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The Ultimate Motorcycle Helmet Guide

Did you know in most states it is legal for riders 21 and older to ride a motorcycle WITHOUT a helmet? And in three states (Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire), no riders are required to wear a helmet? According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, only 18 states, including New Jersey and New York, require ALL riders to wear a helmet. But cross the border into Pennsylvania and riders over 21 are not required to wear any type of helmet, exponentially increasing their chances of traumatic brain injury, disability, and death.

With the Insurance Information Institute (III) reporting that about 5,000 motorcycle deaths occur nationwide each year, it may come as a shock that more states have not adopted more protective laws. Driving defensively does not guarantee that a motorcyclist will be safe from injury. In fact, motorcyclists are 29 times more likely than passenger car occupants to die in a crash, according to the III. Factors like congested streets, distracted drivers, and debris on roadways become especially dangerous to motorcycles. No level of experience guarantees that a crash can be avoided. The best way for motorcycle riders to protect themselves should an accident occur is by wearing the appropriate safety equipment, which includes a properly-fitting helmet regardless of mandated state laws.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helmets reduce the risk of death from a motorcycle accident by 37% and reduce the risk of head injury from an accident by 69%. Without a car’s structural protection or the stability of four wheels, motorcycle riders involved in a crash are more likely to suffer serious traumatic brain injuries or death. When the only thing protecting a rider’s head from direct impact is a helmet, it becomes imperative to their safety to wear one. Yet, the number of motorcyclists who wear helmets when riding has been decreasing over the past decade. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that only 58% of motorcyclists nationwide wear helmets while riding.

In New Jersey and New York, all motorcycle operators and passengers are required to wear Department of Transportation (DOT) approved helmets. This standard defines minimum levels of safety that helmets must meet to protect the head and brain in the event of a crash. There are, however, different types of helmets and different types of helmet certifications. The most common types of helmets for road bikes are full face, open face, and half helmets.

Full Face Helmets cover the top, back, and sides of the head, and include a shield to protect the face. This safeguard can serve to protect against flying debris. These helmets also have a chin bar, which helps protect the chin and jaw in the case of a crash.

Open Face Helmets cover the top, back, and sides of the head, but do not include any face protection, leaving the area exposed to potential roadway debris. These helmets do not include a chin bar, so in the event of a crash, the chin and jaw have no protection.

Half Helmets are the least protective of the three helmets. They cover the top of the head to about halfway down the back of it. This leaves the back of the head, sides, forehead, and face unprotected. Additionally, the chin, jaw, and face are fully exposed. This type of helmet leaves riders most vulnerable in the event of a crash.

Image from Davis Saperstein & Salomon, P.C. video discussing the importance of helmet safety in New Jersey.

There are two main certifications for helmets sold in the United States: DOT and Snell. DOT standards provide the most basic requirements for motorcycle helmets by regulating the helmet’s strength during impact, field of view, penetration resistance, and labeling. Unfortunately, DOT does not provide any testing or quality assurance for helmets. DOT-approved helmet manufacturers are instead subject to random testing by other independent contractors.

Snell standards are regulated by the Snell Memorial Foundation and are tougher than DOT standards. Not only does Snell have more stringent requirements for impact and penetration testing, it also requires much stricter testing on its helmets. In order for a helmet to receive the Snell certification, it must first pass rigorous requirements then be scrutinized in a lab by Snell technicians. According to Snell, its technicians regularly purchase samples of Snell-certified helmets available to consumers and bring them into its own labs for follow-up testing. Snell certifications must be applied for and earned by the manufacturer.

The most important factor to consider when purchasing a helmet is your own personal safety. Look for helmets with:

  • Thick inner liner
  • Strong shell made of fiberglass composite, carbon fiber, or EPS
  • Sturdy chin strap and rivets
  • Weight of 3 pounds (Helmets meeting FMVSS 218 generally weigh about 3 pounds)
  • DOT label
  • Snell label

You can also look for helmets that feature the latest safety features, thanks to current technology. Some helmets have an emergency cheek pad system that gives first responders easier access to an injured rider’s head. The Multi-Directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) is technology inside the helmet that helps reduce rotational forces resulting from certain types of impacts.

Once you have selected the appropriate helmet model, it is equally important to have it correctly sized. Loose or improperly fitting helmets can affect safety and a rider’s peripheral vision. The NHTSA provides the following tips to select the right helmet:

  • Avoid using novelty helmets, which are not made for safety.
  • Pick the right shape for your head, such as round oval, long oval, or intermediate oval.
  • Use a cloth tape to measure your head to choose the right size helmet
  • A correctly-sized helmet will not move around, sit down completely on your head, or be too tight. It should be snug without creating uncomfortable pressure points.
  • If you feel pressure points on the side of your head while wearing the helmet, this may indicate the helmet is too oval for the shape of your head.
  • Try wearing a helmet for 30 to 45 minutes to check for pressure points before you use it on a ride.
  • Your helmet should feel equally snug around the crown and tight in the cheeks.
  • Check the helmet’s safety rating before purchasing it.

Always remember wearing a helmet can significantly increase the chances of survival and decrease the chance of head injury in the event of an accident. Once a helmet has been involved in a crash, it should immediately be discarded as the structural integrity may have been compromised.

If the state you are riding in does not require motorcyclists to wear helmets, always consider the safety benefits of wearing one. It may save your life!

This post was originally published in February 2019 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness in August 2021