Your head is pretty important – you can’t hit the road if you’ve got a concussion or worse. That’s why you need a good quality motorcycle helmet, and to know the motorcycle helmet brands to avoid.
Some argue against wearing helmets at all, but we don’t buy that. Looking at the latest data from 2019, 70% of motorcyclists wear a helmet (1) and only 60% of motorcycle fatalities are people wearing a helmet (2) – proportionately, you’re less likely to have a fatal accident with a helmet.
You don’t want any old helmet. You need it to be comfortable, not get a neck-ache, and be able to stay cool, plus it needs to be well-made so it can stand up to the accidents you’ll hopefully never encounter.
With that, we’re going to look at:
- Things to look for in a bad helmet
- How to tell a dangerous helmet when you see one
- What to look for in a safe helmet
And we’ll close with some general tips to spot motorcycle helmet brands to avoid.
What Makes a Helmet Bad?
A bad helmet is going to do two things:
- Not save your life or prevent serious injury
- Make your injuries worse by concentrating impact to your skull
Doesn’t sound pretty, so here’s what to look for that makes a helmet bad and potentially deadly.
The material the shell is made of makes a huge difference to helmet safety. Generally, the cheaper the helmet, the shoddier the shell.
Cheaper helmets are made of thermoplastic, which will crack into large chunks with a big impact, imparting a lot of force on your head. If the helmet you’re looking at doesn’t specify the shell material, assume thermoplastic and look for something better.
What’s better? Polycarbonate offers slightly more protection with similar affordability to thermoplastic. Fiberglass, carbon fiber and any Aramid fiber will provide much more protection in a crash, since they spread out impact forces across a wide area by cracking in a ‘spiderweb’ fashion.
For an example of a top-notch shell, check out the Klim Krios. It’s carbon fiber, with every piece of carbon placed intentionally to make sure it’s as safe as possible.
The foam sits under the shell and is the second method helmets use to absorb impacts in a crash. The standard is expandable polystyrene (EPS). Avoid any helmet brand that doesn’t tell you what foam it uses, and look at the next helmet if it’s anything but EPS.
EPS improves when helmets contain multiple densities. At a minimum you should expect dual density EPS – a lighter layer for small knocks and heavier for big hits. You can get as high as four-density EPS from Arai (3).
Padding is the inner layer of a helmet that contacts your head. In most cases this is mainly for comfort, but does have some crash-related effects.
You want two qualities in your motorcycle helmet padding when it comes to safety: Snug with Emergency Release pads. The lining should also be removable and washable.
Padding that’s snug ensures your helmet doesn’t bounce around on your head in a crash, causing more damage to your brain. Emergency release padding makes it easier for paramedics to remove your helmet without further injuring your head or spine in the event of a crash.
Shoei makes a great Emergency Release system for some of their helmets.
Avoid any helmet with a cheap, flimsy visor. If it cracks easily, well, there goes your eyesight. You also want the visor to be removable so you can give it a good clean after a day adventuring.
Check how easily the visor opens and closes as well – you want a visor that firmly locks in place, but isn’t impossible to open or close with one hand. Having the wind blow your visor open or fiddling with it too much is a recipe for a crash.
Another sign of a good quality helmet is one that comes capable of holding a Pinlock visor. Pinlock visors are anti-fogging inserts that help you maintain visibility in wet or cold conditions. You’ll find most good helmet brands come with a Pinlock visor included, like our pick for the best Bluetooth helmet, the Sena Stryker.
Bad, cheap helmets don’t have vents. They may look like they do, with fancy shapes and grilles, but they go nowhere.
The easy way to check if the vents are real? You should be able to actually see the intakes and outflows when you take out the helmet’s lining. Any respectable helmet store should let you pop out the lining and see for yourself where those vents are going.
Don’t bother with any full face helmet with cosmetic, non-functioning vents. No vents means discomfort, sweat, and more fogging – which all make it more likely you’ll miss something on the road.
The last sign of a bad helmet is the chin strap. There are three common ones you’ll see:
- The double-D ring
- The ratchet strap
The double-D ring is what you want. A tried-and-true buckle, the D-ring is safer and more reliable than Fidlock and ratchet straps (4). Plus, you don’t need to undo the ring to get it off – just slide it to get some space, pull it forward past your chin, and slide your helmet off.
How to Spot a Bad Helmet – Technical Details
Bad helmets are a dime a dozen, and while they might look great with an amazing price to boot, they’re usually about as helpful as a plastic bucket in the event of a crash. Here are a few things to look out for when you’re browsing for a helmet and have only pictures and a few promises from the manufacturer to go off.
With motorcycle helmets, cheap equals bad. Usually.
Try not to slip below $100, unless it’s on sale. This price doesn’t automatically mean “quality”, but anything lower and you’re likely getting off-brand imports with bad plastic and no vents. Also, beware of name-brand helmets selling at a heavy discount secondhand. If you spot a $600 helmet going for $100, you’d probably be safer in a bicycle helmet.
You need to keep your eye out for three safety ratings. Our take on them is:
- DOT makes helmets road-legal in the USA. However, DOT only certifies the effectiveness of a helmet when hit directly on the top, which doesn’t say much about most motorcycle crashes.
- Snell is named after a car racing legend who died in a crash. Many racetracks require this safety rating. However, Snell is more suitable for car racing, since it focuses on repeated high-force impacts on the same area – common in car crashes, but not motorcycle crashes.
- ECE is the European standard, and certifies that the helmet protects amply from direct impacts as well as rotational forces. This leads to slimmer helmets that are often safer in motorcycle crashes than Snell-rated lids.
- FIM is the gold standard for helmet ratings. How do we know? FIM is the governing body of motorcycle racing, meaning they set the rules for the best racers in the world. FIM helmets are often wickedly expensive, but they’re built to protect athletes worth billions of dollars to FIM.
Dings and Damage
When buying a second-hand helmet, you need to ask about the history. If it’s been dropped a couple of times, it’s not the end of the world.
Never buy a helmet that has been in a crash. The foam inside a helmet is designed to crumple on impact, which means it won’t work again in a second crash.
Check for noticeable scratches or warps in shape where evidence of a crash could have been erased. To be safe, just don’t buy helmets secondhand unless you’re absolutely sure the prior owner rarely used that lid.
What Makes the Safest Helmets?
For a safe helmet, look for a well-constructed shell made of polycarbonate, fiberglass or carbon fiber with functioning vents and at least dual-density EPS foam and a removable liner. You should find a DOT, ECE or FIM safety certification on the lid.
Don’t overlook fit either – even a top notch helmet that’s too big won’t do much for you in a crash. Make sure that the lining fits snug, because the pads will soften over time.
Some small touches that can improve safety? Look for the yellow Mips sticker.
This “multi-directional impact protection system” sits inside helmets between the foam and the padding to allow the helmet to rotate a bit without pulling on your head. This little piece of plastic reduces rotational forces in an accident, a key difference between deadly crashes and ones you walk away from.
The Safest Motorcycle Helmets
The safest motorcycle helmets on the market will come from popular brands with a great reputation: AGV, Airoh, Arai, Bell, Caberg, HJC, LS2, Nolan, Scorpion, Shark, and Shoei come to mind.
One of the safest helmets we’ve found given the above criteria, while still falling at a reasonable price, is the HJC C70. It’s made from advanced polycarbonate, has great ventilation, and is ECE approved.
With more money to spend, check out the Arai Signet X. The venting is well designed, it comes with a Pinlock insert in the box, and it features the four-density foam we talked about earlier for better dispersion of impact forces for less pain on your brain.