Early motorcycle helmets offered virtually no protection to the wearer. Consisting of little more that a slightly padded leather cap, similar to vintage football helmets, these older helmets could not absorb the shock of an impact. The 1960s-era helmets began to offer a hard outer shell and better shock-absorbing liners. Motorcycle helmet technology has improved greatly over the years as government and private institutions have placed strict demands on the way a helmet operates.
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How Helmets Work
The goal of a well-designed helmet is to prevent the majority of the kinetic force of an impact to reach the wearer's head. First, the kinetic force is spread across the helmet's rigid outer shell, sometimes cracking to prevent serious trauma from travel further. Next, the polystyrene inner liner soaks up as much of the residual kinetic energy that has travelled past the outer shell. Helmets certified by the federal Department of Transportation require that a helmet withstand a minimum of a 400g impact. A properly fitted and certified helmet may effectively reduce serious brain injuries by up to 69 per cent and could prevent additional injuries to the head and face.
Universal Helmet Laws
Although there is not a federal law mandating the use of motorcycle helmets, most states have a universal helmet law in place, requiring all motorcycle operators and passengers to wear a helmet. The exceptions to this are: Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana and Texas, which only require riders below the age of 20 to wear helmets.
Many motorcyclists in states that do not have a universal helmet law are electing not to wear a helmet when riding. This trend is growing as more states are repealing their universal helmet laws with injuries or fatalities rising as a result. For example, Texas has seen a 31 per cent increase in motorcycle-related fatalities. Louisiana faced the highest climb in fatality rates, which soared to 100 per cent.
There are eight government-required standards that are in effect worldwide. These are: Australia's AS 1698, Brazil's NBR 7471, Canada's CSA CAN3-D230-M85, Japan's JIS T8133, New Zealand's NZ 5430, India's IS 4151, the European ECE 22.05 and the DOT FMVSS 218 in the United States. Helmet manufacturers may also voluntarily submit their products to the Snell Memorial Foundation for testing and certification for the Snell M 2005, which is considered the "Helmet Standard For Use in Motorcycling." Helmets with any of these certifications have passed several tests, including head coverage, retention strap strength and impact testing. It is worth noting that some standards may not be recognised in various parts of the world. For example, an IS 4252-approved helmet will not be legal for use on public roads in the United States.
A novelty helmet is defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as a helmet that is similar to a motorcycle helmet made for use on the road, but has not met the minimum requirements of FMVSS No. 218 (DOT certification). This is often due to the lack of minimum head coverage or shell thickness requirements. Novelty helmets, often available as "beanie" type helmets, are most often worn by cruiser and chopper riders. They are identified by the lack of certification labels and markings. These helmets have tested by the NHTSA and perform remarkably worse in an accident, because they provide poor, if any, shock absorbing protection. Further computer-simulated tests show that serious brain trauma will occur with a 100 per cent probability. Novelty helmets are not legal for use on public roads at any time.
Contrary to the belief that helmets impair the wearer's vision, helmets approved by the federal Department of Transportation are required by law to offer a view with a minimum of 210 degrees. The typical vision test performed at state driver licensing agencies require drivers to be able to see within a 140 degree field. This makes the amount of peripheral vision that is obscured minimal and does not affect most people.
Hearing is also not impaired when wearing a helmet, as it basically acts as a sound-cancelling device. In other words, wind buffeting and engine noises are suppressed by the helmet's shell and liner, allowing other sounds to be heard at a reduced and proportional amount.
Purchasing a Helmet
When selecting a helmet, choose one that has a DOT certification. If it is at all possible, select a helmet with the additional Snell M 2005 and ECE 22.05 certifications since the level of protection will be better than most. The old adage of "you get what you pay for" is valid regarding helmets. Although there are several excellent helmets available today for less than £65, pricier helmets tend to offer better protection, comfort and refinement. Do your homework before settling on a particular product. The difference could mean life or death.
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- Motorcycle Helmet Use in 2007 - Overall; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; August 2007
- Calculating Lives Saved by Motorcycle Helmets; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; August 2005
- Summary of Novelty Helmet Performance; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; April 2007