San Francisco Bay Area

124 - Helmets

There is one and only one item of protective gear clearly proven to save the lives of motorcyclists: a well-designed and legal helmet. Here are some myths about helmets.

  • They restrict vision: FALSE The vision opening is always wider than the human field of vision.
  • They cause neck and spine injuries: FALSE Studies that show this have been thoroughly discredited by safety experts, and in fact the opposite is true.
  • They hamper hearing: FALSE Your hearing will be damaged if it's exposed to constant windblast. You should wear a helmet and earplugs if this is truly your concern. You can hear almost as well as without a helmet, especially higher-pitched sounds like horns and sirens.
  • They look uncool—the guys on TV and in the movies never wear helmets. FALSE That's because these are handsome and beautiful highly paid actors who have stunt doubles doing the dangerous stuff. You are not that good looking. Nobody wants to see your tear- streaked, wind-chapped face. And nothing looks cooler than a racer in a full-face helmet with mirrored visor blazing through a turn, knee skimming the pavement.

Now that you know it's a good idea to wear a helmet (and it's the law in California that you must wear a DOT-approved motorcycle helmet while operating a motorcycle on public roads anyway), here's what you need to know about them.

Helmet Fit: The best way to find a perfect-fitting helmet is to go to a brick-and-mortar retailer that stocks a selection of different brands and sizes. Not every medium is the same--they even vary within a manufacturer’s product line! This is where supporting your local dealer pays off: an expert parts person can steer you to the right features and fit for a price to match your budget. If he or she is doing their job, your new helmet may feel a little tight until it breaks in--about a month. But it shouldn’t squeeze your head or leave big red marks!

Helmets are made for different head shapes as well as sizes--for instance, some people have an oval skull, others more round. If a helmet model doesn’t fit you properly, pick another model or another brand.

Select a helmet type below to get more info on that helmet type

Full Face

A German study showed a third of impacts to helmets hit the chinbar. That means if you don't have a chinbar, you may wind up taking it on the chin, and then not having a chin. It may be claustrophobic to wear at first, but you'll get used to it. And maybe, one day, very glad you have it.

Modular / Flip Up

This looks like the best of both worlds—the convenience of the 3/4 helmet with the protection of the full-face. But select yours carefully, taking care to be sure it's a well-made (and probably a little pricey) helmet. Chinbar latches on cheap modular helmets can fail, or sometimes the flip-up component is made of flimsy plastic and offers little protection.


These are designed for off-road use, with a wider vision port, breezy venting and a roomier chinbar so it's cool and comfortable during hot, strenuous off-road rides. They are street legal; while we don't recommend them for street use, you can use them on a Moto-U training range.

Half Helmet

This just covers the top of your skull, and that's all you need to protect, because you can grow a new bottom half of your head if you need to, like a newt.

3/4 or open face

To us, "open-face" means a tasty hot sandwich, but we like our faces closed, not open. Sure, Steve McQueen wore one and it looks cool, but you like solid food, don't you? Chewing is satisfying and scrambled eggs and soup get boring.

Scooter Helmet

If you ride a scooter, because scooters are so cheap, cute and fun, that a magic forcefield surrounds you like a hug from the Easter Bunny, protecting you from all dangers, so you don't need to wear all that protective gear those silly motorcyclists wear. A full-face helmet with a chin-bar is the only way to protect your chin.

Seriously, city streets at 40 mph or less are where a two-wheeled vehicle is most at risk from multi-vehicle accidents, so why does vehicle type matter when it comes to selecting safety equipment?

Shorty, Beanie, Skid-Lid, Novelty

This is a helmet that's just a small plastic disc with a cheap strap. They are nowhere near DOT or Snell approved, but some shops will give you a sticker with "DOT" printed on it. Har, har! What irony. Sadly, irony is even worse protection than the magic scooter forcefield. If you find one of these, use it as a bedpan, then give it back to the owner. That will supplement what he or she has for brains.

Helmet Parts

Shell: This isn't what saves your head, surprisingly. It's there to protect the thing that saves your head. It's made of hard polycarbonate plastic, or if you bought a more-expensive lid, it's made of some kind of strong-but-light composite materiel like fiberglass or carbon-fiber. It's job is to spread out the force of impacts and prevent sharp or edged objects from penetrating the impact- absorbing layer.

