It can be argued that the single most important piece of safety gear when riding a motorcycle is the helmet. In 2015 alone, motorcycle helmets saved an estimated 1,772 motorcyclist lives and an additional 740 lives could have been saved had the motorcyclist been wearing a helmet when they had an accident. Your state may or may not require that you wear a helmet by law, but you should ALWAYS ride with a helmet. Embrace ATGATT as a riding mindset. All the gear, all the time. Nothing less.
We’ve delved into the safest motorcycle helmets, but how do the other different types of motorcycle helmets compare in terms of safety? How should a helmet properly fit your head? What features should you look for to keep you safe while riding? We’ve got the answers to these questions so you can confidently search for your next helmet!
- Types of Motorcycle Helmets
- Full Face Helmet
- Modular (Flip-up) Helmet
- Open Face (¾) Helmet
- Half Helmet
- Off-road (Dirt Bike, Motocross, or MX) Helmet
- Dual-sport (Crossover, ADV, Hybrid, Enduro) Helmet
- Motorcycle Helmet Safety Standards
- The Anatomy of the Safest Motorcycle Helmet
- How to Find Your Motorcycle Helmet Size
- Wrap Up
There are six main types of motorcycle helmets: full face, modular, open face, half, off-road, and dual-sport.
The full face helmet offers the most coverage around your head and neck and is considered the safest type of motorcycle helmet to protect you from potential impact. A distinguishing feature of the full face helmet is the chin bar, which is a key safety feature that many helmets lack. According to a study on helmet damage and motorcycle head injuries, the chin encounters fifty percent of severe impacts during an accident, and only a full face helmet can provide you with protection for your chin and jaw.
A full face helmet is a versatile choice for all riders, regardless of the type of motorcycle you ride or where you ride it. A full face helmet varies depending on the type of riding that you do. Sports riders have a crouched riding position and need a helmet that prevents it from lifting at high speeds, therefore, they usually opt for a helmet with a higher chin bar and a visor opening angled slightly towards the top of the helmet. However, tourers, cruisers, and adventure riders tend to ride with an upright riding position, so the helmet would have to accommodate it with a lower chin bar and a visor opening that is more direct and straightforward.
Most full face helmets have ventilation through the helmet to evaporate sweat, reduce visor fogging, and keep you cool while riding. In the colder months, the ventilation can be closed to reduce the airflow. New features have been added to full face helmets in recent years, including Bluetooth capable speakers, high-visibility color options and designs, and visors that tint and adjust to sunlight conditions.
Modular helmets, also known as flip-up helmets, are a mix between a ¾ helmet and a full face helmet, the reason being is that the chin bar and visor can flip up to open the front of the helmet. Materials and fitment are similar to the full-face helmet. They include a visor for eye protection, and occasionally include a secondary internal visor for additional eye protection from the sunlight.
Modular helmets tend to weigh slightly more than the traditional full face helmet due to the extra design hinge features incorporated into the flip-up front area. Rider safety is slightly reduced because of the hinge structure, as there is a slight fissure vs. a uniform entity of a full face helmet, but it provides more protection in comparison to the ¾ or ½ helmet due to the added chin protection.
The modular helmet is often used by tourers, cruisers, and adventure riders, as it is designed with an upright riding position in mind. The eye openings are more straightforward and the chin bar is designed to sit lower on the face. Bluetooth speakers are a welcomed addition, as well as a dual visor system and anti-fogging coating on the primary visor.
Open face helmets, also known as a ¾ helmet, covers the top back and sides of your head but leaves your face exposed. They are popular amongst scooters, cafe racers, tourers, and cruisers, as the face area is kept open to feel the wind on their skin. The distinguishing feature of a ¾ helmet is the lack of a chin bar, which significantly reduces the safety of the motorcycle helmet, as it leaves your face exposed.
Open face helmets are considered structurally equal to a full face helmet, in terms of safety in the areas that they do provide coverage. The weight is slightly less than the full face helmet, due to the absence of the chin bar, but it isn’t a significant reduction. In addition, because of the openness of the helmet, it does not protect you against weather condition and road debris. They either come equipped with partial or full face visors used to protect the eyes and face from sunlight, or it may require you to purchase the part separately.
