What’s Up With Helmets?


If you have enough brains to protect, you will wear a helmet while riding a motorcycle. Unfortunately, there is a lot of miss-information out there about helmetst. Hopefully I can offer some advice to help you understand the issues a little better.

What Helmet Do I Buy?

You are probably a dirt biker, so it goes without saying that you will be wearing a full-face helmet. Except for the slow pace of trials riding, it is foolish to wear anything else. Forget the retro open face helmets you can buy, safety comes first.

The biggest question is which helmet you should buy. The selection can be mind boggling. Are expensive helmets better than cheaper helmets? First, the most important feature, regardless of price or safety ratings is how well it fits your head. You will wear a comfortable helmet because it is comfortable. When you take it off at the end of a ride, your hair might be messy but you head will not be sore from any pressure the helmet applied to your noggin. The helmet should feel snug on your head, and it should not move when you grab the chin bar and give a shake while it’s on your head. If the helmet rattles around even a bit while wearing it, you will be uncomfortable. Get a helmet that fits.

Helmets can range anywhere in price from $50 to $1500. Are the expensive helmets worth it? The answer is a definite maybe. If you can’t get a cheaper helmet to fit you correctly, then you really have no choice but to get the more expensive one. At one time, it seemed only Aria fit me correctly. Fortunately, I have found several others cheaper models that seems to fit just fine. More expensive helmets are usually made of higher quality materials, have flashier graphics, are lighter in weight and will probably last longer. So which helmet is better? All things being the same, is it better to replace your $200 helmet every two years, or your $600 helmet every six years?

In the past, the cheaper helmets where really bad. I did have a Bell Moto III back in the day, it was expensive at the time, it was nowhere close to the safety and quality of cheap helmet today. Now there are excellent helmets under $200. Look for end of season deals, and you can get a great lid for a great price. I used to have an old Aria Signet street helmet that I bought in 1990. It fit my head perfectly, and had no problems wearing it 14 hours a day. In fact, after over 10 years, and well over 100,00kms of use it was really starting to fall apart. The lining was falling out, the visor was scratched etc. I was shocked to see a replacement Aria was over $900! That wasn’t going to happen, so I went to the buy cheaper, replace more often route.

You can probably get away with wearing a street helmet longer, they see much less abuse but dirt bike helmets which see lots of smacks, hits and extreme conditions. A cheap, but well-made HJC will see the same hits as an expensive Aria, so they are likely to need replacement at the same time. An expensive helmet will not take more hits than a cheaper helmet, therefore is always better to ride with a newer helmet. For my money and my head, it’s better to replace your cheaper helmet more often than to wear an expensive helmet for more riding seasons. Our course if you can afford to replace an expensive helmet just as often, then do that.

What about the Safety Ratings?

I have some good news and some bad news. First the bad news. When I first started researching the three main standards for helmets, I figured it would be relatively easy to figure out what matters and what doesn’t for dirt bike helmets. I was wrong. The interwebs just added to the confusion of how these standards apply in the real world. And now the good news. Whenever you can’t find a definitive answer to a question like this, the correct answer usually is – it doesn’t matter.

There are basically three different rating systems for motorcycle helmets: DOT, Snell, ECE.

DOT – Department of Transport

The DOT rating is required in order to legally sell the helmet in North America. The testing itself is voluntary so it might be possible that a helmet with a DOT sticker would not pass the test. If you stick to known, quality brands this should not be an issue since manufacturers risk heavy fines if their helmets don’t meet the standard. That black plastic salad bowl with a DOT sticker that your friendly neighborhood cruiser pirate is wearing would be highly questionable. How good is the DOT standard? The last revision, FMVSS 218, went into effect in May 2013 and is quite comprehensive. There is nothing wrong with the 218 DOT standard for dirt bike riders.

The ECE Standard

The European version of the DOT standard is the ECE22.05. It uses similar testing to the DOT standard but adds other requirements such as abrasion resistance and the performance of the visor. The ECE test is mandatory for sale in the 47 countries that require it. Yes, it a more comprehensive test than the DOT standard but note the differences. For example, the abrasion resistance and visor performance are not applicable to a dirt bike helmet. The abrasion resistance deals mostly with how well your head will grind against the pavement, not a problem on a dirt bike. And well, dirt bike helmets don’t usually have visors. Yes, I did wear my Aria Signet in woods while dual-sporting. That’s when I learnt the value of using the right tool for the job and how much a helmet can weigh when saturated with sweat.

