Full Face Motorcycle Helmets (Types of Helmets - Part 1 of 4)

Full Face Motorcycle Helmets

A full face motorcycle helmet is the most common type of helmet you’ll see on the road. This is the style most traditionally associated with what a motorcycle helmet “looks like.” It’s also the style that provides you the best protection.

It seems odd that this is a claim which would need to be defended, but one common claim you’ll hear among “anti-helmet” riders is that full face motorcycle helmets actually increase your risk of serious injury or death in a crash. The reasoning of this urban legend tends to go along the lines of “wearing a motorcycle helmet increases the odds of a broken neck” then citing such reasons as “the size of a helmet creates more leverage against your neck in a crash” or “the helmet adds weight that makes your neck break more easily, like an orange on a toothpick.” Most people who tell this also cite some personal experience like “I knew a guy who had a motorcycle helmet and broke his neck.”

So, rather than arguing, let’s look at the statistics.

First, let’s just deal with the broken neck claim. The first thing to say is that, yes, a motorcycle helmet increases the weight of your head. But the question is whether that increases your risks. Interestingly, some surveys of the medical literature show a wash when it comes to neck injuries. According to these reports, motorcycle helmet use seems to neither decrease nor increase the incidence of neck injury. And yet, that sort of makes sense. A helmet is protecting your head, not your neck.

Other reports, however, show a large decrease in neck injury amongst riders wearing motorcycle helmets. There is no support, however, for claims that motorcycle helmets actually increase head or neck injury. And most studies show significantly LOWER neck injury amongst helmeted riders involved in a crash. (see Sarkar, S., Peek, C., & Kraus, J.F. (1995) Fatal Injuries in Motorcycle Riders According to Helmet Use. Journal of Trauma, 38(2): 242-245. )

So if wearing a helmet doesn’t pose an increased risk to your neck, what about your head?

The leading cause of death in motorcycle crashes is head injury. Period.

(see: U.S. Department of Transportation/National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, State Legislative Fact Sheet)

Second, the NHTSA (National Highway Transportation Safety Authority) estimates, based on cold hard crash statistics, that a rider without a helmet is 40% more likely to suffer a fatal head injury and 15% more likely to suffer a nonfatal head injury than a helmeted motorcyclist. Add that up and an unhelmeted rider is 55% more likely to suffer either a serious or fatal head injury in a crash.

Is that a coin flip you’re willing to take?

Some would say yes, and there are understandable reasons some people choose to accept that risk. But please understand that the claims that wearing a motorcycle helmet actually INCREASES the odds of injury or death are just plain false. The facts support the undeniable conclusion that you are far, far safer with a motorcycle helmet than without one.

But look, I get it. There are some reasons people don’t want to wear a motorcycle helmet. And I sort of forgot that this post was going to be about full faced helmets, so let’s get back to it. How bout a convenient transition:

Some of the reasons people don’t like to wear motorcycle helmets have to do with the experience of using a full faced helmet.

There ya go, now we’re transitioned. Right then. Here’s a picture of a full-faced motorcycle helmet to the left, in case you're a newbie and need a visual here. (The helmet pictured is an Arai RX7 Corsair Full Face Helmet by the way).

So, let's talk helmets. A full faced helmet provides the best possible protection in the event of a crash, but for certain people there are some downsides.

First, if you live in a warmer climate, a full faced motorcycle helmet can get hot. Really hot. Fortunately manufacturers have provided some creative solutions, mostly involving vents in the helmet. These can do a lot of good, and a vented helmet is critical if you have to ride in hot weather, but it’s still true that these helmets can get hot.

Second, there is the “purity” argument. Part of why we all love to ride is the feeling of being connected with the experience. You all know what I mean. There’s a sense of being at one with the road and with the ride that you get when you’re on a bike that just can’t be reproduced in a car. And there are people who feel that a full face motorcycle helmet disconnects them from this experience. You lose the wind on your face, you’ve got a shield between you and the world, and you feel less connected with the ride. These are legitimate arguments, and they need to be balanced against the risks incurred by wearing a less protective helmet. I’ll be discussing all these other sorts of helmets in the posts to come.

There’s one final point before I wrap it up. And again, it’s not about telling you which motorcycle helmet to buy (though obviously my own opinion is clear). Rather it’s about understanding the risks and making your own decision with complete knowledge.

So the fact is this: statistics show that 35% of crashes involve severe impact to the chin area. The full face motorcycle helmet is the only design which provides protection in this type of crash.*

Ultimately the decision is yours, but it’s at least important to understand the consequences of the decision. So one consequence of not buying a full face helmet is a statistically significant increase in the odds of severe trauma to your mouth and jaw in the event of a crash.

