If there is one piece of rider equipment over which a rider should take special care, it’s their helmet. Here’s the heady facts about buying the best motorcycle helmet for you.
You might know a lot about helmets. Fair enough. Truth is, Many people don’t. There’s no shame in that and we aim to lift the lid on the BS that you will hear.
Walk into any major motorcycle retail outlet and you will be met with walls of helmets. It’s lid-world, and without a little prior knowledge, you can easily end up with something that fails to meet your motorcycling needs.
After all, they all look pretty similar, but the fact is, they can differ on all sorts of levels. Do your homework.
The plain fact is that the helmet you choose is going to represent the environment in which you will ‘live’, every time you use your bike. It will have a big say in whether or not you enjoy the experience and can be a very important factor in how you come out of any accident. It doesn’t get more important than that.
So, let’s consider the elements that should be taken into account for the potential helmet purchaser….
What are they made of?
Let’s get some idea of the construction of motorcycle helmets.
The greater majority of motorcycle helmets on the market today are constructed primarily using one of two manufacturing material recipes:
1. Injection moulded thermoplastic
2. Fibreglass and/or Carbon Kevlar composite
Both types, of course, are capable of meeting the essential standards. (See ‘The legals’).
The purpose of the hard outer shell of a helmet is to prevent penetration by an object that might otherwise puncture the skull, and to provide structure to the inner liner so it does not disintegrate upon abrasive contact with pavement. This is important because the internal foams used have very little resistance to penetration and abrasion.
Inside most helmets is expanded polystyrene (EPS). The density and the thickness of the EPS is designed to cushion or crush on impact to help prevent head injuries.
The whole idea is that the EPS absorbs some of the impact, more gently slowing the head than would be the case were the lining to be made of a non-crushable material. Basically, the more foam that is used, the more impact resistance the helmet possesses.
Thermosplastic helmets are generally at the budget end of the scale. This is mainly due to the fact that they are cheaper to manufacture. In keeping with this, manufacturers tend to keep the rest of the helmet at a fairly low-spec as well.
Things like removable liners, replaceable cheek pads and top class ventilation are often the bastion of more expensive lids.
Thermoplastic may also have a shorter life expectancy and its chemical composition can be altered with the application of paint or decals. Leave them be on that front; that sexy graphic work your mate’s mate does should remain on the bonnet of his HX panno, not on your thermo lid.
A thermoplastic helmet will serve you well in the protection stakes, and if you are not a regular rider, or on a very tight budget, this could well be the way to go.
Price range for thermoplastic constructed helmets is from around $100 to $400.
Things like the AGV K3 SV – Attack at $369.00 make for a sensible, well-built buy for those on a budget.
The area of added safety offered by composite construction is hotly argued. One view places the theory that, because thermosplastic construction offers a softer outer surface, there is a degree of ‘give’ which absorbs a portion of a given impact.
While the debate rages and studies seem to arrive at conflicting findings, let’s just say this; there is a strong train of thought that you get what you pay for, and there is no doubt that top-end composite helmets are more likely to have undergone rigorous development by the manufacturer.
It therefore follows that the composite helmet is likely to offer a good degree of refinement in all areas. Sitting on the fence? You betcha.
In composite construction, the Shoei NXR Marquez Power Up TC-1 uses fibreglass with organic fibres and comes in at $883.41.
Composite helmets (particularly those using carbon fibre and Kevlar) are usually lighter than those constructed of more fibreglass.
The AGV K5 S Thorn is a $629, mid-range option in a composite format.
It’s a generalisation, but a composite helmet will often feature a higher quality internal environment.
The EPS is similar to that used in thermoplastic helmets, but you get removable liners that are, in many cases washable. This is nice. It might be your sweat and road grime, but it can become decidedly stinky in there after a period of use and the opportunity to sweeten things up with a good tub can’t be underestimated.
Ventilation is usually better in a composite helmet, due once again to the higher prices being asked. Higher end manufacturers know that people value good ventilation and will buy on a good marketplace reputation in this area.
On a personal note, I’m a bit of a cynic on ventilation. Open it, air comes in, close it and it doesn’t. I have consistently failed to discern much difference in any of the lids I’ve owned. Maybe I’m just stupid.
Composite helmets range from around $350 right through to $1200.
Intercom ready designs are all the rage now. Lids like the Shoei GT-Air II boast the ability to seamlessly integrate with the all-new Sena SRL2 Communication System. So talk away folks!
Full face versus open face
Hmmm. This opens a tin of worms.
The feeling offered from an open face helmet while riding is sublime in its simplicity. Base your argument in emotion and it’s a hands-down win for the open-face team.
Once again, debate rages here. Many feel that there is a significantly increased risk of facial injury if involved in a crash while wearing an open face helmet.
A Monash University Case-control study of motorcycle crashes found that ‘after adjustment for BAC (Blood Alcohol Content), there was no significant increase in risk associated with wearing an open face helmet compared to a full face helmet’.