The Snell Standard

The Snell Foundation certifies helmets for manufacturers. They also charge for the stickers that get attached to the helmets. Between the testing requirements and the cost of the stickers, a Snell rated helmet is going to cost more money. The question, is it worth it? In my opinion, the answer is no. Most of the Snell tests apply to conditions you might expect on a road race track. Also, there is some controversy over the newer ratings as Snell tries to differentiate themselves from the other standards and maintain their sticker revenue. At one time, only Snell approved helmets were allowed on race tracks. However, this has now changed, with the ECE standard begin accepted everywhere including Moto GP.

The Standards Bottom Line

For dirt bike riders, it boils down to this. You generally don’t get better protection with a more “premium” safety rating like Snell. ECE or even plain old DOT is good enough.

When Do I Replace It?

If the helmet is starting to fall apart, it’s probably time to replace it. When the liner and internal pads start to compress over time, they tend to get loose and the fit, comfort and safety all suffer. What about after a crash, is the helmet still safe? If you have any doubts, replace the helmet.

There is a sure way to check if your helmet needs replacing after a big hit. Most helmets have the inner EPS liner painted black. Any compression in the foam from your skull will show as white cracks in the black paint. If you see these cracks, the foam has done its job by deforming so your melon didn’t have too.
I removed the comfort liner in my old HJC. Have a look and notice the white compressed EPS foam showing through the black. This is what a mild concussion looks like.

My Old HJC with a Compressed EPS Liner

If you have never had the pleasure of having a concussion, I will explain what happened to me. A couple years ago during a race, the track exited from the dark woods into a very sunny grass track, and then shortly cut back into the forest. It was a perfect storm of eyes not adjusting to the darkness, a sudden right-hand turn and several strategically placed trees that caused me to quickly pin ball back and forth until my forward motion was suddenly arrested by my head having an impact with another large tree. As I was getting up off the ground, I noticed several riders behind me were also experiencing a similar situation, but fortunately for them (and me in their path) they remained upright.

Even though I have many years of martial arts training, this was my first concussion. At first nothing seemed wrong. I slowly got up, nothing appeared to be broken (bike or body). Then the world started spinning when I tried to walk. You might have heard of the term “punch drunk” referred to boxers, and that’s exactly what it felt like. I could move, but any quicker motion lead to a spinning world. This was a similar effect to trying to get off a bar stool after a half a dozen tequila shots. My race was over, but I had an excuse to buy a new helmet!

How Do I Clean It?

Cleaning your helmet is not rocket science. First, remove the comfort liner if it is removable. Now is a good time to inspect the EPS liner for any of those compressed areas. I usually place the entire helmet in a solution of laundry soap and warm water in a sink or bucket. Some people use shampoo, but I need the extra cleaning power of laundry detergent to get the dust, bugs and smell out. Squish the comfort liner a few times to get the dirt out. Rinse thoroughly with clean water and you will be good to go after reinstalling the foam bits. I like to place the helmet over a heating duct on the floor to allow the air flow to dry out the helmet so I will be ready for your next ride.
I have also noticed, that the helmet just works better when clean. The comfort pads in the liner regain their compression after a good washing and the helmet will snug up a little and being released from their stinky goo.

New Tech

The MIPS helmet system reduces rotational forces on your head

The past few years have seen a resurgence of new helmet technology. The latest thing is tech that is designed to reduce the amount of rotational energy that that you head sees during a fall. There is a complete acronym soup out there around this including MIPS, MEDS, and ODS. Newer lighter shell designs, magnetic visor release, variable density EPS liner and other cool features are also available. Most of these items are available on the premium priced lids, but this tech is trickling down to the mid-priced helmets and are definitely worth looking into.

Bottom Line

• Find a helmet that fits, this is the most important thing.

• Don’t worry too much about the safety rating, DOT is good enough for a dirt bike helmet. Stick with a known brand, avoid the bargain-bin, no-name helmets.

• Its better to replace a cheap helmet more often than spending big money on an expensive one and replacing it less often. A fresh helmet is always better than one with a few hits.

• Look for deals on last year’s helmets. Some of the more expensive safety features are making their way into the mid-priced helmets, so shop around.

Leave your comment
1/15/2021 10:25 PM
I have never read anything with so much misinformation in it. I noticed your old HJC had a SNELL M2010 rating, would you have been as lucky with your crash with a DOT only helmet?  To suggest that after a hard hit, you should look at the eps liner to see if you need to replace is probably the worst advice out of all the bad advice in this story.