We all know we’re supposed to wear helmets when we ride, but how do you know which one to buy? Does it even matter? How tight is it supposed to be? Is a cheap helmet just as good as an expensive one? And what about those certification stickers…what do they all mean?

Your helmet is the only thing between your fragile noggin and the unforgiving asphalt (or rocks, or trees, or minivans…), so it’s important to understand how they’re built and how to choose the right one for you.

Motorcycle Helmet Construction

Motorcycle helmets are made up of three main components:

  • Outer shell, usually polycarbonate, fiberglass, carbon fiber, Kevlar or a combination of those
  • EPS (Expanded Polystyrene) foam layer
  • Comfort liner – the inner fabric and padding that sits against your head and face

motorcycle helmet constructionHelmets work by protecting us first and foremost from traumatic brain injury—when our soft, mushy brain sloshes against the hard, unforgiving inside of the skull upon impact, then rebounds and hits again on the other side. In order to prevent or reduce that, helmets must slow down our head’s movement at a very specific rate—if it happens too quickly, it’s ineffective. Too slow, and our head crushes the EPS foam then rams into the helmet’s hard outer shell.

Shoei has an informative page here that does a good job of illustrating the various parts of a motorcycle helmet.

While the EPS layer does the lion’s share of the impact absorption, that outer shell plays a part as well, along with a couple of other jobs. First, it protects us from penetration injuries, and second, it provides structure and protection for the EPS foam itself.

There have been some recent advancements in helmet construction, as manufacturers are discovering ways to address what’s called rotational motion or angular acceleration—basically the idea that if we come off the bike at speed, we’re moving forward as well as down, so any impact will likely include both direct (linear) impact as well as a glancing blow that causes our head to rotate inside the helmet.

6D Helmet interior
This graphic of a 6D dirt bike helmet shows the proprietary rotational force protection layer. Other companies, like Shoei, have their own design, while still others, like Bell and Fly, license the technology from MIPS.

Scientific evidence exists to support these advancements, so we can likely expect to see it more and more in the future. So far, companies like 6D, Bell and Fly (in partnership with Sweden-based MIPS) and Shoei are all incorporating some form of rotational force protection into some or all of their helmets.

DOT vs. Snell vs. ECE

Pick up your helmet and look at the back…there should be a sticker that says, from top to bottom:

  • Helmet model
  • “DOT”
  • “FMVSS No. 218”
  • “Certified”

That means that your helmet meets the minimum acceptable standards for protection, as defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation. In states with compulsory helmet laws (which is most of them—only Illinois and Iowa don’t require helmets for any rider or passenger of any age), only helmets that meet DOT standards qualify as legal.

No DOT sticker? You might as well be wearing a baseball cap. I don’t know about you, but if I’m going to be wearing a helmet it better darn sure be able to do its job.

bucket head motorcycle rider
FYI…a bucket is not DOT approved.

Some helmets include other certifications, which are also noted on the sticker. In the U.S., those are Snell and ECE. The Snell Memorial Foundation is a non-profit group that focuses on developing stricter standards than the DOT requires, specifically for racing applications. Because Snell certification involves ensuring the helmet can survive two impacts in the same location, Snell-certified helmets are often stiffer and heavier than DOT or DOT/ECE helmets. Snell also tests chinbar impacts, while DOT does not.

The ECE 22.05 regulation was developed by the United Nations and is the accepted standard in Europe as well as other parts of the world, such as Japan and Australia. (The U.S. was not a part of the original regulation, which was first issued in 1972, but today more and more helmets being sold in the U.S. are certified as both DOT and ECE.) The ECE regulation covers the user’s field of vision and hearing, head coverage, vents and other projections that stick up from the shell, material durability, heat, cold, moisture, chinstraps and flammability, in addition to protection, labeling and helmet mass. The ECE also certifies helmets in three ways:

  • “J” if it doesn’t have a chinbar (open-face helmet)
  • “P” if it has a chinbar that is certified as protective
  • “NP” if it has a chinbar that is not certified as protective

Asking a motorcyclist for their opinion on whether DOT, DOT/Snell or DOT/ECE is best is like asking for opinions on oil or tires. Everyone has a choice and a reason for that choice. Unfortunately, the only way to truly test a helmet is by crashing in one, so we say make sure your lid is DOT-approved at minimum, fits you well and is comfortable. Which brings us to the last section of this article…

Choosing the Right Helmet

Motorcycle helmets are tricky to fit properly. Every manufacturer uses different shell and liner shapes, so it’s possible that not every manufacturer’s helmet will fit you—even if it’s your size. For example, Schuberth and Scorpion helmets in general do not fit me. The Shoei GT-Air squeezes my temples, but its Neotec and RF-1200 fit like a glove. Arai’s Quantum and Signet-X are respectively too round and too long, but its new DT-X feels like it was made for my noggin. (Arai is one of the only companies to offer helmets in three distinct head shapes: round oval, intermediate oval and long oval.)

Your best bet is to go to a large brick-and-mortar store that carries a variety of helmet brands (or to a motorcycle show or event where helmet makers and dealers will have products to try on). Try on every helmet you can, noting which brands/models fit you best.

little kid big motorcycle helmet
Photo: motomom.ca.

How should a motorcycle helmet fit? If you can see space between the cheek pads and your face, it’s too loose. Shake your head back and forth. If the helmet moves, it’s too loose. Grab the sides and twist. Only the inner comfort liner should move; if you can rotate it on your head, it’s too loose.

Leave it on for at least a minute and pay attention to where it presses into your head and ears. A slightly annoying bump pressing into your forehead will devolve into a burning pit of lava after a couple of hours on the bike (what riders refer to as “hot spots”). If you wear glasses when you ride, make sure they fit comfortably.

A $79 no-name lid and a $900 Arai might both carry a DOT sticker, but you’ll notice the biggest differences when it comes to fit and comfort. More expensive helmets will have softer, more comfortable liners that are removable and washable (very important, trust us). They also often offer a degree of customization; you can fine-tune your fit by swapping out different sizes/thicknesses of cheek pads and top liners. Fit and finish will be better, and they often carry Snell or ECE certifications as well. They usually vent more effectively, are quieter and more aerodynamic, and weigh less, all of which will make a huge difference when you’re on longer rides.

Helmet comfort liner
More expensive helmets will have a removable comfort liner that can be washed (a very good thing). Some also allow the user to swap out thicknesses for a customized fit.

Back when I first started riding, I bought a cheap helmet that I thought looked cool. It didn’t seem to flow air well at all, despite its huge ventilation channels on the outside of the shell, so I looked a little closer inside, under the liner. Sure enough, there were no holes drilled into the EPS! The ventilation channels were fake!

The bottom line is, spending more money on a helmet will get you more comfort, more well-thought-out features, and probably more technical and safety research. But all of today’s motorcycle helmets are more comfortable and protective than ever, and the variety of styles means there’s something for everyone. So no excuses! Gear up, grab your lid and let’s ride!

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