As public awareness of the dangers of head injuries increases, more and more parents have come to appreciate how essential helmets are to keep their children’s developing brains safe.
There is, perhaps, no recreational activity in which wearing a helmet is more important than bicycling (or riding anything with wheels, for that matter). In Florida, all children under 16 must wear a helmet while riding a bicycle. But helmets aren’t just for kids. Cyclists generally travel faster on a bike than most people can sprint. No one would ever think of sprinting head first into a wall. For the same reason, you should never risk hitting your head against pavement at that kind of speed when you fall off of a bicycle.
In this blog post, we survey the bike helmet landscape as of mid-2019 and offer our thoughts on the best and worst bicycle helmets for you and your family. Much of our knowledge and many of the resources we cite in this blog post come from the helpful, informative collection of helmet safety information found at The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (BHSI), a non-profit organization that has advocated for bike helmet safety since 1989.
Why Bike Helmets Are so Important
As we mentioned above, you’d never sprint head-first into a brick wall. Riding a bike without a helmet risks a similar type of injury.
Of course, no one intends to get into a bicycle accident. So let’s take a look at why helmets are important for you and your family even if you think the risk of falling off of your bike is low. According to statistics gathered by BHSI:
- Cycling is by far the sports/recreational activity responsible for the most head-injury related emergency room visits annually in the United States. The American Association of Neurological Surgeons reported that in 2009, cycling contributed to head injuries twice as often as the next-most-common sports or recreation-related cause of head injury: football.
- Multiple sources report that more than 90 percent of people killed in bicycling accidents each year were not wearing helmets.
- The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that wearing a helmet cuts your risk of dying in a bicycling accident in half.
- More than half of all injured cyclists treated in United States emergency rooms every year are children between the ages of 4 and 15.
- The American Journal of Surgery concluded in 2016 that helmet use significantly reduces the risk of death, traumatic brain injury, and facial fractures in bicycle accidents.
Here’s the bottom line: a helmet reduces the chance that you or a loved one will die or suffer a devastating injury on a bicycle. And, as we mentioned above, it’s the law in Florida that every cyclist under 16 must wear a helmet.
Bike Helmet Basics
What makes a bike helmet a bike helmet? And what makes a good bike helmet better than a bad one?
To start, federal regulations issued by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CSPC) set the standard for what makes a bicycle helmet a bicycle helmet. According to the CSPC, “[h]elmets that meet a particular standard will contain a special label or marking that indicates compliance with that standard (usually found on the liner inside of the helmet, on the exterior surface, or attached to the chin strap).” Always look for this marking when buying a helmet. Don’t just go by what the helmet looks like. If it doesn’t have a marking or label saying it’s compliant with federal bicycle helmet regulations, it’s not, strictly speaking, a bike helmet.
So, that’s what makes a bike helmet a bike helmet. What makes one bike helmet better than another? That’s a tricky question, because some of what makes one bike helmet superior to another consists of its design, materials, and manufacturing quality, and some depends on the person who is using it. Let’s take a look at each of these factors.
Differences in Helmet Quality Exist, But Aren’t Necessarily Easy to Identify
Federal regulations impose minimum bike helmet quality standards. Many helmet manufacturers will try, quite sensibly, to exceed those minimums. And many arguably do through the use of innovative materials, design tweaks, and features that ensure the best fit for each rider (more on this below). Here is a primer from BHSI on how helmets are manufactured and tested, with an intriguing explanation of why there is no perfect quality helmet. And BHSI, at least, takes the view that how much money you spend is not necessarily an indicator of how good a helmet is at protecting your noggin.
Fit Makes the Biggest Difference in Quality
The CSPC emphasizes that “[t]he protection that the appropriate helmet can provide is dependent upon achieving a proper fit and wearing it correctly.” In other words, fit really matters. In fact, after ensuring the helmet is compliant with minimum safety standards, fit is the single most important feature in buying a helmet—more important than price, manufacturer, and (obviously) how cool you look.
How to Fit a Helmet
Here is how BHSI advises you to fit a bicycle helmet:
You want the helmet to be comfortably touching the head all the way around, level and stable enough to resist even violent shakes or hard blows and stay in place. It should be as low on the head as possible to maximize side coverage, and held level on the head with the strap comfortably snug.
That’s it: snug, level, and stable. The link above gets into these considerations in more detail, but that’s the bottom line. Nothing more is really necessary, but nothing less will do.
How to Find a Properly Fitting Helmet
Go to a bike shop and try lots of helmets on! Every head is a different shape and size. Some manufacturers make helmets better suited to one head shape than another. The brand, style, and foam that works for your spouse or child may not work well for you. That’s not just okay, it’s expected, unless your family members all have unusually similar heads.
