Busting the popular helmet myths

Think you know what a motorcycle helmet can and can’t do for you? Take the quiz. From the August 2000 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine. By Art Friedman.


1. Motorcycle helmets cause neck injuries.

2. Because of a helmet’s limited ability to absorb impact energy, it can’t protect you if you have a motorcycle accident over 20 mph.

3. The shell is a helmet’s most important component.

4. A D.O.T. helmet probably offers sufficient protection. You probably don’t need one with additional certifications.

5. A full-face motorcycle helmet (one with a chinbar) restricts vision.

6. A helmet impairs your ability to hear traffic and other important sounds.

7. Mandatory-helmet-use laws do decrease motorcyclist fatalities.

8. Any helmet that meets the D.O.T. standard offers good protection.

9. You don’t really need a helmet when you are going slow, like riding around the city. It is most important to wear one out on the highway.

10. Helmets make your head overheat.

11. Riders wearing helmets are more likely to be involved in an accident.


1. False. Studies of accident-involved riders indicate that those wearing helmets a less likely to sustain serious neck injuries. Of course, if you consider the chafing you might sustain from the strap an injury, then we suppose you can say they injure your neck.

2. False. Although a helmet’s ability to absorb energy can be reached at a relatively low speed, helmets are rarely required to absorb this kind of energy in a crash. Most of the vector of force is usually just from the drop from the seat to the road, which is relatively minor. However, we have also witnessed accidents where the rider’s helmeted head struck an object (the A pillar if a pick-up truck, in one case) with such force that we couldn’t believe he could survive, yet the helmet protected him admirably, preventing what would have certainly been a devastating or fatal injury.

3. False. The shell of the helmet prevents penetration and spreads the load, but the Styrofoam-type EPS liner is what actually absorbs the energy of the impact. The shell is also probably more effective at preventing abrasion than the EPS liner, but that is less likely to be a life-or-death injury, even on the head (though your face may get a macadam makeover). So unless you drop lightly on a pointed object or you are primarily concerned with protecting your looks, the answer is False. Not that it matters, since a good helmet has both.

4. True. The real-world difference in protection is not hugely different between helmets that meet the Department of Transportation (D.O.T.) FMVSS 218 standard and those with additional certifications, such as Snell. It’s a rare instance when the additional energy-absorption of a Snell or similar standard makes a difference. However, the best helmets usually meet both standards, and while an unscrupulous person might get away with putting a made-up D.O.T. label on a fake helmet (there are standards—often failed—for where D.O.T. stickers must be placed on the helmet, but no requirement standardizing the actual sticker), Snell stickers aren’t as easy to make and the Snell Foundation would go after any one who it found counterfeiting its stickers. It also checks helmets for compliance more frequently than the government. However, the Department of Transportation does test for compliance, and you can find the results on the D.O.T. website.

5. This is partially true but not in any important way. The most significant part of this is that full-face-helmet wearers may find that they have to tilt their heads to look down to read the speedometer if the bike wears it on its fuel tank. The D.OT. standard requires a window that is 210 degrees wide, which is just three degrees narrower than the average person’s field of vision, and 70 degrees wider than the 140-degree minimum limit set by most state driver requirements. Of course, some eyeports are wider. You probably lose more vision coverage to glasses or sunglasses. If you said False, you give yourself credit, but only give yourself credit for a True responser if you knew how little the restriction is.

6. False. Though it mutes all sounds, by cutting down wind noise and the motorcycle’s mechanical sounds, at speed, a helmet makes it as easy to discern important sounds. Put another way, the signal-to-noise ratio is not changed, the volume is just turned down slightly. In fact, because the wind flows more smoothly over the helmet’s surface than your uncovered ear, a helmet may actually reduce the amount of wind noise, enabling you to hear other sounds better. If you are standing at a stop and hear impending danger, it is probably too late to react, whether you are wearing a helmet or not. Reducing noise reduces fatigue and other negative effects too.

7. Not popular but True. Even though many people (as high as 40 percent in some areas of the USA) do not comply with the spirit or letter of the laws and wear fake helmets (a.k.a. beanies, salad bowls, etc.), helmet laws still seem to reduce fatalities per mile ridden. It is certainly true when D.O.T.-compliant helmets are used very widely.

8. False. Only a D.O.T. helmet that fits properly, won’t come off and is fastened snugly can it do its job. Research shows that a helmet that is rolling down the street when you hit the curb is much less effective in preventing injury than one on your head at the same moment. The same is true for the one at home in your garage instead of on your noggin when a car turns left in front of you. However, a properly fitting D.O.T. helmet worn properly does give excellent protection and you have little cause to fret if it lacks Snell or some other certification.

9. Nope. Even though your speed is lower, you are significantly more likely to have an accident in the city than in a rural area, and even if you are only going 15 mph, the distance you drop, which does not change, contributes much to the force of the impact. Add the speed of an oncoming car, and the impact speed can equal that which you hit a tree at in the country. Cities also have more light poles, curbs, buildings, parked cars and other unyielding objects than rural roads.

10. The official verdict is False. The explanation is that while the outer surface of helmet warms up, the foam liner acts as an insulator, reducing the interior temperature increase to a very few degrees. However, a helmet can also keep air from circulating, which is a factor when you are stopped or moving very slowly. Even an unvented helmet allows a little air to circulate when you are moving at 25 mph. But we will concede that there may be circumstances, notably traffic jams in hot, humid weather, where you are significantly hotter in a full-face helmet than with a lesser one or no helmet. There are also times when the heat makes it dangerous to ride no matter what you are wearing or even if you are at a North American Nude Motorcycle Riders Association rally.

11. False. In fact, helmet users are less likely to be involved in an accident according to research. And a recent study learned that riders wearing white helmets or helmets with other bright colors are less likely to be in a crash than those with a less-conspicuous color.


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