1st Lt. Claudiu Ene, RN
Eisenhower Army Medical Center
Whether it was lusting for your dream bike, swinging a leg over your buddies dirt bike, or taking the MSF course, you've caught that little bit of insanity and now … you wanna ride.
Beware though, as riding isn't just about the motorcycle. Your safety gear consisting of helmet, jacket, gloves, boots, etc., will make and could literally "break" your riding experience. Each these safety items should be carefully considered before making a purchase. Many can be expensive, and there's nothing worse than spending hundreds of dollars on something you hate. This series begins with a proper helmet.
'Used' is not an option
When purchasing a helmet, it must be comfortable, snug, fit your needs and budget--and new. That's a lot to ask of something that only has a lifespan of five years. Any helmet that is more than five years old must be discarded because that the layers of material responsible for minimizing energy transfer to your head during an impact, break down and can no longer be trusted to protect you.
Also many manufacturers have incorporated materials that adapt to the shape of your head after being worn a few times to improve both fit, comfort and safety. Buying a used helmet is therefore not only gross (people sweat, you know) but could be extremely unsafe as it may not fit correctly, have an undisclosed history of an impact/accident, and be close to its expiration date.
Once purchased and worn, it can be difficult to return a helmet, so spend a good 20 minutes walking around wearing it to make absolutely sure it fits. Tight spots could turn into migraine level headaches and ruin your ride.
All motorcycle helmets, are good for one impact. This is one item where butterfingers will cost you, because there is no motorcycle helmet that is considered safe for wear once it falls from more than three feet, or is involved in any accident. Remember those energy transfer layers? Good for one smack, and it's off to the dump.
There are several in use. Some consider them tiered, but they are different approaches to establishing whether a helmet is safe. The military says that any helmet you wear, must be DOT approved. Most helmets sold by reputable retailers and dealers, will fall into that criteria. Frequently though you will encounter additional ratings such as E.C.E and SNELL.
DOT is the U.S. Department of Transportation standard for testing and will be displayed as either a DOT, or a DOT FMVSS 218 sticker on the back of your helmet. Tests are performed by independent contractors who randomly select helmets for testing. This means only a small section of helmets are actually tested and not by the organization that issues the certification. The impact tests are very stringent but DOT does not test for optical clarity or friction resistance, and the measuring a helmets energy management between impact and head is very limited.
E.C.E stands for the Economic Commission for Europe. A helmet will have either an ECE or an ECE 22.05 sticker, along with a DOT sticker in the U.S. ECE is an extremely comprehensive test that is mandatory in more than 50 countries. Helmets with this certification must have been tested by an independent lab that also takes into consideration optical clarity, shatter resistance, shell rigidity and friction. The E.C.E. only delivers one blow (vs. two to three for DOT and SNELL) at a fixed point, though at a much lower strength than the DOT/SNELL test. However, testing is done with multiple head sizes and with very stringent, low-energy transfer tolerances between the helmet and head.
SNELL is a private and independent memorial organization. SNELL helmets are a must for anyone venturing onto a track with their motorcycle as they are a requirement on most. SNELL-rated helmets will display a SNELL or SNELL M2015 sticker, as well as a DOT sticker. During SNELL testing, the techs performing the test can strike the helmet anywhere within a large area, choosing to test weak spots, joints or hardware. Strikes are delivered by a point/edge and in conjunction with severe abrasion tests to simulate "high-speed" crashes. Drawbacks are that many street-use items are incapable of obtaining a SNELL rating such as sun-visors, modular or open face helmets. SNELL-rated helmets also have a significantly higher price point due to the private testing. This cost is passed onto the consumer.
Your helmet is often the only thing drivers see. It serves your interests to stand out, be bright. Flat black isn't doing you any favors but is unfortunately the most commonly sold color. Though not a requirement, a brightly colored helmet makes you more visible and could be a factor between crashing and avoiding a crash. Several manufacturers have even incorporated strobe LEDs to helmets to help with visibility.