“So, what’s the best helmet to buy?
It’s almost a trick question; a study in ontology, metaphysics, and physics all rolled together. Still, the question wouldn’t come up so often if it were a layup. I’m either brave enough, or something else enough to bite. So here goes.
It’s not that there isn’t an answer. It’s that there are too many answers.
One obvious factor contributing to the confusion is the bewildering profusion of offerings: There are no fewer than 84 different brands of helmet for sale in the US that carry a Snell sticker. There are even more when you include helmets that are DOT certified only. Staggering. While you’ll never walk into a shop and see that many brands, it’s common to see half a dozen, and Internet stores typically carry twice that. This is an example where choice, normally a good thing, probably isn’t.
It doesn’t stop there. Motorcycles, and everything related to owning and riding them, are like any hobby or enthusiasm. And enthusiasts have opinions. It’s half the fun. In the case of motorcycles, the passions run especially hot, particularly around helmets where there are still a fair number of riders who conflate the use of mandated head protection with the entire Bill of Rights. So add endless amounts of opinionating and bloviating, particularly on Internet forums, as another source of confusion. As you would expect, some of the threads are actually very helpful. Many are just painful.
Finally, there is the issue of the science. There’s a fair amount of it due to the fact that there are multiple standards helmets must meet. But beyond general principles, there is a fair amount of disagreement between standard setters about what exactly a helmet is supposed to do in a crash. If your worldview begins and ends at your own border, maybe there are one or two standards worth noticing. If you prowl the Internet, or worse, if you buy magazines from across the big water (I’m referring now to those of us in the big PX buying UK mags; the inverse never happens), then you’ve got even more conflicting data to sort out.
Sooooooo, what to do?
Okay, with that hugely roundabout disclaimer, I’m going to wade in. So you can decide right now whether to read a word further, here’s my perspective:
I am 51 and in pretty good health and shape. I think I fully understand the risks and rewards of riding motorcycles. I live in a state that mandates helmet wearing. I value my physical well being enough that I put safety at the top of my list of values. I wear all-the-gear-all-the-time (ATGATT). I take classes every year. I read. I practice. I don’t drink and ride. I would wear a helmet regardless. So that’s my bias.
I own a Shoei, Arai, Suomy, and ZR-1. My first helmet was a Shoei. I bought the brand name. I mostly wear the Suomy for reasons I’ll go over in a minute. I am not an economic buyer: I don’t pay a lot of attention to what a helmet costs. When it came time to buy my son, wife, and daughter helmets, I bought them the best, as I understood that concept at the time, as well.
I have seen what happens to helmets first hand when they hit the pavement. My son destroyed a Shoei RF1000 while I was watching. The helmet did its job. He walked away. Had a bit of a concussion, but he’s fine now. And he went off at under 20 mph.
I make a living helping people structure and make difficult decisions. I bring the process, others bring the content. That’s what I’m doing here.
I am a research hound. So I offer no new science, but I can show you what’s out there.
To cut to the chase, here’s what you need to know . . .
1. If you know for a fact that you’re not going to crash and that no bugs, stones, or debris are going to hit you in the head or face, there is no need to wear a helmet. A doo-rag and a pair of sunglasses are probably just fine. If you also know the number for the winning lottery ticket, would you please call me?
2. The best helmet is the one on your head. If you’re still stuck in the completely pointless debate about why wearing helmets is a good idea, I have nothing that will help you. It’s your head. I have a strong libertarian streak in me, but the science is against you on this one. Wearing a helmet saves lives. Any helmet is better than no helmet.
3. Good helmets save more lives. There is a qualitative difference that shows up in comfort (which means many things) and the degree to which the helmet will protect your brain from damaging amounts of acceleration in a crash. Buy the best helmet you can.
4. The helmets that protect your head the best, meaning they transfer the least shock to your brain, are: AGV Ti-Tech, Fulmer AFD4, Suomy Spec 1R, Shark RSX, Schuberth S-1, Vemar VSR and ZR1. That covers the complete range of price points and styles. If you don’t like that list, buy an Arai, Shoei, Scorpion, or HJC. If you still don’t like that list, you probably shouldn’t be reading this anyway. I didn’t write it for gear geeks.
5. Contrary to popular misconception, helmets have little or no adverse impact on your ability to hear or see in traffic. See point 1.
6. The most important thing to look for in a helmet is quality (that means a lot of things). After that, it’s fit. If the helmet doesn’t fit you properly, it won’t do its job when the time comes.
7. There are many types of helmets: Flip-Up Helmets, Full Face Helmets, Off-Road Helmets,Open Face Helmets, Shorty Helmets. If your primary concern is protecting your head, there is only one choice: Full Face Helmets. Let me know the next racer you see wearing something other than a Full Face helmet.
8. If you’ve never bought a helmet before, the attributes you won’t think about are weight, ventilation, fogging, and aerodynamics. It turns out that these matter. The part you probably will think about is colors and graphics. These don’t matter except that brighter colors are more visible. Making yourself visible is good.
That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. The rest is just detail.
How to decide for yourself
Before we go any further, and by all means skip ahead if you want, a word or three about making YOUR OWN decision about what helmet to buy.
There isn’t a right answer. There is a right answer for you. You can make your decision any way you want. You can throw darts, pull names from a can, buy what your buddy uses, or let a sales person tell you what to buy. Up to you.
There is a way to make this decision in a high-quality way, even if you know nothing about helmets. To do that, make a grid. On one axis, put your values. On the other your choices.
Values are what you want. Make a list of no more than five. Consider these: Quality, price, fit, noise/quiet, weight, graphics. That’s six. Think about throwing one overboard or making a bigger table. Or try: shock, fit, noise, weight, and fogging.
Choices are what you can choose. In this case, that’s the actual helmets. Again, no more than five.
What you’re going to do is use a scale to grade each choice by each value. The scale can be A, B, C, D, or 1—10, or anything that pleases you. Head to the internet and do some research. Talk to people. Read some reviews. Then grade each helmet by each criteria. Do the math and pick the helmet that’s best for you.
There are lots of subtleties and wrinkles to this. For example, you can weight different values as more or less important. Do that if you need to, but for now, just make the grid. It will help a lot. (For more on decision-quality techniques, go to www.decision-quality.com)
Buy A Suomy, Shark, Shuberth, AGV, Vemar or ZR1
For those of you who don’t like to read, here’s the very short story. If you believe the considerable science that supports what follows, you should buy a helmet that transfers less shock to your head. In the US, here are your best choices (with some quick comments):
- Z1R ZRP-1 (Inexpensive, fits like a Shoei, doesn’t vent well, Made by HJC)
- Fulmer AFD4 (No personal experience with these)
- AGV Ti-Tech (Worn by Italian motorcycle gods)
- Schuberth S-1 (Very expensive, heavy, large, and quiet)
- Shark RSX (Very comfortable, vent well, noisyish, big chin bar)
- Vemar VSR (No personal experience with these)
- Suomy Spec 1R (Light weight, noisy, obnoxious graphics, vents superbly, fits tight, buy one size up)
That covers a full range of price points, features, and attributes. There may be other reasons to buy other helmets and other brands, but based solely on the single criteria of transferring the least shock to your head, those are the winners. As an aside, it’s worth noting that the AGV, Shark, Suomy, and Vemar are built with track riding in mind. In other words, the helmets built for the most extreme riding are built to a softer standard than what you’re wearing if you buy a Snell helmet.
Having said all that, not one of those helmets is among the U.S. market leaders. Although I’m not privy to actual share numbers, I have conducted polls of groups that are broadly representative of US-based, middle aged, non-cruiser riders. I’ve also talked to people who sell helmets for a living. Here’s the general consensus as to the general shape of the market:
- The market leaders at the top are Shoei and Arai.
- The market leaders for “price point” helmets are HJC and Scorpion.
- The most popular flip up helmets are Nolan, Shoei, and HJC.
- Everyone else is just everyone else.
There’s a bit of a reinforcing loop going on here. People but popular brands making them more popular. Beyond that, there is a certain undeniable logic in buying from large, well-funded companies that invest in research, design, materials, and manufacturing. This is true of any category or gear or equipment I can think of. It’s hard to argue with here.
