Motorbikes are more than a way to get from one place to another. They are also a great way to have a good time, even a key part of a real lifestyle. But riding a motorbike is not a risk-free proposition, and nothing gets in the way of a good time like a disabling injury. One of the most important steps riders can take to keep themselves safe is to wear helmets.
Wearing a helmet is not just the law, it is also a very good idea. Many riders buy their helmets as an afterthought, choosing whatever happens to look good or whatever the motorbike dealer recommends. While any legal helmet meets certain safety and quality standards, helmets that are uncomfortable or that fit poorly are no fun at all to wear. No helmet can do any good unless it is on the rider's head. Besides knowing how to choose a motorbike helmet that fits well and is safe to wear, riders also need to know how to care for their helmets and when to replace them.
Why Buy a Motorbike Helmet?
Choosing a good helmet is easier if the buyer has a good understanding of how helmets are made, how they work to protect riders, and the different types of motorcycle helmet. Knowing what the law has to say about helmets is also important. There are helmets that exceed the minimum standards, and some carry higher, independent certifications.
Motorbike Helmets and the Law
In the UK, as well as in some other countries, wearing a helmet is mandatory for motorbike riders. No other safety gear is required legally, but heavy-duty leather clothing and a reflective outer layer are also important for safety. Goggles are optional, but if worn these must also meet legally mandated standards.
All helmets sold in the UK must meet either the British standard or one of two accepted international standards. A legal helmet must also be marked as meeting one of these standards. Helmets exist that do not meet these standards. These are sold labelled as novelty helmets, or some similar designation, but are bought by people who want to avoid wearing real helmets. These substandard helmets simply do not keep riders safe.
Helmets that do better than the legal standards also exist, and there are independent testing organisations that offer their own certification to helmets that meet their higher standard. Because this higher certification is not mandatory, helmets without it do not necessarily fall short; some companies make very high-quality helmets but simply have not submitted their product for the optional testing yet.
How Motorbike Helmets Protect Riders
Some riders find helmets uncomfortable and argue that helmets only protect against a few types of injuries and are therefore not worth wearing. Strictly speaking, it is true that helmets do not make riders invincible, but they do protect against several kinds of potentially deadly or disabling injuries that are otherwise fairly common in serious bike accidents. Motorbike helmets have four basic parts: a hard outer shell that protects from punctures and abrasions; a foam liner that absorbs the force of impact; softer foam padding for improved comfort and fit; and a chin strap to prevent the helmet from coming off unexpectedly.
Types of Motorbike Helmets
There are four basic types of modern motorbike helmets, with some variations on each type. They vary in how much of the head they cover and how much protection they provide. All these types of helmets meet the minimum safety requirements set by law.
Full Face or Full Coverage Helmets
Full face helmets enclose the entire head except for the front of the face, which is covered by a clear plastic visor. These helmets provide maximum protection to the rider, but can be hot and heavy. Some have vents, which cause some extra wind resistance but are substantially more comfortable to wear.
Open Face Helmets
Open face helmets are generally similar in shape to full face helmets, but lack the bar that covers the chin and usually also lack the visor. They somewhat resemble the helmets worn in American football, except without the face guard. If worn without a visor, these helmets leave riders vulnerable to being hit in the face by flying insects and road debris, a minor but not inconsiderable problem.
Pudding Bowl Helmets
Pudding bowl helmets are, as the name implies, bowl-shaped. They provide less protection to the back of the head and none at all to the jaw and face. They are the least intrusive style of motorbike helmet, and are popular amongst people who do not like helmets and might not otherwise wear them.
Motocross helmets are similar to full face helmets. They have no visor because they are designed to be worn with separate goggles. There is an extension above the eyes, something like a hat brim, that helps protect the rider's eyes from the sun. The lower portion of the helmet, across the chin, is frequently longer and more pointed, also.
Choosing a Motorbike Helmet
Choosing a helmet involves getting the right size, the right fit, and the right style. While full face helmets provide the most protection, some riders find them uncomfortable. The most important thing is to get a helmet the rider is willing to wear.
