I’ve read a lot online lately about protective gear for motorcycle riders, and I’ve even written on the topic myself. But even if you forgo the benefits of jackets, gloves and boots, once you get right down to it, the single most important piece of gear is probably the most controversial: the helmet. Whole forests have been cleared just to provide the volume of paper it’s taken to write the many arguments both in favor of and in opposition to helmet laws. My purpose isn’t to debate helmet laws, though. I’m more concerned about the proper usage and care of them.
Even in Texas, where it’s currently very easy to be exempt from mandatory helmet use, I’m starting to see more and more voluntary wearing of protective headgear. Which is a good thing, because I don’t care how tough you are, I guarantee the asphalt is harder than your head.
I wonder, though, how many people are just ordering online or running in and grabbing any ol’ helmet. Or worse: buying a used helmet. I wonder, too, how many people know how to properly take care of their lid?
First off, fit is important. If a helmet is too tight, it’ll compress the liner and allow too much force to be transmitted to your head. Plus, it just won’t feel good to wear.
If a helmet fits too loosely, it presents multiple problems. For one thing, if it’s loose in the extreme, it might actually come off your head during an accident. Loose helmets can also shift on your head, providing a distraction and possibly affecting your field of vision. A very important factor in fit is that if the helmet isn’t snug against your scalp, then it’s not protecting you – it’s just the thing your head will land on in a crash.
To make sure you get a proper fit, you need to remember that the plush, cushy part of the lining will break in fairly quickly – usually within a few hours of ride time; somewhere between a couple of weeks and a couple of months, depending on your riding habits. So, you need to make sure you have a nice, snug fit when it’s new. When the helmet is in place, you shouldn’t be able to rock it back and forth without it moving your scalp. With the chinstrap firmly fastened, try rocking the helmet forward. If you can unseat it from your head, it’s too big. Put both hands at the back of your head and push the helmet forward. This will compress the comfort liner, simulating how it will fit once it breaks in. Have a friend or helmet salesman try to insert two fingers (stop that snickering) into the helmet at the forehead. They should just be able to get up to the first knuckle. Any more is too loose.
Now, to understand a couple of things I’m about to point out, you need to know a bit about helmet construction. There are three basic layers: the shell, the impact liner and the comfort liner. The shell is typically made of polycarbonate (just a fancy word for plastic), but higher end lids will be made of fiberglass, and may incorporate aramid fiber (Kevlar) or even carbon fiber into the mix. The main purpose of the shell is to protect against abrasion. It’s the part that holds everything together while you’re sliding down the asphalt. Underneath that is the impact liner. The impact liner is made of expanded polystyrene (EPS), which is basically dense Styrofoam. This is the part that protects you from the forces of impact. It works its magic by compressing on contact, absorbing and dispersing most of the energy before it’s transmitted to your skull, which isn’t nearly as well equipped for dispersing concussive energy. Then, inside the impact liner is the comfort liner. This is basically some foam padding to allow for proper fit and comfort, covered in cloth, again for comfort.
You also have to take into account the growing use of technology in helmets. Some of it comes built in these days, you can find an extensive list of bluetooth helmets here. Alternatively, if you love your helmet or have found a helmet that you love and want to add some tech to it, you can simply look for bluetooth additions on Amazon.
Now, if you only wear a helmet when the law tells you you have to, or to keep rain or cold winter wind off your face, and you gladly go without cranial protection when allowed, you can basically stop reading now and disregard the rest of the article. Then again, if this describes you, you’re probably not reading any more, anyway. If on the other hand you’d like to know how to care for your helmet, keep reading.
Want more advice on how to buy a motorcycle helmet? Check this out:
Proper care of a helmet after purchase will make sure that it’s in condition to do its job: Keeping your noggin’ intact.
Helmets are only designed to work for ONE impact. Remember how the EPS works? It absorbs impact energy by compressing. Once it compresses, it doesn’t expand again. So, don’t put your helmet on the seat of your bike, or on the gas tank. Don’t toss it onto the floor when you get home, or throw it across the parking lot in anger when your bike won’t start. By the way, the damage can be there and not show anything on the outside. That EPS can compress without the shell getting chipped, much less cracked. Which also means that if the shell is chipped, or especially if it’s cracked, then you can be assured the liner underneath is toast.
Speaking of the condition of the liner, don’t store your brain bucket in the garage, either. Ever seen what gasoline does to Styrofoam? It liquefies it. No, leaving your helmet in the garage overnight won’t make the liner leak out into a puddle, but over time the fumes will weaken it.
After your ride, store your helmet where it can air out. If it’s a full face, leave the face shield open. This lets the comfort liner dry. You don’t want mildew forming in there, do you? Plus, a helmet that’s still sweaty from yesterday’s ride is just kind of gross. Don’t forget to dry up any surfaces around your helmet stickers if you have any.
Finally, helmets do expire. They need to be replaced after five years of use, or seven years from the date of manufacture, whichever comes first. The reason for this is that every time you pull the helmet on or off, you put stress on the liner, and especially on the chin strap. The strap frays over time, and its anchor point will weaken over time. Plus the exposure to extremes of heat and cold, exhaust fumes, the salt in your sweat, etc. make all the interior parts deteriorate. So, antique helmets just aren’t a good idea. They look cool, and I know there’s a big market for custom painted vintage lids, but just don’t expect any protection from them in a crash.
So, unless you’re only wearing a helmet because you have to, remember: don’t drop it, don’t garage it, make sure it fits, and don’t keep it more than five years.
Need some help with how to clean a motorcycle helmet? Check out this video:
Want more advice on how to buy a motorcycle helmet? Check this out: