Example of Modular Motorcycle Helmet
In our article about what to wear and bring to the MSF class I mentioned that while many of the first level MSF classes have motorcycle helmets you can borrow during the class, if you know you want to keep riding it is probably best to go ahead and buy your first motorcycle helmet. Now, there are several different kinds of motorcycle helmets and the size and fit of those can vary a lot between different brands of helmets and even between different models of helmets made by the same brand. So, my first tip for buying your first motorcycle helmet is to allow some time to shop around and try several different helmets — this is not something where you just run in the store and come out five minutes later, but it is worth spending time for this most protective piece of motorcycle gear.
My second tip is to get a full-face or modular helmet. While many cruiser riders chose half helmets (which just cover the top half of your head) and some other riders chose three-quarter helmets (which cover the top half and the lower back quarter of your head, but leave your face entirely exposed), the areas that these helmets leave exposed are actually involved in 30% to 40% of all motorcycle accidents. So, give yourself full protection by choosing a full-face or modular helmet.
A full-face helmet is just what it sounds like: it is helmet with a solid protective shell that protects your full face and head. A modular helmet protects the same areas, but has a latch that allows the chin bar area of the helmet to swing upward for ease in taking it on and off, and also making conversations a bit easier if you need to stop and ask directions, talk with a gate guard, go through a drive-through, etc. You can also ride with the chin bar of the modular helmet up, but this is not really recommended. You should be aware that although the modular helmet appears to protect all of the same areas as the full-face helmet, having a latch does mean that the chin bar may not stay closed in all accidents (this is true even for very expensive modular helmets) — so the extra moving part adds convenience but that comes with a tradeoff of some extra risk. Motorcycle riding (and really all of life) involves balancing risks with rewards and making your own decisions for what works for you. For me, I enjoy the convenience of modular helmets, but I require that my son has a full-face helmet when he rides with me.
My third tip is to not be shy about trying on different sizes of helmets and also walking around the store to get a feel for comfort. As mentioned above, sizes of motorcycle helmets can be very inconsistent, even among the same brand. Watch several videos on motorcycle helmet fit (I will post some soon) and ask the store employee to help you also. This is an important decision, and you should definitely take some time and walk around the store with the helmet on (fully strapped) to get an idea on comfort — some helmets that feel fine just standing still will start to hurt in one spot once you start walking around (and you’ll definitely bounce around while riding, so make sure to bounce a bit when you walk in the store).
My fourth tip is to try to buy your helmet somewhere with a generous return policy. I have to give some praise to the Cycle Gear chain here, because they have a seven day “no questions asked” helmet return policy — which I have used several times in trying to find the right motorcycle helmet for me. You may find a helmet that feels great in the store but ends up being super loud when you ride. You may also find a helmet that ends up fogging up constantly even at highway speeds. There are other reasons too why you may want to return a helmet that seemed fine in the store, and that’s when these return policies are great.
The fifth tip is to be sure to check the stickers on the back of the helmet for certification. All helmets sold in the U.S. should have a DOT (Department of Transportation) sticker on the back that shows the helmet has met a certain minimum standard. Any helmets without this sticker is really just a “novelty helmet” that won’t comply with laws in states that require helmets, and likely won’t provide much protect. Other standards that are good to see (in addition to DOT standard) are the ECE standard sticker (which is a European safety standard) and the SNELL standard sticker (which is the highest standard, usually more expensive, and generally is not available for modular helmets or helmets with drop-down internal sun visors. Which leads me to . . .
My sixth tip is to think about what you are going to do about the sun. Riding facing into bright sunlight can be difficult and can be a safety hazard. Some helmets have drop-down internal sun shields, some (mainly Arai helmets) have an external drop-down sun shield, some have main shields that are light-sensitive and can transition to a dark tint in sunlight, and many motorcycle helmets require you to either wear sunglasses or change out the clear main visor for a tinted main visor (which seems a pain to me). Again, this is a personal preference, but I like the convenience of having the internal drop-down sun shield — that way I never forget to bring it, and can flip it up or down if I go from riding a very tree-shaded road and then turn a corner and am facing directly into the sun.
My seventh tip is to consider your future communication needs. I really think beginner motorcycle riders should be totally focused on riding and not talking on phones, listening to music, or having a conversation with a passenger (really, no passengers for several months is best). However, with luck you’ll have your helmet for a good while, so if you think at some point you want to make use of bluetooth or other communication devices, you should consider that when buying your helmet. While many helmet manufacturers make helmets with bluetooth devices built in, that is just one option and can greatly increase the cost of the helmet. Although it is possible to add some type of motorcycle communication device to practically any helmet, if you know that you are going to want something like that then it is worth looking for helmets that have been designed with space designated to install one of these devices. If you go that route you can first spend your money on buying a good helmet and then later add one of several different kinds of devices — this would be my recommendation, rather than buying a helmet with bluetooth already installed.
And my eighth tip is to buy hearing protection and use it. There have been many reports that indicate that just riding 30 minutes at 60 miles per hour can do permanent damage to your hearing — regardless of your helmet type, and regardless of the type of motorcycle and windscreen. This is a real problem that many people ignore and have their hearing damaged. You can start with cheap foam ear plugs that should be sold at every motorcycle shop and also are sold where shooting supplies are found, and many other places. Like anything, there are more expensive options that you can buy — noise cancellation, etc. But start with the cheap foam ones and even those will do a great deal to protect your hearing.
I hope you found these tips for selecting a motorcycle helmet helpful. I know it’s a long article, but this is your most important piece of equipment, so choose wisely!