacement cheek pads. You can also get replacement visors or face shields. And to carry your gear around, your can get a gear bag, or a helmet bag. By the way, you should use a helmet bag, rather than hang your helmet on your bike. That could break down the inside of your helmet.


Some accessories give you some really cool options. For example, a radio is always great to give you the riding music that makes your trip more enjoyable. And what about the intercom system. This system allows you to carry on a conversation with your passenger as you ride – not usually possible with the noise of the engine and the wind. If you think about it, it could actually prevent an accident.


You’re all set – outfitted and ready to go


How motorcycle helmets work depends on how you work your motorcycle. Rider skills are key. You have a helmet to protect you, but you also need to do your part. Take care of your motorcycle. Take care of your accessories. And take care of other motorists by being a responsible driver.


Have fun on your motorcycle. Make sure you’re properly outfitted. Get the right equipment. Then you’ll be able to hit the open road, or just ride to work, if that’s what you do. But wherever and whenever you ride your motorcycle, if you have the proper motorcycle helmet, you’ve done your part in protecting yourself. Enjoy your ride.