Half helmets only cover the top of your head and the area from your forehead to your brows and provide minimal protection. Some may offer a bit more coverage on the back of your neck and ears but leaves the rest of your face exposed. Although the helmet provides great airflow, evidently, they offer significantly less protection than a full face or ¾ helmet, yet, you can still find half-helmets that are DOT approved.
Most half helmets do not come equipped with a visor or face shield, so you need to purchase eye protection in the form of riding glasses or goggles. There are minimal technological features, such as Bluetooth speakers, found on the helmets, as there isn’t any space for the features to be added to. Therefore, there are minimal upgrade options for the helmet.
Off-road helmets are designed just as their name suggests, to ride away from the streets and on dirt roads. They aren’t the best option for city and highway use, but ideal for places where knobby tires are a requirement. It has a different design than the full and ¾ helmets, equipped with a larger visor and more accentuated chin bar for better airflow. They typically are designed for maximum protection, minimum weight, and flowing ventilation for riding during the warmer months, so don’t expect lush creature comforts like Bluetooth speakers.
Off-road helmets usually do not offer eye protection, so the rider should be prepared to ride with glasses or goggles. If you’re riding in dirt or mud, goggles will be the preference as they can seal against the rider’s face to prevent debris intrusion from the bottom and sides while riding. There are many composite options available, including fiberglass, Kevlar, and carbon fiber. These materials offer great strength and are lightweight to keep your head and neck from becoming fatigued after a long day of riding.
If you plan to wear body armor or a neck brace, be sure to try the helmet on with the extra gear to be sure it all fits comfortably before you purchase the helmet. Also be sure to test your goggles with the helmet to ensure the goggles seal to your face well. Some helmets are shaped differently around the eyes and won’t fit all goggle styles perfectly. If one manufacturer offers eyewear and helmets, check for a matching set, if available.
Dual sport helmets are a mix between an off-road helmet and a full face helmet. It has an exterior styling similar to an off-road helmet with a large visor and lower chin bar, but offer more interior padding and comfort similar to a full face helmet. These are meant to be a halfway point between each style, as they are designed to be used both on the road and off-road.
The dual-sport helmets offer a larger eye protection visor that a full face, but it can also snap into an up position for use of goggles. The visor is aerodynamic, therefore, it does not lift in the wind like a true off-road helmet. The chin bar is not a protrusive as an off-road helmet, so there is better soundproofing and not as much airflow. That’s a great option when you mix terrain on the same riding day. Use the visor in the down position on the street to the trail, then snap it up for goggles and maximum airflow.
When deciding on the type of motorcycle helmet that best fits your riding style, it’s important to find one that meets motorcycle helmet safety standards. In the United States, a D.O.T. (Department of Transportation) helmet may be a requirement by law in your state. In order for it to be sold in the US, it must have the DOT certification. Other countries or regions around the world have similar certifications, and there are 3rd parties that offer certification too.
Most certifications are similar in what they test on each helmet, with slight variations on the certification values to meet or exceed for impact forces, energy distribution, and retention of the rider’s head. If you choose to wear a helmet, and you should be wearing one following the ATGATT mindset, make sure it meets the testing standard or goes beyond what is required for your location.
The motorcycle helmet is constantly evolving to keep up with technological advancements, including the use of lighter materials for reduced strain on the neck, additional padding for extra comfort, Bluetooth speakers to allow you to take advantage of your smartphone’s capabilities such as navigation, music or hands-free calling, and much more. Although motorcycle helmets continue to build out these innovative features, the core anatomy of motorcycle helmet has remained the same for decades. There are four main components to the motorcycle helmet: the outer shell, impact absorbing liner, padded comfort layer, and retention system/chin strap. The components of the helmet each serve a specific purpose and contribute to keeping your head safe.
- Outer Shell – The rigid, outer shell is the outermost, colored part of the helmet you view from the outside. Usually consisting of Kevlar, carbon fiber, polycarbonate, molded plastics, or a combination of those materials, its primary function is to protect your head in the event of impact or abrasion and to prevent penetration from outside objects, such as rocks, insects, etc.