So, if you just can’t abide my safety first argument, another strategy you could follow is “buy the market leader.” I actually don’t think that’s a bad idea. Shoei, Arai, HJC, and Scorpion are top quality companies that do their own research, development, and engineering. Bell has recently come out with a very fine looking helmet. Each of these companies take testing and certification seriously. They have good distribution and dealer relationships which means if there’s a problem, there’s someone to talk to. If you care, HJC is the largest in the world; Scorpion has a very large manufacturing facility right here in the big PX.
Stay away from “cheap” helmets completely. There are reasons why they’re cheap.
If you’re still grind your teeth because I haven’t yet mentioned your favorite brand, I apologize. If you know that much to have that strong an opinion, you’re probably not reading this anyway.
What you really need to know about protecting your head
Before a couple of years ago, the average helmet buyer knew next to nothing about how to tell a good helmet from a bad helmet. Beyond looking for a Snell or DOT sticker on the back, most people bought on some combination of what the guy at the shop was pushing, what a buddy recommended, or what they saw written across the front of a favorite racer. In the US, back in the day, that meant Bell. More recently, that’s meant Shoei and Arai at the top end, and HJC, Scorpion, and a bunch of others at the lower end.
All of this happy ignorance got detonated when Motorcyclist Magazine threw a grenade at Snell and pretty much everyone building helmets to that standard. In my mind, the article and everything that followed (a follow up, plus rebuttal from Snell, and back and forth) is now required reading. Here’s the link.
If the term “required reading” somehow didn’t register, the gist of their findings, and they hired a top-flight lab to do the hard work of destroying helmets, boils down to a pretty simple set of thoughts . . .
- Concussions are bad. They are even worse as you get older.
- Concussions come from rapidly accelerating the head and then rapidly decelerating it. Where the skull goes, the soft jello-like thing inside called the brain follows. The brain crashing into the inside of your skull is actually the problem.
- So anything that transfers less shock to the head in a crash is good. The lesser the better.
And as simple as that might sound, therein lies the controversy. Not the part about diminishing the shock. The part about the best way to do that. Here are the opening paragraphs from the motorcyclist magazine article. Hopefully you’ll decide to read it all the way through, and then come back.
There’s a fundamental debate raging in the motorcycle helmet industry. In a fiberglass-reinforced, expanded-polystyrene nutshell, it’s a debate about how strong and how stiff a helmet should be to provide the best possible protection.
Why the debate? Because if a helmet is too stiff it can be less able to prevent brain injury in the kinds of crashes you’re most likely to have. And if it’s too soft, it might not protect you in a violent, high-energy crash. What’s just right? Well, that’s why it’s called a debate. If you knew what your head was going to hit and how hard, you could choose the perfect helmet for that crash. But crashes are accidents. So you have to guess.
To understand how a helmet protects—or doesn’t protect—your brain, it helps to appreciate just how fragile that organ actually is. The consistency of the human brain is like warm Jello. It’s so gooey that when pathologists remove a brain from a cadaver, they have to use a kind of cheesecloth hammock to hold it together as it comes out of the skull.
Your brain basically floats inside your skull, within a bath of cervical-spinal fluid and a protective cocoon called the dura. But when your skull stops suddenly—as it does when it hits something hard—the brain keeps going, as Sir Isaac Newton predicted. Then it has its own collision with the inside of the skull. If that collision is too severe, the brain can sustain any number of injuries, from shearing of the brain tissue to bleeding in the brain, or between the brain and the dura, or between the dura and the skull. And after your brain is injured, even more damage can occur. When the brain is bashed or injured internally, bleeding and inflammation make it swell. When your brain swells inside the skull, there’s no place for that extra volume to go. So it presses harder against the inside of the skull and tries to squeeze through any opening, bulging out of your eye sockets and oozing down the base of the skull. As it squeezes, more damage is done to some very vital regions.
None of this is good.
