The best way to protect yourself while riding a motorcycle is to wear a helmet.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, helmets decrease the likelihood of death and brain injuries sustained from motorcycle crashes. Helmeted motorcyclists are about three times less likely to sustain traumatic brain injuries due to a crash than unhelmeted riders.
Motorcyclists are at a higher risk of being involved in a crash than closed vehicles like trucks or cars, and fatalities have increased over the years. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, motorcycle fatalities accounted for 14% of all vehicular accidents in 2019, as opposed to 6% in 1999.
According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), in 2016, helmets saved almost 2,000 lives. Helmets reduce the risk of death and head injury by 37% and 69% respectively. If all motorcyclists wore helmets, reducing serious injuries and death, the United States could save over a billion dollars of economic costs a year.
A universal helmet law requires all riders and passengers of motorcycles to wear a helmet. According to the CDC, having universal helmet laws are the best way to increase helmet use for motorcyclists and their passengers, which in turn leads to higher protection from collisions.
In 1966, in order for states to receive certain safety programs and highway construction funds from the federal government, states had to have universal helmet laws. However, by 1975, this was no longer the case.
Today, there is no federal law requiring motorcycle riders to wear a helmet. Only 18 states and Washington D.C. have laws mandating universal helmet use, while several other states only have laws requiring helmet use for riders under the age of 18 or 21. Ohio only requires riders under the age of 18 and any of their passengers to wear a helmet.
While there is no federal law mandating helmet use, the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have set safety standards for all motorcycle helmets that are sold within the United States. To meet standards, a helmet must have a thick inner layer, about one inch of polystyrene foam. A helmet must have a durable chin strap and must weigh over a pound. The design of the helmet cannot have something protruding more than two-tenths of an inch from the helmet’s surface. This means that strap fasteners are allowed, but decorative spikes are not.
Additionally, some states also require that the helmet have a certain amount of retroreflective material.
Motorcycle helmets come in several different varieties including half-coverage, open-face, and full-face.
The full-face design is regarded as the safest type of helmet as it offers the most head, chin, and neck support. As it covers the entire head, the wearer is also protected from outside factors like rain, snow, or bugs. A full-face helmet will have a chin bar which will keep your head steady in the event of a collision. Prices can range from anywhere between $50 and $4000. Beginner helmets will be on the lower side, while more premium helmets tend to range between $500 and $2000.
An open-face design will cover about three-fourths of what a full-face helmet does. An open-face shape leaves the front open, so you are able to feel the wind on your face. An open-face helmet is lighter than a full-face one, but there is no chin bar that can help prevent certain injuries. Generally more affordable than full-face styles, open-face helmets can start at about $40, with many affordable options in the $100 to $300 range.
Half-coverage helmets shield the top of your head, but not much else. Some will cover a larger portion of the back of the head. There will be plenty of airflow, but this design does not offer much protection. Prices for these types of helmets can start between $30 and $50. While they are less expensive, they are not recommended.
Finding the right helmet can be crucial in preventing serious injury. Helmets come in round oval, intermediate oval, and long oval shapes. Make sure to find a helmet that fits the shape of your head, not your face. Measure your head from the bottom of your forehead to the widest part of the back of your head. Use this measurement in comparison to a helmet size chart. The helmet should be a little snug and not move when you shake your head. The style of the helmet is also important. As previously noted, a full-face style will give you the most protection. Make sure that the helmet you choose complies with the Department of Transportation standards. There will be a sticker on the lower back of the helmet indicating that requirements have been met.
Look out for unsafe and misleading helmets! There are retailers that sell novelty helmets that do not offer sufficient protection. There are also fake Department of Transportation stickers that are sold. They are put on non-compliant helmets to look like they meet safety requirements. If you are unsure if your helmet meets safety standards, you can check the helmet here.
While price can be a factor in determining the helmet you choose, pricier helmets tend to be safer because they generally fit better and provide more comfort. This leads to the wearer being more alert and able to better focus on driving, which decreases the risk of an accident.
There is a common misconception that motorcycle helmets do more harm than good when it comes to neck injuries. A University of Wisconsin study looked at over 1,000 motorcycle riders who were injured from a crash. As Wisconsin does not have a universal helmet law, less than a third of the riders were wearing helmets. The riders that did not wear helmets suffered more than twice as many neck injuries than those wearing a helmet. Fractures and ligament injuries were more than twice as likely without helmet use. While there is always a risk, this study shows that it is generally better to wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle.