California requires every motorcycle rider, including passengers and regardless of age, to wear a helmet. Studies show that helmets save lives and reduce the severity of head injuries. Unfortunately, even the best helmets cannot save every victim of a motorcycle crash.
The odds of surviving a crash and avoiding a brain injury, however, are better when motorcyclists wear helmets.
Helmet Safety Standards
Safety standards for motorcycle helmets are established by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). A private nonprofit organization, the Snell Memorial Foundation, has created different standards that it applies to motorcycle helmets, bicycle helmets, and other kinds of protective headgear. Snell contends that its standard is tougher to meet, but whether the standard is better is a matter of some controversy.
Some experts suggest that the Snell standard does not replicate real-world crashes. They worry that manufacturers make their helmets too rigid to satisfy the Snell standard. A rigid design might provide more protection in a high-impact collision, but rigid helmets might also lead to head injuries in low-impact accidents that a softer helmet would prevent.
Manufacturers of helmets sold in the United States are required to meet the DOT standard, although the DOT does very little to enforce the law. Compliance with the Snell standard is voluntary, but Snell actually tests helmets before awarding a certification. Helmet manufacturers are allowed to self-certify their compliance with the DOT standard. They can do that without conducting any testing at all.
A third standard, ECE 22.05, has been adopted by the Economic Commission for Europe. It applies to motorcycle helmets marketed in Europe, but European helmets are also sold by American vendors.
European helmets must still be certified as meeting DOT standards before they can legally be sold in the United States. However, some experts prefer the “softer” design of European helmets. It is ultimately up to each motorcyclist to decide which safety standard provides the best protection.
Manufacturers that market motorcycle helmets for on-road use in the United States must affix a label to the back of the helmet that certifies compliance with DOT standards.
Compliance with the Snell and ECE standards can also be displayed on a label affixed to the helmet, although no American law requires that labeling. Consumers who conclude that the Snell or ECE standards are better than the DOT standards should look for those labels.
Keep in mind that counterfeit labeling has been a problem. Some “novelty helmets” that do not meet DOT standards are nevertheless imprinted with a DOT certification label. Some of those labels do not meet the current label design (shown above) that was adopted in 2013.
California law requires motorcyclists to wear a helmet that complies with current DOT standards. It is usually obvious that “novelty” helmets are non compliant, regardless of labeling, but some off-brand helmet manufacturers also falsely label their helmets. Buying a known brand that displays the current DOT certification label (and possibly labels from Snell and/or ECE) is the best way for a motorcyclist to comply with the law.
Choosing a Helmet
No helmet is safe if it does not fit properly. Heads vary in size and shape. No single helmet can fit every head. It is best to buy a helmet from a vendor that knows how to measure the buyer's head and can match the head size to an appropriate helmet.
The helmet should fit tightly without being uncomfortable. There should be no gaps between the head and the helmet's inner lining. If the helmet slips when the rider's head moves, the helmet does not fit.
Riders can choose among half, three-quarters or full-face helmets. Only a full-face helmet protects the jaw and mouth in a crash. A broken jaw and missing teeth are bad enough, but a sudden impact to the jaw can shatter other parts of the skull, producing fatal injuries. Full-face helmets are the only sensible choice for motorcycle riders who want serious protection from injuries.
Helmet Safety Comparisons
Helmet manufacturers continue to improve materials and designs. Motorcyclists should carefully research, and then try on, different brands before making a buying decision. The right helmet for one rider isn't necessarily the right helmet for every rider. A helmet that is too heavy for a smaller rider might place excessive force on the neck. An uncomfortable ride is not a safe ride.
As a general rule, composite fiberglass construction is more crash worthy than poly-carbonate shells. EPS foam between the shell and the liner is essential. If the layer of foam is too thin, it will not offer adequate protection.
Visors that are scratch resistant and fog resistant improve visibility and help riders avoid dangerous situations. Locking face shields help prevent the face shield from opening as a rider slides along a road.
Keep in mind that helmet reviews in motorcycle magazines may be influenced by whether the manufacturer advertises in the magazine. Read reviews from several sources before choosing a helmet.
With those caveats in mind, here are some helmets to consider:
The Corsair V is pricey, but it generally receives high marks for its use of peripheral belting to distribute the force of a collision more evenly. The less expensive RX-Q, like the Corsair V, includes an Emergency Release System that allows EMTs to open the helmet at the cheek pads. The Vector 2 has a wide field of visibility and good ventilation, while its liner and cheek pads are designed for comfort and a good fit.
The X-12 uses a combination of fibers in the shell to distribute crash forces evenly. It also has an Emergency Release System. The Qwest also combines organic fibers with a fiberglass shell. The RF-1200 is light and slim, but it uses a dual density liner to balance any impact applied to the outer shell.
The EXO-R2000 has a TCT Composite Shell that incorporates five layers, including Aramid, fiberglass, and organic poly resin fibers. The less expensive EXO-R410 has emergency-release cheek pads and its bright coloring improves rider visibility.
The Star and the RS-1 both combine Kevlar and fiberglass to improve the distribution of forces in a crash. The Star also incorporates carbon fibers for additional force distribution.
The IS-17 is a budget choice, but it has a locking face shield with a quick-release mechanism and is stronger than its weight might suggest. An even less expensive cousin, the CL-17, is also lightweight and well-constructed, although it lacks some of the safety features of more expensive helmets.
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