To make buying a helmet in the U.S as confusing as possible, there are at least four standards a street motorcycle helmet can meet. The price of entry is the DOT standard, called FMVSS 218, that every street helmet sold here is legally required to pass. There is the European standard, called ECE 22-05, accepted by more than 50 countries. There’s the BSI 6658 Type A standard from Britain. And lastly the Snell M2000/M2005 standard, a voluntary, private standard used primarily in the U.S. So every helmet for street use here must meet the DOT standard, and might or might not meet one of the others. Just by looking at the published requirements for each standard, you would guess a DOT-only helmet would be designed to be the softest, with an ECE helmet very close, then a BSI helmet, and then a Snell helmet.
Dr. Hurt sees the Snell standard in pretty much the same light.
“What should the [G] limit on helmets be? Just as helmet designs should be rounder, smoother and safer, they should also be softer, softer, softer. Because people are wearing these so-called high-performance helmets and are getting diffused [brain] injuries … well, they’re screwed up for life. Taking 300 Gs is not a safe thing.
“We’ve got people that we’ve replicated helmet [impacts] on that took 250, 230 Gs [in their accidents]. And they’ve got a diffuse injury they’re not gonna get rid of. The helmet has a good whack on it, but so what? If they’d had a softer helmet they’d have been better off.”
Again, to cut to the chase, Snell helmets are judged to be too hard. And after much bitching and moaning, the Snell foundation apparently agrees as they are going to implement a new standard somewhere out in the distant future. It’s called M2010, and you can read the draft standard here if you like. Basically they’re caving in to the science.
For more about the BSI standard, go to Suomy’s site and read all about it. It’s worth the time.
But how do I pick? Fit.
Unless you know for certain exactly what helmet you want, you’re a fool to buy sight-unseen on the Internet. The only caveat is if you can do a buy and try. Even going by the sizing charts many companies publish, the fit is still a crapshoot. You simply have to try them on.
To sort out this part of the story, I wandered over to Seattle Cycle Center and talked with Doug Micone about what to look for in a helmet. SCC ha been around 25 years and Doug has been minding things there for five years. He’s sold hundreds and hundreds of helmets, mostly to middle-aged guys. Again, if you bore easily, I’ll cut to the chase. Here’s what he says you should look for:
Here’s a snip from our conversation.
When you’re looking to carry a helmet, what do you look for?
Market share. Quality. If they’ve had problems in the past, we stay away.
When the newbie comes in, what do they ask for?
Safety mostly. Scooter people tend to what the least possible.
When and experienced guy comes in . . .
He wants an up-brand helmet.
If he’s an Arai guy, does he buy Arai?
Sometimes they swap. But they don’t step down. They’re not going to go from a Shoei to an HJC. They may go back and forth between Arai and Shoei.
When you recommend a helmet, what are you typically saying?
The fit. The biggest thing is the fit. A lot of people think a loose fitting helment is a good fitting helmet. That’s not a good thing. So that’s the first thing . . . make sure they have the right fit.
I’ve walked out with helmets that are very tight, and some are just tight . . .
A lot depends on the brand. The Shoei helmet uses a new padding that doesn’t break down. The fitting you walk out the door with is the fit you’ll get. With the Arai, it will pack out quite a bit.
After fit . . .
Fit, and then I think it’s weight. Guys that ride a lot tend to like the lighter helmet. Less fatigue. You enjoy the ride more.
For new guys, I recommend an inexpensive helmet. They don’t know how much they’ll enjoy. For a lot of new riders, we recommend HJC or Scorpion.
I’ve bought maybe five helmets in the last couple of years. What I notice now is noise, aerodynamics, how much air flows, the ability to control fogging on the screen . . . is there a quietest helmet?
I would probably say the Shoei . . . except the flip-ups. A lot depends on the jacket you’re wearing too. If you’re wearing a loose-fitting textile jacket . . . if you just push on it you can hear a difference in noise.
That would be the quietest . . .
Arai is pretty quiet, but not as. Shoei has a better mechanism and sealing for the shield. One of the noisiest is the Scorpion. People complain about it.
You mentioned the mechanism on the Shoei. It’s quite a flush fit on the side . . .
On the Arai they use these side plates, which can cause noise. Suomys are noisy but they vent well. That’s the trade-off. If they vent well, they can be noisy. It’s must more places for air to whistle.
So what’s best for keeping clear . . .
