Choosing the right motorcycle helmet isn't easy. Whether you want an open-face, full-face or flip-up model, you have enormous choice. Style is always an important consideration, but you never want to compromise on safety.
We've put together the following buying guide with information about the different materials and components that make up the best motorcycle helmets to help you with your choice. We've also highlighted a few of the top full-face helmets (the most popular category) to show you what you can expect at certain price points.
Considerations when choosing motorcycle helmets
By law, every helmet for sale has to meet certain safety standards. As a result, there are no "poor" materials. However, there is a trade-off between weight and strength.
Thermoplastic helmets (typically polycarbonate) are easy to form and inexpensive. However, it isn't the strongest material, and it doesn't abrade particularly well, so it needs to be thick. This results in the helmets being heavy.
Fiberglass helmets are stronger and lighter than their thermoplastic equivalents. These are more difficult to make and so cost more. The drawback is that fiberglass is prone to cracking on impact. That's good in that it absorbs energy well, but it does mean that you will need a new helmet.
Composite helmets combine fiberglass or aramid (an organic fiber) with Kevlar and sometimes carbon. This results in extremely tough, durable helmets with high abrasion resistance, all without a serious weight penalty. It's arguably the best compromise between strength and expense.
Carbon/Kevlar helmets are the pinnacle of current helmet technology. These are remarkably tough shells that are close to indestructible. Making them is highly labor intensive, and as a result these helmets command a particularly high price.
Good fit is an integral part of safety and comfort when it comes to motorcycle helmets. Six sizes are common, but often that means three shell sizes, each with two different padding options. This can result in a helmet that is heavier than necessary and that looks too big for you. The best models offer six shell sizes, though this variety invariably adds to the cost.
Good motorcycle helmets have two layers of padding:
Impact absorption: The first layer helps absorb impact. It's usually made of expanded polystyrene (EPS) and can be of several different densities. It greatly reduces the transmission of impact energy.
Comfort: The comfort layer is often removable and washable. Some types of padding help draw off (wick) moisture away from your skin. Specifications vary, so it's important to understand what each material does.
Open-face road and off-road helmets have low aerodynamic efficiency, but riding speeds tend to be slower, so the effects aren't so pronounced. Sports and race helmets have to balance streamlining -- straight-ahead performance -- with the need for riders to be able to turn their head. Think about your riding style and whether this is something you need to take into account.
The visor should have an anti-scratch coating. Tinted visors are popular, and help cut out harsh glare from the sun, but they should not be used at night because they impair vision.
Some helmets have drop-down tinted visors, which seems like an excellent idea. However, on many models the protective inner EPS lining is reduced to accommodate the visor. An alternative solution is a photochromic/transition visor that reacts to sunlight (darkens) but becomes clear at night.
Good peripheral vision increases safety, so look for helmets with wide apertures, particularly on road or race models.
This usually has a padded section underneath your chin for comfort. Quick release closures are popular, but the classic D ring is still considered the most secure.
Motorcycle helmet prices: Helmets cost anywhere from $40 to over $1,000, so it's difficult to give price guidance. While cheap motorcycle helmets might meet required minimum safety standards, fit and comfort can be poor. Our advice is always to buy the very best helmet you can. You only have one head.
Q. Do all states require riders to wear a helmet?
A. At the time of writing, Illinois, Iowa, and New Hampshire have no helmet law. The remainder have full (called universal) or partial requirements. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that wearing a helmet saves more than 2,000 lives per year. Whatever the law, it seems foolish not to wear one.
Q. Which is the safest type of motorcycle helmet?
A. In general terms, the full-face helmet is often seen as giving the best all-around protection, but not everyone likes wearing one. They're not fashionable with certain motorcycle styles, and off-road riders like a wider aperture. The important thing is making sure that your helmet complies with the best possible safety standards. In the U.S., that's Department of Transportation (DOT). All helmets for sale in the U.S. must meet this level. The Snell Memorial Foundation provides independent ratings that are considered tougher than the DOT standards. It's nice if a helmet has both, but DOT is mandatory and Snell is not.
Motorcycle helmets we recommend
Best of the best: Shoei RF-SR
Our take: Technology and craftsmanship combine to create one of the finest helmets in the world.
What we like: Shoei makes every part of every helmet, so the quality is impeccable. The unique composite shell is handmade and almost unbreakable. Advanced aerodynamics and superb ventilation combine for unrivaled safety and comfort.
What we dislike: Nothing. The price is high, but you're investing in the best.
Best bang for your buck: HJC Solid CL-17
Our take: Excellent, full-featured helmet that you'd expect to cost more.
What we like: Availability in seven sizes is remarkable at this price. Venting, aerodynamics, padding, and visor are what you'd expect of the leading brands, so the HJC is an absolute bargain.
What we dislike: Not much. It's a little heavier than premium helmets, and padding takes a while to break in.
Choice 3: Biltwell Lane Splitter
Our take: Patterned on the famous Simpson helmet, though it's noticeably cheaper.
What we like: Basic but well designed. EPS inner shell for safety and brushed Lycra padding for comfort. If this is your style, it's a quality helmet without the high price tag.
What we dislike: Air vents don't close, so you'll want to wear a mask in winter. Padding doesn't accommodate glasses easily.
Bob Beacham is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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