- Impact Absorbing Liner – On the inside of the outer shell is the impact absorbing liner, typically made from EPS (expanded polystyrene) foam. The primary function of the liner is to absorb shock and displace energy during an impact. The outer shell keeps foreign objects from penetrating the helmet, while the inner layer keeps the energy of the impact from transmitting to your head. Some layers may be made from a single density foam, while other models include a dual-density layer (two layers combined) for added energy displacement during an impact.
- Padded Comfort Layer – The padded comfort layer is the area that your head rests against while you’re wearing the helmet. It typically consists of an open-cell foam that is covered in a second cloth material, designed to wick away sweat and keep you cool while riding. It is usually removable for cleaning purposes, and is interchangeable to accommodate different head shapes. Check with your helmet manufacturer to see if they offer different comfort liner shapes to best fit your head shape.
- Retention System/Chin Strap – The helmet retention system, also referred to as the chin strap, is secured below your chin to keep the helmet on your head while you ride. It’s made from a woven material and fastened with two d-rings to stay secured. When properly secured, the chin strap should only allow for two fingers between the strap and your chin. The strap is usually partially covered a similar cloth as the comfort liner to wick away sweat and for comfort, as it rests against your skin.
- Vents – The ventilation system on the helmet is meant to keep the rider’s head cool and to help evaporate off seat as best as possible. Ventilation is more prevalent on full face and ¾ helmets but can vary by type depending on the manufacturer. Most vents have the option to open and close for different weather conditions. You may want it fully open during warmer months, fully closed during cooler months, and somewhere in-between during other parts of the riding season. They are adjustable, which makes them a good option for each individual rider’s comfort.
- Face Shield/Visor – The face shield or visor is a safety feature meant to keep bugs, debris, and everything else out of your helmet. They’re usually designed to be removable for cleaning purposes or to swap out for another shield/ visor. They come in customizable colors and tints for different riding environments. Be sure to ride with a clear visor in low light levels so you can see the road and environment clearly.
- Cheek Pads – Full-face and ¾ helmets have cheek pads inside of the helmet that rest against your cheeks. They are removable for cleaning and are customizable to accommodate different head shapes. They are an added comfort feature similar to the padded comfort liner, intended to provide extra protection to your face and to help keep the helmet in place on your head.
The fit of the helmet on your head is critical to finding the best helmet for you. When you start looking for a helmet, you should take a measurement completely around your head just above your eyebrows. That will give you an idea of what size of helmet you need, from an extra small to an extra-large. Each manufacturer’s helmet will fit slightly different, so a small in one brand may fit like a medium in another.
You should always try a helmet on prior to purchase and checked for fit. When trying it on, the chin strap should be tight enough that only two fingers will fit between the strap and the bottom of your chin. You should not feel any gaps around your head, and the helmet should not be so tight that it’s uncomfortable.
You should wear the helmet for a handful of minutes to get the feel of it, and while wearing it you should attempt to move it around with your hands. Your cheeks should move as you move the helmet, but the helmet shouldn’t rotate or move in any direction without moving your head. Testing the fit on the chin strap means you should look down toward your chest, and try to push the back of the helmet upward. If you can push it up a lot, the helmet isn’t the best fit for you.
We’ve covered six main types of motorcycle helmets that you can consider when purchasing your first or replacement motorcycle helmet. Some of the things to keep in mind for your search include when you ride (warm months, cold weather, etc.), where you plan to ride (on streets or off-road), and what features you want in a helmet. Full face, modular, ¾, and ½ helmets are more geared towards street riding while off-road and dual-sport are a better choice if you plan to add some dirt and mud to your riding experience. Be sure to try on the helmet before you purchase it to ensure it fits well to the shape of your head, accommodates any extra eye protection you plan on wearing, and that it works with any extra safety gear. Helmets are the single most important piece of riding safety gear, and it needs to be up to the challenge of keep you comfortable in the conditions you want to ride in. Choose wisely and ride safe!