How to Choose a Motorcycle Helmet

Every rider, regardless of type, has one thing in common — our reliance on our heads. 

Head injuries are a leading cause of fatalities when it comes to motorcycle accidents. According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), helmets are about 37% effective in preventing motorcycle rider deaths (41% for passengers), and about 67% effective in preventing brain injuries. This means that out of every 100 motorcyclists that died in a motorcycle crash, 37 could have been saved and almost 70 spared the devastating effects of traumatic brain injuries. 

So it goes without saying, motorcycle helmets are essential for all riders, from scooters to superbikes. 

But from all the helmet shapes, types, and compositions out there — how do you choose the one that’s right for you (and your wallet)?  

How to Choose a Motorcycle Helmet: 

Step 1. Review Motorcycle Helmet Safety Standards 

USADOTNew ZealandNZ 5430
EuropeanECE 22.05KoreaKS G 7001
BrazilNBR 7471MalaysiaSIRIM
AustraliaAS 1698-2006IndiaIS 4151
JapanSG or JISSingaporePSB
CanadaCSA CAN3-D230-M85 

Before you dive into the motorcycle helmet purchasing journey it’s important to get a few facts straight. Largely, that helmet cost is not associated with helmet safety level. At a minimum the baseline required safety standard in the U.S. is DOT (Department of Transportation). Ensuring your helmet has the European ECE 22.05 rating is the next step in buying a “good” helmet. This rating was tested to withstand a large-level impact, with additional smaller impacts (simulating a crash). Arai and Shoei have also developed the Snell M2010 rating, which was tested to withstand 2 moderate impacts (overall, ECE is generally accepted as the superior rating). 

Bottom line: A $1,000 helmet without proper ratings is less safe than a $150 helmet with DOT ECE 22.05 safety ratings. 

Step 2. Chose a Motorcycle Helmet Type

Choosing which helmet type you’ll be sporting above your shoulders is arguably the most important step in your lid-purchasing journey. And the first choice that you’ll have to make on that journey is what kind of motorcycle helmet you want. 

  • Full-Face: These helmets, as their name suggests, feature complete coverage of the head and face areas.  This is important when you consider that 49% of all helmet impacts are to the face/chin area. If you account for the skull-base (the area unprotected by half-helmet styles) then this number jumps up to 61%)…

    Unfortunately, the “retro” style helmets popular today often don’t feature structurally sound chin bars, eliminating them from this category.

    These helmets, like the half, dual-sport, and modular formats below allow for 120° of visibility (with human peripheral vision capabilities maxing out at around 90°). They will also typically feature a system of vents and air-blockers for maximum comfort.

    Suggested models: Bell RS-2 ($159), AGV K-6 ($499), Shoei GT Air II ($599)

  • Half-3/4 Style: These helmets will only cover the top of your head, typically stopping near the forehead or brows. They provide limited protection, and typically do not feature a visor (though some models have drop-down options available). 

    Suggested models: LS 2 Spitfire ($109), Arai Ram X ($679)
  • Modular: Typically full-face style helmets featuring a hinge allowing the rider to rotate the chin bar upwards. Extremely popular with ADV and road riders, these helmets are a step below full-face helmets because t the hinge creates a potential “weak” point upon impact compared to the one-piece full-face design. 

    Suggested models: Bell SRT ($369), Shoei NeoTec II ($699)
  • Dual-Sport & Dirt: Dual sport helmets will typically consist of a standard full-face design with either a drop-down or nonexistent visor. These helmets will feature maximum ventilation, and may require the rider to purchase goggles or glasses for eye protection.  

    Suggested models: O’neal Series 2 ($109), Fox Racing ($179), Shoei VFX-EVO ($479),

Step 3. Determine Your Helmet Shell Shape & Size 

Image: Helmet Shapes. NHTSA Choose the Right Motorcycle Helmet

After you’ve determined your preferred helmet type, determining your head shape is the next step. If you’re not accustomed to measuring your head, you might be surprised to find out that they come in a variety of not only sizes, but also shapes. 

Most helmet shells will be either round oval, intermediate oval, or long oval. To determine yours, ask a friend to take a photo of your head from above with your hair as flat as possible. To determine helmet size, check manufacturing size charts against your head measurements. Measurements should be taken with a flexible measuring tape, starting just above the eyebrows and wrapping around the thickest point of the back of your head. 

Pro tip: Some retailers like Revzilla will allow you to sort helmet types by shape while shopping! 

Step 4. Choose a Helmet Composition Type

Most motorcycle helmets are made of the same basic components: an outer shell, impact-absorbing liner, inner padding, chin strap, and visor. 

The most variance in motorcycle helmet composition comes with the outer layer (covering the impact-absorbing EPS foam layer). This out layer can be made of multiple materials, each with unique pros and cons: 

  • Polycarbonate is less expensive, and flexes as it absorbs energy. 
  • Fiberglass composites are slightly more expensive, but flex, crush and split as they absorb energy. 
  • Carbon fiber is the most expensive and lightest shell option, and distributes energy upon impact. 

Step 5. Try on Your Helmet!

A correctly fitting helmet is unique in that it should be a little uncomfortable at first. Unlike clothing or hats, a helmet fit should be firm and snug, with little to no movement with head motions. 

Pressure and pain points (most commonly above the temples or on the forehead) are the major red flag in helmet fitting. If you start to feel them then the helmet may be the wrong size, shape, or both. If possible try to wear the helmet for up to 30 minutes to determine if there are any problem points. It’s important to keep in mind that helmets will have a break-in period of about 15-20 hours, so snug padding will loosen slightly over time. 

Pro tip: Some manufacturers will offer adjustable padding features if your helmet’s fit still feels too snug after breakin! 

Step 6: Choose Your Gadgets

Image: Cardo Freecom 4+ ($182)

Many riders opt to install Bluetooth headsets or camera mounts to their helmets, and while these gadgets can certainly make the ride more fun, they can create problems too. Gadgets like cameras and mounts have the potential to change the crash performance of a helmet, with factors like size, weight, angle of impact, and energy of the object or fall all influencing potential outcomes. 

Many safety-minded riders may find that a vehicle-mounted camera is the best fit for their riding recording needs. 

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Step 7. Helmet Care & Purchasing Tips 

According to the Snell Memorial Foundation, helmets should be replaced at least every 5 years, with many major manufacturers recommending every 3 years. This isn’t necessarily due to the EPS foam degrading, but because helmet shells begin to become brittle and vulnerable due to UV exposure and wear. 

Helmets should be kept clean and safely stored when not in use. Unfortunately, the design of helmets to withstand roughly 1 big impact means that even an accidental drop can warrant the need to purchase a new one (that includes it accidentally slipping off your motorcycle seat!). 

Never buy a used helmet or display model, as even though the helmet may look fine on the outside, inner cracks or compromised inner material or components could mean the helmet won’t function as it’s designed, or could even cause further injury. 

Key Points

Buying a helmet is one of the most important steps you can take to preserve your safety as a motorcyclist. A properly fitting, well-maintained helmet can help to reduce your chances of death and serious injury by up to 41% and 67%. Always be sure to buy a new, unused helmet, and carefully consider any modifications or additions you plan to make to it. 

Motorcycle gear and gadgets are ultimately an investment in your safety. When it comes to choosing your first, or next helmet, make sure to take the extra time to research and find the perfect fit for you!   

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