You can decide for yourself on that front.
What cannot be disputed is that open face helmets cannot protect you as well against the elements as a full face helmet. Cop a bee/wasp/locust/stone/rain/hail in the face and you’ll sincerely know about it.
If you choose to go the open face route, it is imperative you wear eye protection, or go for a lid with a visor. A good option is something like the NOLAN N-405 which looks kinda groovy and will keep Mr Cicada and his band of merry men out of your day. It’s under 300 bucks too so the budget won’t be too stretched.
Many will suggest a good pair of sunnies will do the job, but that’s a load of old cobblers. Many sunglass brands come with glass lenses and the result of a stone-strike is not worth thinking about. Buy good quality, purpose made goggles. Hey, Biggles was pretty cool and you won’t look like Pirate Pete in your dotage.
There is no doubt that a full face helmet removes you from the experience to some extent. It can feel claustrophobic, itchy, the visor fogs up in winter and we’ve already mentioned the stink factor. In fact, if you wanted to create an unpleasant environment, you’d come up with the full face motorcycle helmet. The Man in the Fibreglass Mask…
You get used to it and, after a while, you don’t even notice these shortcomings. And, when Bertie the Christmas Beetle decides to end his lifelong struggle and smear his person across your visor at 120km/h (he’s doing 20 and you’re doing a nice legal 100 officer), you’ll be exceedingly pleased you have a full face job on. Trust me.
For a helmet to be legal for use on Australian roads, it must have either AS1698 (Australian) or ECE 22-05 (European) standards. AS1698 will have a visible sticker on the outside of the helmet, while helmets with ECE standards helmet will have a label sewn into the chinstrap.
This means the helmet has undergone and passed testing for strength of
the retention system (chin strap), resistance to penetration, impact absorption, and it offers sufficient peripheral vision.
Most other market standards also do similar tests, but the simple fact is, if the helmet has not passed AS1698 or ECE, it is illegal to wear in Australia.
Many people order their helmets through overseas online stores, but there are plenty of traps involved. Sizing and fit is a major issue, as you should never buy a helmet without trying it on, and most overseas sites won’t swap sizes, honour your warranty, or offer any after sales service at all.
A good rule of thumb here is to buy from a reputable outlet.
Try the helmet on, hold it in your hands before you hand your money over, and get what you pay for.
- Be absolutely sure of the fit. Relatively tight with no discomfort.
- Recognise that different brands fit differing head shapes.
- Never buy a used helmet. They can hide dangerous damage.
- Buy the best quality helmet you can afford.
- Try lots of helmets on.
- Ventilation should be plentiful and easy to activate with a gloved hand.
- Look for an easy visor adjustment. We recommend clear visors.
- If you ride both dirt and road, you will need two helmets. Dirt helmets are designed for lower speeds and are of much lighter construction.
How do you choose a size?
This comes down to simple legwork. You must try a range of helmets on. Different manufacturers use different internal shapes and there will be one that suits your head shape. You just have to find it.
Ensure the helmet is not too tight. This is a recipe for headaches and discomfort. If you feel any discomfort at this stage, it will only get worse over time.
Your head should slide in relatively easily and touch the top of the inside of the helmet.
The brow should fit comfortably, the cheek pads snug but not making you look like you’ve had a nasty industrial accident. Does the vision line feel right? Look right and left, ensuring your peripheral vision is sufficient.
With the helmet in place, shake your head from side to side, there should not be a great deal of movement and the helmet should move comfortably with you. If it slides on your hair, try a size down.
Ensure the securing straps are easily accessed, pull them tight enough that the helmet feels firmly in place, but not so tight that you feel choked.
Now, walk around, go outside and if you have a bike handy, sit on it with the helmet on. Look around the bike and forward and to the rear. You’ll then get a taste for how the helmet will feel in the real world.
If you wear glasses or sunnies, put these on. Some helmets allow these to be easily put in place, others can push the arms or lens frames against the face and this will drive you batty over time.
(Measure around widest part)
|Hat Size||Approx. Helmet Size|
|19-5/8 to 20-1/8||50 – 51||6 to 6-3/8||XXS|
|20-1/4 to 20-7/8||52 – 53||6-1/2 to 6-5/8||XS|
|21 to 21-5/8||54 – 55||6-3/4 to 6-7/8||S|
|21-3/4 to 22-3/8||56 – 57||7 to 7-1/8||M|
|22-1/2 to 23-1/8||58 – 59||7-1/4 to 7-3/8||L|
|23-1/4 to 24||60 – 61||7-1/2 to 7-5/8||XL|
Snag’s career in motoring journalism spans 26 years with stints at major bike mags Australian Road Rider, Motorcycle Trader and AMCN along with contributions to just about every other outlet worth a hill of beans. He was editor of Unique Cars magazine and hosts his legendary podcast ‘Snag Says’ when he gets off his date.