Again, I’m not trying to scare anyone here, I just fully believe in helping people understand the variables involved in important decisions.

So, let’s recap.

Full Face Motorcycle Helmets - Pros and Cons

Pros: Hands down best possible protection. Keeps you warm in a cold climate. Huge variety of styles and colors.

Cons: Can get hot. Feeling detached from the “pure” riding experience. Some say reduced hearing (disputable).

*Much of this discussion also applies to “hybrid” helmets. Also known as modular or flip-up motorcycle helmets, which I’ll discuss in the next post. They’re sort of a variant of the full face motorcycle helmets, not entirely apart from the discussion here.

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DOT Motorcycle Helmet

First time riders often don’t know what a DOT Motorcycle Helmet is. You hear the term tossed around and figure out it’s got something to do with safety, but what exactly does “DOT” mean, and what does it have to do with Motorcycle Helmets?

A DOT Motorcycle Helmet is a helmet that has passed the safety requirements and tests of the Department of Transportation. In states with motorcycle helmet laws, a DOT helmet is the minimum level of helmet you’re allowed to wear legally. The good news is that it’s extremely difficult to find one that ISN’T DOT approved since, technically, any motorcycle helmet sold in the US is required to have met the DOT requirements.

So what are these requirements, and what do they mean?

The build and design of a DOT Motorcycle Helmet can be mostly simply explained in terms of a few key factors.

Inner Liner:

Here we’re not talking the “padding”, but the actual liner, the material that protects your skull. About one inch of polystyrene foam tends to be what you’ll find lining the inside of a DOT Motorcycle Helmet, though this can vary slightly with helmet design. Whether or not you can see it or it’s covered with some sort of additional inner layer, you’ll know a motorcycle helmet has this because, well, it’ll be thick. If you pick up a helmet and it’s only a thin plastic shell, it’s barely going to protect you in a fall, and it’s definitely not a DOT Helmet.
The polystyrene foam is what breaks instead of you in a fall, so it’s important! And the Department of Transportation recognizes this. It’s a simple concept, straightforward (not like learning to speak German): a motorcycle helmet with thicker foam will protect you better in a fall, and DOT has requirements for this.

------Unsafe Helmet ------------------ Safe Helmet ------

(Images from the NHTSA website)

Next, Rivets and Chin Strap:

This one’s basic: a DOT Motorcycle Helmet has met the basic requirements for it’s rivets (those metal things holding it together) and chin strap. In other words: it won’t fall apart when you fall.

Helmet Weight:

This isn’t a requirement so much as a clue. When you pick it up, a DOT Motorcycle Helmet is going to weigh in the neighborhood of three pounds or so. The point isn’t the exact weight, the point is that it doesn’t feel absurdly light (i.e. 1 pound). If a motorcycle helmet weighs a pound, it’s not DOT approved.

Helmet Design and Style:

Protrusions aren’t allowed to exceed two-tenths of an inch on DOT Motorcycle Helmets. This is probably to prevent anything that might snag or catch on the ground and torque your neck in a fall, though I don’t have that on authority. You might run into what’s called a “German Army” style motorcycle helmet. If it’s got a giant spike sticking up out of the top, it’s not a DOT Motorcycle Helmet. However, there are some German style helmets on the market you can find that have been DOT approved, you just have to stop around.

There are different ways to see if a motorcycle helmet is DOT approved. To start with, if it’s a full face motorcycle helmet, it’s probably DOT approved. Most novelty helmets aren’t full face. The other (main) way to check is to look for the DOT sticker. DOT helmets are required to have this sticker on the outside, rear of the helmet. Note, however, that a fake sticker can be placed on a motorcycle helmet. So if you’re not buying from a reputable dealer, you might want to do a bit more research to double check: like looking up the helmet online to see if it’s DOT approved, or checking for the stickers of other organizations such as SNELL or ANSI.

So there ya have it, the basics of a DOT Motorcycle Helmet, what it is and what it means.

Best Motorcycle Helmet

Finding your Best Motorcycle Helmet starts with head shape.

The best motorcycle helmet for you might not be the best motorcycle helmet for someone else. That should come as no surprise, because we’ve all got different shaped heads! So a motorcycle helmet that fits me great, even if it’s your size, might feel strange or uncomfortable for you. Which conveniently brings us to an important point: wearing a motorcycle helmet is about safety, but if you’re not comfortable you can’t be safe.

Just think about it: if you’re riding along the highway with a painful pressure point on your forehead, that’s probably not the best motorcycle helmet for you. Because apart from being painful, it’s distracting. And distraction adds unnecessary risk to your riding experience.

