Safety on the Brain: How to Choose a Bicycle Helmet

I like my brain. I would rather not damage it. So I wear a bicycle helmet to protect my skull and its useful contents while riding. Always. You never know when bad luck might send you hurtling head-first into the road, a car, or some other unyielding object. You probably like your brain too. So give it the best protection you can! Here’s what you need to know to select—and properly fit—a bike helmet. 

Protection Comes Standard 
When it comes to safety, every bicycle helmet—from an inexpensive Wal-Mart special to a $200-plus racing design—is the same in one important way. Every helmet sold in the U.S. must meet the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) safety standard, which sets specific guidelines for how much a helmet must dissipate the forces of impact, how much coverage it must provide, and how strong and stable its strap system must be on your head.

To meet this standard, nearly every bike helmet uses expanded polystyrene foam. In the event of an impact, the foam compresses, cracks, and dissipates the impact force to sub-catastrophic levels. Most helmets also feature a smooth, hard plastic surface, which allows the helmet to slide when it hits the road or other object, further reducing the impact force.

While it’s possible that some helmets absorb more impact force than others, several studies have found there to be no consistent difference among helmets based on price—see here and here, among others. 

What You Get For More Money 
Helmets vary widely in price, from as little as $20 to well over $200. They all essentially provide the same level of protection, so what are you paying for with a high-end model? With more money, you get less weight, more ventilation, improved aerodynamics, and snazzier looks. None of these features are particularly essential for most riders, though serious cyclists who spend a lot of time in the saddle may appreciate them. For casual cyclists, a range of models are available in the $40 to $80 range that meets most people’s style, weight, and ventilation needs.

How to Fit a Helmet 
One helmet feature, however, is vastly more important than any other: a good fit. For a helmet to protect your head, it must be positioned correctly and not shift around in the event of a collision. A properly fitting helmet should be snug against your head; select the size that fits as closely as possible without being uncomfortably tight. The front of the helmet should be roughly one to two finger width above your eyebrows, and the helmet should sit level on your head. The straps should come together under each ear to form a “V” and the buckle should clip under your chin. Lastly, the straps should be tightened so that the helmet pulls down against your head when you open your mouth. Be aware that helmets—and heads—vary in shape. Try on a variety of styles to find one that best fits your cranial dimensions.

Other Features and Considerations 
Some helmets feature a visor on the front—a nice feature that helps keep rain and sun out of your face. If you’ll be riding in the cold, check that the helmet can comfortably accommodate a thin hat underneath; being able to adjust the fit while wearing gloves is nice. Lastly, don’t forget to put it on, no matter how short your ride! The best helmet in the world won’t help you if you neglect to wear it. 

When to Retire a Helmet 
Inspect your helmet periodically for cracks in the foam; these can greatly reduce the helmet’s ability to absorb an impact. If you see any, replace your helmet as soon as possible. Likewise, you should retire your helmet following any crash that involves hitting your head. Helmets are designed for one-time use and even a low-speed impact can compress the foam and render the helmet far less effective in a subsequent crash. Lastly, as a general rule, replace your helmet roughly every five years to ensure maximum safety, especially if you use it regularly.

Read more of Matt Heid's writing about bike gear:

Matt Heid writes about gear for AMC Outdoors and AMC Outdoors Online. You can read more here

Photograph: Shutterstock.

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