Bicycle helmet safety facts

Updated July 19, 2017

Bicycle helmets keep you safe whether you're into extreme mountain biking or relaxing Sunday rides. Depending on where you live, bicycle helmets may even be required by law.

There are many different kinds of bicycle helmets on the market today. Understanding bicycle helmet safety features will help you choose the right helmet for your level of cycling.

Bicycle Helmet Safety Research and Laws

Head injuries pose a major threat to bicyclists, making up 75 per cent of bike-related deaths, according to research conducted by Drs. Thompson and Rivara in 1999. They also found that bicycle helmets can reduce serious head injuries in a crash by between 63 and 88 per cent.

As a result of this research, many counties and cities have laws requiring children to wear bicycle helmets. A few areas require adults to wear helmets, too. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute includes an updated list of bicycle helmet laws on its website.

School districts may also require students to wear helmets when biking to and from school. Check with your child's school for more information.

Bicycle Helmet Safety Standards

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) sets the standards for bicycle helmets sold in the United States. Approved helmets will have a "CPSC" sticker inside the helmet and will say they are CPSC-certified on the outside of their packaging.

The CPSC also recognises certification by Snell and ASTM.

Skateboarding helmets are certified by ASTM International, but often carry dual certification by both CPSC and ASTM when they are marketed as "multi-sport" helmets.

These safety standards insure that an approved helmet will protect you in most kinds of bicycle crashes. Other kinds of helmets, such as batting helmets and construction hats, are made for different purposes and may not protect you.

Types of Helmets

There are several types of helmets designed for different types of bicycling:

Road helmets meet the needs of most bicyclists. These helmets feature an elongated shape with air vents on the top and sides. They are made of EPS foam covered by a thin plastic shell, with soft pads inside the helmet to improve fit and comfort. The helmet is held on the rider's head by adjustable straps that snap together beneath the chin.

Multi-sport helmets are designed for people who bicycle and skateboard or rollerblade. They are more rounded in shape than road helmets and have fewer air vents. Also, the exterior plastic shell is thicker than a road helmet. Because these helmets have less ventilation and a thicker exterior, they may be less comfortable for some people.

BMX helmets and downhill mountain biking helmets both provide additional protection specific to their sport. These helmets look a lot like motorcycle helmets, with a chin bar that offers face protection. They are made of stronger materials like fibreglass that can withstand big crashes.

Helmet Features

Today's bicycle helmets offer many features. Understanding these features can help you find the right helmet.

Colour: Helmets come in many different colours and patterns. Light colours will stay cooler and be more visible in low light.

Vents: Helmets have vents in the top to help you stay cool while riding. These do not affect the helmet's safety.

Straps: Straps help your helmet fit correctly and prevent it from flying off your head during a crash. The straps buckle beneath your chin. Many helmets offer "dial-fit" systems that make it easier to adjust the straps.

Pads: Removable pads inside the helmet improve comfort and fit. New helmets come with several sets of pads that can be swapped out.

Optional features: Items like visors and helmet covers can make your helmet more comfortable and fun to wear, but do not affect helmet safety.

Getting the Right Fit

Helmets work best when they are worn correctly. Always buckle the chin strap to secure the helmet to your head. The straps should be tight enough that when you open your mouth wide, you can feel the top of the helmet push down a little. The straps should not be so tight that it's hard to talk or breathe.

Your helmet should not slide or bounce around on your head as you ride. Change out the pads inside your helmet, if necessary, to get a better fit.

The front of your helmet should rest about two finger-widths above your eyebrows.

When to Replace a Helmet

Replace your bicycle helmet any time there is visible damage, including damage to the buckle or straps.

Also, replace your helmet after a crash where you hit your head, even if you cannot see any damage. Cracks can be too small to see, yet could affect your helmet's future protection in crashes.

Some BMX and downhill mountain biking helmets are designed to be reused after a crash. Look that the product information that came with your helmet to see if your helmet fits in this category.

Replace any helmet that is not certified by CPSC, ASTM or Snell, regardless of its current condition.

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About the Author

Denise Gonzales has covered public health, parenting and education issues since 2007. She has been published in Seattle's Child, Philadelphia People and Pure E Magazine, and was an education blogger at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Gonzales holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from St. Edward's University.