Impact-absorbing Lining: It's an inch or two of EPS (that's expanded polystyrene foam)-- styrofoam if you want to be crude about it. It absorbs energy, either coming from something hitting your helmet, or gently slowing down your head if your helmet stops suddenly. The EPS won't crush if you drop your helmet without your head in it—so don't panic if your lid falls off your bike seat onto the ground (but it’s not a good thing: be sure to keep your helmet safely on its base so it doesn’t roll away). Helmet companies will inspect your helmet at no charge if you think it's been compromised.

A final note about the EPS foam—manufacturers say it has a usage life of about 5 years. If it's been out of the box and on people's heads for 5 years, get a new one. Sweat, body oil (ew!), ozone, pollution and other environmental hazards break it down and it won't absorb the energy it was designed to—no bueno!

If you’re in doubt about how old a helmet is, look on the strap or under the comfort liner until you see a label with the manufacture date. If it’s been used at all since it’s been made, after 5 years the best place for that lid is in landfill. Cut the strap and throw it our advice.

Comfort Liner: This is where the helmet interacts with your face, and from a daily perspective, is what really matters up to the millisecond when a helmet does its job protecting your head. The comfort liner is made of soft foam and cloth to keep your head cool, comfortable and fitted just right in the helmet.

We recommend a helmet with a removable, washable liner--they get funky after a season or two cradling your grubby, sweaty head! Also, some manufacturers have started making the cheek pads removable when the helmet is on your head so emergency workers can carefully remove your helmet after a crash.

Retention System: It's a strap. It usually has a double-d-ring fastener. Have the person who sells you the helmet show you how to fasten the strap, and then make sure you fasten it every time you ride. Otherwise, don't bother wearing a helmet.

Eye Protection: Most helmets will have a moveable shatter-resistant visor to protect your eyes from debris and wind. Goggles work, although getting hit on the cheek by a bug at 70 mph is only slightly better for you than the bug. Sunglasses are acceptable if they are shatter resistant, but let wind in through the sides. You will cry.

One common issue motorcyclists face, especially in the Bay Area, is fogging. In a car you can flip on the defroster, but not on a bike. There are many products that claim to repel fogging, but the best solution we’ve found are anti-fog inserts like the Fog City or Pinlok systems.

Helmet Certifications

On the back of a motorcycle helmet worth wearing will be a label stating "DOT" and maybe "Snell" and "ECE" as well. That tells you the helmet meets the minimum requirements of those three organizations. Let's look at what they mean, and which ones you want on your dome.


That's the U.S. Department of Transportation, and specifically, it's the FMVSS number 218, "Motorcycle Helmets." Read the standard yourself if you have trouble sleeping, but what it means is the helmet is designed to withstand so much impact and transmit a reduced amount of energy to the head. So does the IRS send agents to inspect each helmet? Hardly: only a few are checked each year, although a surprising number fail. Find out more here.


The Snell Memorial Foundation is a private foundation formed in the wake of the death of a famous car racer in the 1950s. Since then, the Snell Foundation has worked to improve the design and testing of all kinds of helmets. The Snell standard is a complex one that is revised every 5 years or so—unlike the DOT standard, which has remained the same for decades, the Snell standard responds to the latest findings in motorcycle safety.

Because Snell-labeled helmets tend to be more expensive than the DOT ones, many riders assume it's a better or safer standard. Unless you're an engineer and have a very thorough understanding of medicine and physics, the distinctions may seem very subtle. Don't worry about it—the DOT standard is a very good one that saves many thousands of lives each year. Do you need the Snell standard? We don't know. We do know that wearing a helmet reduces your chance of death by head injury about 30 percent. We haven’t seen studies about how much difference the Snell or DOT standard makes. Not much statistically speaking, we’d wager.


this standard comes from the European Union, and is the very rough equivalent of the DOT standard, incorporating elements of both the Snell and DOT guidelines. Is it better? People who know what they're talking about can argue both ways, we're sure. Here's what we know: if your $800 Snell and ECE-approved helmet is old, doesn't fit you right, or has been in a crash (with a head inside), in safety terms it's worth about $75 less than a $75 DOT helmet from Wal- Mart. Cut the strap and throw it away.

^ Back to Top