Head injuries are the No. 1 killer in motorcycle accidents, with brain trauma also a potential disaster, making a high-quality helmet designed with top-tier materials and engineered construction a rider's first line of defense against death.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that helmets reduce crash deaths by 37 percent and brain injuries by 67 percent. In 2009, more than 4,200 motorcyclists died in crashes, which was 13 percent of crash deaths.
Helmets are designed to protect and cushion a rider's head from the impact of a crash and also prevent penetration injuries, such as those from the bike's pedals or from a fencepost hit in an accident. Helmet technology is improving every day, with new materials and designs providing a greater degree of protection. So if you're wearing a helmet that you bought years ago, it's likely time for an upgrade.
Here are the new and improved materials and design elements to look for when shopping for a new helmet.
*Helmet Materials -- The Outside Shell
Alan Dowds -- motorcycle expert and author, as well as deputy editor at SuperBike magazine -- says, "Helmets' tough outer materials take the brunt of the blow," which is why you want the strongest outer material possible.
--Always look for a helmet that is Department of Transportation-certified and marked with the DOT symbol signifying the model is made with top materials and design.
--Upgrade to the toughest outer material possible. Carbon fiber helmets are considered the strongest you can get, and many riders will wear only this type, even though carbon fiber costs more than plastic and fiberglass.
--Other strong materials to upgrade to include injected thermoplastic resin, Kevlar and complex laminate construction, which provides strong cushioning but still keeps the helmet lightweight.
--Look for a helmet that provides protection from ultraviolet rays.
*Helmet Materials -- Inside the Helmet
"The softer liner inside the helmet's frame, usually made of expanded polystyrene, is constructed to protect your skull by absorbing the energy of an impact, slowing down the deceleration of your head inside the outer shell and preventing the bruising, swelling and skull fractures which are so often fatal," Dowds says.
--The softer cushioning inside the helmet is not just for comfort. Look for multi-element polystyrene as the best shock absorber.
--New microfiber material inside the helmet wicks moisture away from your head.
--Upgrade to a style with removable cheek pads and a washable interior.
*Helmet Materials -- Fasteners
A strong and secure chin strap helps keep the helmet on your head during an accident's impact. If your helmet is more than a few years old or has experienced a large amount of use, the snaps of your chin strap may have lost some of their strength.
--Dowds says, "There are a variety of fastening systems available, including seat belt-type buckles for easy fastening."
--New chin straps are lined with velour.
*Better Helmet Airflow
An upgraded helmet also provides coolness and comfort while you wear it. Riding on a hot day without a vented helmet causes discomfort and perhaps overheating, confusion and disorientation. You never want to be disoriented while riding, so upgrade to a helmet with better venting.
--Look for "multi-point air intake," which means that air vents are placed strategically on the sides and the chin bar to provide optimal fresh air intake and release hot air.
--Four top vents are optimal.
*Face Protection and Better Vision
As stylish as motorcycle goggles and sunglasses may be, a quality movable visor provides the best protection against bugs and gravel that kicks up in traffic, and it also protects your chin, jaw, nose and browline from injury in an accident.
--Upgrade to a visor with a quick-release system. Dowds says, "Many high-grade helmets feature quick-release systems that allow for a darker, tinted visor to be swapped in for riding in bright sunshine," which adds another degree of safety to your ride by allowing you to see.
--Look for anti-scratch OPCC 2-millimeter visors that provide 100 percent UV protection.
--Look for a "de-mist face shield" that pushes out slightly, clearing fogging.
"The most important part of a helmet is the fit," Dowds says. "It's essential to try the helmet on and make sure it is the right size -- not too large or too tight. A helmet that's too big can come off your head in a crash, leaving you totally unprotected, while a too-tight lid can cause discomfort and headaches."
Different helmet models suit different head shapes. Always be sure to go to a dealer's shop to try on helmets rather than order one online. The shop's experts will help you find a helmet that fits your head perfectly.
This is your safety, your comfort and your life on the line, so prepare to invest in a new and improved helmet.