Suomy is best for venting. Keeping the shield clear: HJC and Scorpion. They use a fog-free lens. The Shoei does have a pinlock system you can buy that works really well. It will not fog. They have it for Shoei and HJC. Arai will come out with one next month.
Helmets are good. Here’s why.
I’ve put this towards the end because it’s the boring part. It’s the nitty gritty about why helmets matter. If you’re already drinking that brand of Kool-Aid, you can skip this part. If not and you find yourself easily swayed by facts, read on.
In the US, the first truly authoritative study of motorcycle crashes was conducted by researcher Harry Hurt, who investigated almost every aspect of 900 motorcycle accidents in the Los Angeles area. Additionally, Hurt and his staff analyzed 3,600 motorcycle traffic accident reports in the same geographic area.
An online summery lists 53 findings, all of which are worth reviewing. Here are the ones that relate to the topic of helmets.
1. Approximately three-fourths of these motorcycle accidents involved collision with another vehicle, which was most usually a passenger automobile. [That means breaking the first rule of motorcycling: Don’t hit anything hard. Rule two is: don’t get hit by anything hard.]
2. Approximately one-fourth of these motorcycle accidents were single vehicle accidents involving the motorcycle colliding with the roadway or some fixed object in the environment. [See the first rule of motorcycling; Roads and Fixed Objects are “hard.”]
6. In the multiple vehicle accidents, the driver of the other vehicle violated the motorcycle right-of-way and caused the accident in two-thirds of those accidents. [Remember Ben Rothlisberger? Drivers of cars just don’t see riders of bikes.]
15. The median pre-crash speed was 29.8 mph, and the median crash speed was 21.5 mph, and the one-in-a-thousand crash speed is approximately 86 mph. [Hold this thought. It’s important when it comes to understanding helmet standards.]
35. Likelihood of injury is extremely high in these motorcycle accidents-98% of the multiple vehicle collisions and 96% of the single vehicle accidents resulted in some kind of injury to the motorcycle rider; 45% resulted in more than a minor injury.
44. The most deadly injuries to the accident victims were injuries to the chest and head.
45. The use of the safety helmet is the single critical factor in the prevention of reduction of head injury; the safety helmet which complies with FMVSS 218 is a significantly effective injury countermeasure.
46. Safety helmet use caused no attenuation of critical traffic sounds, no limitation of precrash visual field, and no fatigue or loss of attention; no element of accident causation was related to helmet use.
48. Helmeted riders and passengers showed significantly lower head and neck injury for all types of injury, at all levels of injury severity.
49. The increased coverage of the full facial coverage helmet increases protection, and significantly reduces face injuries.
50. There is not liability for neck injury by wearing a safety helmet; helmeted riders had less neck injuries than unhelmeted riders. Only four minor injuries were attributable to helmet use, and in each case the helmet prevented possible critical or fatal head injury.
51. Sixty percent of the motorcyclists were not wearing safety helmets at the time of the accident. Of this group, 26% said they did not wear helmets because they were uncomfortable and inconvenient, and 53% simply had no expectation of accident involvement.
Don’t helmets make it hard to see and hear?
In a word, “no.”
Here’s the longer version from a study conducted for the NHTSA, by James McKniqht and A. Scott McKniqht at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation:
The Effects of Motorcycle Helmets Upon Seeing and Hearing
Motorcycle crash statistics indicate that helmets are about 29 percent effective in preventing crash fatalities. That is, on average, riders wearing a helmet have a 29 percent better chance of surviving a crash than riders without a helmet.
This study assessed the effects of motorcycle helmets upon seeing and hearing by having 50 riders operate over a test route, changing lanes in response to an audible signal under three helmet conditions: none, partial coverage, and full coverage. Half of the subjects were assessed for the degree of head rotation during lane changes, while the other half were assessed for hearing threshold (decibel level at which they first responded to the signal).
Results showed that subjects in the vision study increased the degree of head rotation in proportion to the vision restrictions imposed by the helmet, though not to the full extent of the restriction. Subjects in the hearing study evidenced no differences in hearing thresholds across the three helmet conditions. The authors conclude that the effects of helmets upon the ability to see and hear are, at most, far too small to compromise the safety benefits offered by head protection.