Motorbike Helmet Size
Motorcycle helmets should feel snug but should not pinch. It should not be possible to pull the helmet off by lifting from the back, once the chin strap is on and properly adjusted. Most people initially choose helmets that are slightly too large. Especially for those helmets that provide greater coverage, it is difficult to find the correct size without trying the helmet on, because a person's hat size does not reflect the size and shape of the facial bones.
Motorbike Helmet Comfort and Style
Comfort and even style are also important considerations when buying a motorbike helmet, because the safest helmet in the world cannot do any good if the rider does not wear it. A good helmet should both feel comfortable and look good. Some helmets have adjustable padding so that the fit can be customised to the rider. While all helmets that meet a given certification share the same safety features, not all helmets are equally comfortable. When a rider buys a high-end helmet, it is more comfort that the extra money buys.
Buying Used Motorbike Helmets
Used helmets are available and can sometimes look like very good deals, but there are a couple of reasons to buy only new helmets. The most important reason is that the foam liner absorbs impact by crushing; the liner takes the damage so that the head does not have to. Once a helmet has been in a crash, it should never be used again. Even the minor damage a helmet sustains during normal use over time slowly reduce its effectiveness. There is no way to check the foam liner for damage without slicing it open to examine it in cross-section, something that obviously makes it impossible to use ever again. The only way to be absolutely sure about the history of a helmet is to buy it new and take care of it thereafter. One of the exceptions to the rule about buying only new helmets is that if a used helmet comes at a very good price, the buyer could use it to thoroughly test a model for fit and size before investing in a new helmet.
Caring for a Motorbike Helmet
Buying a good helmet is only part of what a rider has to do to keep safe. Equally important is taking good care of the helmet so it does not get damaged. When a helmet has been damaged or is simply old and worn, the responsible rider buyer gets a new helmet.
Discarding Old or Damaged Motorbike Helmets
Ironically, one of the most important aspects of good helmet care is getting rid of the helmet. Once the liner has been crushed, it can no longer protect the rider's head. Helmets are good for only one crash before they must be retired completely. Dropping or even throwing an empty helmet does not cause enough damage to ruin the helmet, but over time these minor issues add up so that by the time a helmet is five years old its effectiveness has almost certainly been compromised. After five years, better helmets have probably been developed, anyway. A five year old helmet should be replaced.
Altering Motorbike Helmets
If a new paint job makes a helmet more fun to wear, then it should be fine to do it; anything that puts a helmet on a rider's head is a good thing. However, riders should make sure to follow the manufacturer's guidelines. Any other alterations, anything that could possibly alter the helmet's performance, could void the helmet's safety certification. There is no way to know how well an altered helmet can work since there is no way to test a helmet without destroying it. The safer bet is to leave motorcycle helmets in their original condition.
Cleaning a Motorbike Helmet
Dirty helmets become unpleasant to wear, but improper cleaning can also damage the helmet. Owners should not use petroleum-based cleaners and make sure to use clean hands and clean cloths or grit could scratch the helmet. They should use pH neutral baby shampoo and warm water to wash and then thoroughly rinse with cold water and dry thoroughly with cool air. If the visor has an anti-fog coating, remember to reapply it after cleaning. If possible, disassemble the helmet as much as possible before cleaning, but do not risk breaking or losing any parts. After cleaning, give the outside of the helmet a polish.
Getting a good helmet is an important part of being a safe and responsible motorbike rider. Even more important is wearing that helmet. Buying a helmet is not difficult, but it does require some care and thought. Buyers should understand what designs offer the most protection and at the same time choose helmets they are happy to use.
Buyers should pay attention to fit; make sure the helmet fits snugly, without pinching anywhere, so that it cannot slip out of place in an accident. They should also pay attention to comfort, because a helmet nobody wants to wear cannot do any good. By the same token, it is important to pay attention to colour; make sure the helmet looks good because anything that makes the helmet more fun to wear makes the rider more safe. Once a rider has a good helmet, he or she is responsible for keeping it clean, protecting it from unnecessary damage, and replacing it after a crash or when it gets old. Riding motorbikes is one of life's joys; the function of a good helmet it to make sure the rider gets to keep experiencing that joy longer.