Right then, so if our ongoing quest to help you find the best motorcycle helmet FOR YOU, we start with head shape.

Humans have all sorts of different head shapes, but the mains ones are: round, earth, oval, egg, reverse egg. And since motorcycle helmets have different internal shapes, it’s important to find one that fits your head shape.

Round heads look roughly circular from the front; earth heads are wider than they are tall (think Stewie from Family Guy); oval heads are taller than they are long (like an oval :) egg heads are wider at the top and skinnier at the bottom, and reverse egg heads are wider at the bottom and skinnier at the top. Finding your best motorcycle helmet means finding one that doesn’t fight against your head shape.

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules here. Most motorcycle helmet manufacturers give only spotty information at best on the internal shape of their helmets. Which means (dum da dum!) you have to try them on! (Imagine that, eh?)

Oh rather...you might have to try them on. Older folks don’t tend to be comfortable buying a motorcycle helmet sight unseen. But in my experience if you’re willing to do your research, you can actually buy a motorcycle helmet online without ever trying it on. That’s what I did. And I love my helmet.

So if you’re trying to find your best motorcycle helmet online, you need to find reviews that discuss head shape. Now, like I said, the manufacturers with the best motorcycle helmet websites will already have this information available. But if you can’t find it there, you have to do some more digging. Luckily for you, in the weeks and months ahead I’ll be posting a lot more useful information right here on my website on how to find the best motorcycle helmet for you, including the internal shapes of different brands of helmets.

In my next post, I’ll get deeper into how head shape and sizing should factor into finding your best motorcycle helmet.

Motorcycle Helmets

If you're confused trying to learn about Motorcycle Helmets, read on!

Shopping for Motorcycle Helmets can be a stressful ordeal. After all, Motorcycle Helmets aren’t like shoes, right? When you're shopping for Motorcycle Helmets, you are, in a way, shopping for your life! No one wants to trust their cranium to just any old piece of plastic, after all. And with so many Motorcycle Helmets on the market, it's easy to get overwhelmed.

But there's good news. Most Motorcycle Helmets out there actually do a similar job of protecting you should the worst happen IF you do your homework to find the right Motorcycle Helmet for you. "Homework??" You say. Don't worry, it's the fun kind. After all, Motorcycle Helmets are an important part of our riding experience, and why are we out there to begin with? Most of us would say, at least in part, to have fun. So when we're shopping for Motorcycle Helmets, that should be fun too!

Alright, enough rambling.
So, first and foremost, you only want to shop for Motorcycle Helmets that are certified. What does that mean? Well, there are two types of certification for Motorcycle Helmets: DOT and SNELL.

DOT Motorcycle Helmets 

These have passed the "minimum" safety requirements as stipulated by the Department of Transportation. Motorcycle Helmets that have been through this process will have a DOT sticker somewhere on the helmet (usually at the bottom rear).

SNELL Motorcycle Helmets 

These have undergone the additional certification process of the SNELL organization. And (surprise surprise), SNELL-certified Motorcycle Helmets will have a SNELL sticker on the helmet.

"Important Point 1" (dramatic music): there are custom Motorcycle Helmets out there that haven't been through any safety certification. These Motorcycle Helmets can look really cool but I suggest against buying them. Why? Because there are plenty of cool-looking Motorcycle Helmets on the market that *have* been safety approved, and looking cool is never more important than riding safe.

Important Point 2:

SNELL Motorcycle Helmets are not necessarily any safer than DOT Motorcycle Helmets!

"But I thought SNELL motorcycle helmets were tested more rigorously??"

Well...yes, they are. But due to a lot of boring technical details I won't get into here, the gist of it is that certain design features of SNELL Motorcycle Helmets may counteract any additional safety gained. There are differing opinions on this, and studies have been done by different groups, but the basic point is:

Both DOT and SNELL Motorcycle Helmets are safe enough to wear confidently on the road.

And that's really what we're looking for, right?

So, we’ll leave it there for today. Next time I’ll look at what to consider when shopping for Motorcycle Helmets. Until then, remember that Motorcycle Helmets are the most important gear we wear, so wear it proud!

Motorcycle Helmets Guide Online

Welcome to the Motorcycle Helmets Guide!  This site provides information on Motorcycle Helmets, as well as reviews and tips on buying a Motorcycle Helmet.  If you have questions not covered here please feel free to email your question to motorcycle.helmets.guy@gmail.com  My goal is to provide you with quality content that can make your process and decision much easier.  Buying should be fun, not stressful.  So enjoy, and thanks for reading!