How to Choose Your Riding Gear : Helmets !

Topping your list of essential items should be your helmet. The issue of helmet use causes more debate than any other issue in motorcycling, which is insane : It’s like arguing for or against smallpox vaccinations during the nineteenth century.

Choosing the Right Helmet

Make no mistake about it: Not wearing a helmet is stupid. According to a long-term study conducted by Professor Harry Hurt for the University of Southern California’s Head Protection Research Laboratory, you’re five times more likely to suffer a serious head injury if you have an accident while not wearing a helmet than you are if you crash while wearing one. Every study ever conducted backs up Hurt’s findings.

Given the overwhelming evidence supporting the effectiveness of helmets, you’d think everyone wears one, but you’d be wrong. Stand on any street corner in a state without helmet laws, and you’ll see as many bare heads as you will see helmeted heads. People go to extreme lengths to justify their choice to not wear a helmet, but none of their justifications hold up in the face of all the available research. The arguments that helmets break necks, block vision, impair hearing, and cause overheating have been proven myths by every study ever conducted.

I believe most people who don’t wear helmets make their decision based on peer pressure. Otherwise reasonable, intelligent adults seem more afraid of facing the ridicule of their comrades than they are of living out the rest of their lives as produce. I actually had a man at the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis tell me he always wore a helmet but wasn’t wearing one during the rally because his friends weren’t wearing theirs. I was a rebel, I told him, and I wore mine anyway.

I was once in his position. I rode for over a decade without a helmet, mainly because when I was young, I hung out with hardcore Harley bikers, and they would have thought I was some kind of wimp had I worn a helmet.

When I was 25, I took a job working as an orderly in a rehabilitation hospital, in the head-and-spine-injury unit. One patient I worked with was a victim of a motorcycle crash. He didn’t break a single bone in his accident, and had he been wearing a helmet, he would have walked away with nothing but his pride injured. But he wasn’t wearing one, and he hit his head on a rock.

While his body was perfectly healthy, the patient couldn’t remember where he was from one minute to the next. One of my jobs was to lead him to the cafeteria every day, because he forgot its location from one meal to the next. That spring, my wife and I both bought motorcycle helmets, and I haven’t ridden without one since.

Besides protecting your head, a good-fitting helmet actually makes riding more comfortable. Helmets reduce road noise, keep the wind blast out of your face, and keep bugs and other debris out of your eyes.

How Helmets Are Made

Helmets help keep the contents of your head on the inside rather than the outside by using four basic components in their construction:

- The outer shell. The outside of a helmet, usually constructed of fiberglass or injection-molded plastic, disperses energy from an impact across a broad area of the helmet before that energy reaches your head.

- The impact-absorbing lining. This area inside the outer shell, usually made of a dense layer of expanded polystyrene, absorbs most of the shock caused by an impact.

- The comfort padding. This innermost layer of soft foam and cloth conforms to your head and is primarily responsible for how comfortable the helmet is.

- The retention system. This consists of the strap connected to the bottom of the helmet that goes under your chin and holds the helmet on.

Helmets come in a variety of styles, from small, bowl-shaped half-helmets that protect your brain stem and not much else, to sleek fully enclosed helmets that protect everything above your neck. In between are the three-quarter, or open-face helmets, which cover most of your head but leave your face unprotected. These give better protection than half helmets, but should your face contact the pavement at speed, an open-face helmet will provide you with a one-way ticket on the ugly train. Neither half helmets nor open-face helmets offer the comfort full-face helmets provide by shielding the wearer from the elements.

Whichever type of helmet you choose, the important thing is to choose a helmet. It is the single most crucial piece of motorcycle gear.

Choosing the Right Helmet

Helmets come in a variety of styles and prices. You can get a full-face helmet for under $100, while high-end helmets can run over $500, or even more than you thought for brand new "hi-tech" helmet.

Why do some helmets cost more than others ? There are a variety of reasons. Paint schemes add to the price of a helmet; expect to pay more for a helmet with fancy graphics than for a solid-color helmet. (If the paint scheme replicates the helmet of a top racer, expect to pay more yet.) Some expensive helmets are more comfortable than cheaper helmets, while others are not.

Some helmets cost more because they use more expensive material in their outer shells. This may contribute to comfort by making the helmet lighter, but it doesn’t make the helmet any safer.

Safety First

All helmets have to meet minimum safety standards set by the Department of Transportation (DOT). Two other organizations, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Snell Memorial Foundation, also certify helmets. A Snell certification is something I look for on a helmet. Snell won’t certify a half or open-face helmet, as DOT will, and it also has more exacting standards for the retention system than DOT.

If you choose a half helmet, be certain you are getting one approved by DOT. Lately, unscrupulous dealers have been placing DOT stickers (stickers applied to the helmet listing the helmet as DOT approved) on unsafe novelty helmets. Genuine DOT-approved helmets also have a label permanently attached to the inside of the helmet displaying DOT information, like the date of manufacture. Make sure you’re getting the real thing.

Getting a Good Fit

When you get used to wearing a helmet, you will not feel comfortable riding without one. Of course, that assumes that you’ve picked a helmet that fits you well. A helmet that is too loose might flop around while you’re riding, obstructing your vision, and a helmet that is too tight will live up to the worst predictions of the anti-helmet crowd.

If all heads were the same shape, choosing a helmet would be simple: You’d just match your helmet size to your hat size. Unfortunately, helmets have to conform to your entire head rather than just a ring around your forehead.

Because of the difficulty involved in selecting a properly fitting helmet, I strongly advise you to purchase your first one from a store where you can try on different models and sizes. While you can often save money by purchasing accessories through online shop, you won’t be saving any money if you can’t wear the helmet you order from a online shop ads because it doesn’t fit.

A helmet should feel fairly snug on your head to prevent it from sliding around and possibly obscuring your vision or falling off in an accident. It may feel too tight when you first put it on. When in place, a properly fitting helmet should not slide around on your head. At the same time, you need to watch for pressure points - places where the helmet pushes uncomfortably against your head.

When you try on a helmet, wear it around the store for a bit, and when you take it off, note any soreness or red spots. Wearing a helmet that exerts pressure on your head can turn into a brutal form of torture after an extended period; improperly fitted helmets have permanently turned many riders against helmet use. If the helmet you are trying on touches pressure points, try on a larger size or a different brand or model.