What makes motorcycle helmets effective against injury?
Every biker you see atop their prized machine is aware of the risks of motorcycling, especially compared to getting in a modern car with its seatbelts, airbags and multiple protections for drivers and passengers. However, motorcycling offers different pleasures; it is more immersive, and there are very different skills to master.
On a motorcycle, the open road means the open road. A motorcycle, by its very two-wheeled nature, is less stable. Its size and profile mean it is less visible to other road users. Poor road conditions or inclement weather pose more problems to a motorcyclist than a driver.
While the risks of motorcycling can never be eliminated, they can be reduced, and big steps have been made in that direction over the past few decades. Advances in first responder and hospital trauma treatment and improvements in tire and motorcycle technology have all played a part in this progress, as have riders by taking more responsibility by wearing the correct safety gear.
The primary piece of safety gear is, of course, the helmet. It protects the head, which is probably the most vital part of the body and certainly the hardest to repair. Head injuries and brain traumas are far more likely to lead to a permanently reduced quality of life than body injuries, traumatic as those can be. The human brain is a complicated and fragile organ needing a large amount of the body's blood. Blood vessels in the brain are notoriously difficult to isolate during brain surgery, and loss of blood to the brain can quickly result in brain death or permanently impaired cognition, so it makes sense to protect it while riding.
Modern helmet construction
There are many types of helmets on the market today, from full-face helmets to half-head helmets, but they all have certain things in common, beginning with a hard outer shell. The earliest patented motorcycle helmet was simply a shellac covering over leather padding.
Today's helmets are made of materials such as fiberglass, ABS plastic, polycarbonate and carbon fiber. These high-grade materials not only give protection from penetration and abrasion but are also designed to dissipate the shock of an impact right across the helmet. These materials achieve this by cracking slowly, drastically reducing the trauma of the impact. This destroys the helmet but saves the head inside, which is why helmets should never be worn again after being involved in an accident.
All helmets have some internal padding to further reduce the shock and ensure the helmet sits snugly on the head. This is almost invariably polystyrene, which will mold itself to the rider's head shape with use, and there can be a further foam liner added for extra comfort. Helmets without the shock padding that only contain a comfort liner will not be DOT-approved and should not be considered.
Finally, any helmet will have a system of straps or a retention system to keep it from flying off of your head in an accident and to stop it from riding up during normal road use. However, all of this will only work if the helmet is the correct size for the head sitting inside it. Never take to the road in an ill-fitting lid. If in doubt, try our size guide.
According to the CDC, helmets reduce the risk of head injury by 69% and prevent 37% of deaths of riders and 41% of passenger deaths . Across the country, more than 5,500 motorcyclists died in accidents in 2020. In addition to the human tragedy of these statistics, the cost to the economy was quite significant in terms of lost productivity, extra insurance costs, and medical treatment costs.
It is estimated that around 75% of motorcycle accidents involve another vehicle, and the remaining 25% are accounted for by factors such as road defects, animals on the road, motorcycle failure or simply rider error, most often by slide-outs, over-braking, excess speed, and poor judgment while cornering .
The most common cause of accidents involving another vehicle was a car, truck, or van turning across the path of an unseen motorcycle. These cases accounted for around 34% of accidents involving a motorcycle and another vehicle. This means that some accidents are avoidable, while others come down to the lack of awareness or loss of concentration of other road users, which can result in a collision regardless of the skills of the rider. In either case, it is better to face it wearing a helmet.
DOT-certified and approved helmets
For a helmet to be sold legally as a motorcycle helmet, it will need to meet the DOT-certified standards. While this is largely self-certified, the fines for helmet manufacturers applying DOT-certified labels to products not manufactured in the correct way are substantial.
The Office of Vehicle Safety and Compliance carries out tests on a number of helmets each year. The helmets are tested under various climatic conditions as well as water immersion tests. They are impact-tested by dropping them on anvils from various specified angles and heights. Penetration and abrasion testing are also carried out. These are the minimum standards for motorcycle helmets, and no rider should consider a helmet without the DOT-approved label.
Why would a motorcyclist refuse to wear a helmet?
There are a number of reasons cited for motorcyclists not wearing helmets. Some claim they are too heavy and tiring to wear, especially on long journeys. Others claim the strain on their neck can be too much or that they feel suffocated in one. Some riders assert that they are too hot to wear in certain climates or seasons, that they restrict vision and give the rider a sense of isolation from the road, or that they simply dislike the so-called mushroom-headed look you get with some helmet styles.
Regardless of the reason, there are many types of sleek, low-profile, streamlined, and open-faced helmets these days, such as this MicroLid Curve. These options address the problems of airflow, vision loss and weight. They are fully DOT-approved, lightweight, and cool! This means there is no reason to increase your risk of head injury and death by taking to the road without a helmet.
The simple fact is that a DOT-approved motorcycle helmet is sturdier than the human skull. An accident while wearing a helmet can reduce what could have been death or severe trauma down to simply a concussion. While we may never be able to eradicate the risks of motorcycling completely, we can at least move the odds in our favor.