How NOT to Select a Bike Helmet
The advice above seems simple enough, but because we live in a consumer-driven culture that values choice and options, it’s not always easy to follow. So, having told you about the simple principles you should follow in selecting a bike helmet for yourself and your family members, it’s time to point out all the ways you shouldn’t select a helmet. Here goes:
- Do not buy a helmet because it looks “cool,” and do not decide against the best-fitting helmet because it looks “dorky.” Those aren’t considerations you’ll care much about if you end up in an ambulance with a head injury the “dorky” helmet could have prevented. (Plus, we all look dorky in bike helmets—that’s just the way it is).
- Do not go by someone else’s recommendation of a helmet that fit them well. The only fit you should care about is the fit on your head.
- Do not buy a helmet just because it touts “anti-concussion” features. Helmets protect against catastrophic head injuries. There is significant doubt about whether they can prevent concussions altogether.
- Do not buy a used bike helmet. You just can’t trust that the helmet hasn’t already been in a crash. (And helmets that have absorbed an impact lose their effectiveness and need replacing).
- Do not select a helmet on price alone. A more expensive helmet isn’t necessarily the best helmet for you. On the flip side, it’s not worth buying a less-well-fitting helmet just to save a few dollars.
In other words (and yes, we know we’re repeating ourselves): buy the new, regulation-compliant helmet that fits you the best.
Yes, There Are Helmet Ratings
Readers may hoping to find some actual, honest-to-goodness recommendations for specific bicycle helmets here. They also may realize that based on the advice above, we can’t really recommend one brand or type of helmet over another. Helmets are personal items. So long as you buy it new, it meets safety specs, and it fits you well, it’s probably worth it.
Still, if you want the most up-to-date information from the bicycle helmet industry, there are ratings out there that purport to rank helmets. BHSI links to recent ratings by Consumer Reports and Virginia Tech, and compares their results to identify helmets where the two sets of ratings agree. But, as you’ll see, there isn’t a lot of overlap because of the relatively limited scope of testing. For 2019, BHSI recommends helmets made by Bontrager/Trek with WaveCel technology. But, again, fit is the most important feature.
Helmet Considerations for Children
Selecting a helmet for a child can involve additional considerations. The challenge is that children need just as much (if not more) helmet protection as adults, but it’s not always easy to get them to wear helmets or to make sure their helmet fits properly. Here are some thoughts on selecting a helmet for your kiddo:
- Do a periodic fit check. If you live in a seasonal environment where kids only ride bikes part of the year, check helmet fit when you take bikes out of the garage and re-inflate tires in the spring. If your child bikes year-round, check fit every six months or so. If the helmet is not snug, level, and stable on your child’s head, get a new helmet that meets those criteria.
- Pay attention to ease of chin strap use. A bicycle helmet will not do its job if it’s not secured with a chin strap. A chin strap that’s difficult to buckle and unbuckle may deter a child from wearing the helmet altogether, or may cause the child to wear the helmet unstrapped, which makes it pretty much useless. If the choice is between two equally well-fitting helmets, opt for the one with the chin strap your child feels most at ease securing and unsecuring.
- Bow to “cool” (but only a little). Children, especially teens, may resist wearing helmets because of the “dorky” factor. If the look of your child’s helmet encourages him or her to wear it more often, then it’s worth the few extra dollars for the “cool” design (provided, again, that the helmet meets the minimum safety and fit requirements discussed above).
- Skip the spikes. These days you often see little kids wearing bike helmets with spikes, horns, and other decorations that stick out from the helmet’s surface. BHSI advises against these decorations because they can prevent the helmet from sliding along the ground in a fall, and can cause head and neck injuries.
Ultimately, the rules for buying bike helmets for children are the same as for adults. But, if you have to spend more, or be flexible about the color or design of a helmet to ensure your kid wears it, then our advice is to bend on those considerations. The worst thing is for your child not to wear a helmet at all.
The WORST Bicycle Helmets for You and Your Family
In the title, we promised to talk about the best and worst bike helmets. We’ve covered what makes a helmet the best for you and your loved ones. Here’s what would make a helmet the worst:
- A helmet that doesn’t fit, or only fits “well enough.” It doesn’t matter how much you spent on it, or who else in your family it worked for; if it doesn’t have a snug, level, stable fit for you, then it’s no good.
- A helmet that doesn’t meet safety standards. If you don’t see the sticker or marking saying it complies with regulations, it should not go on your head.
- A helmet that’s been through a crash. Helmets are one-crash items. Once a helmet has protected your noggin in an impact, it’s time to throw it away and get a new one.
- If it’s really old. Your granddad’s helmet is not up to snuff.
- A helmet that comes from a disreputable source. A rash of cheap “name brand” helmets have hit the market. Unfortunately, they’re counterfeits, and they don’t provide adequate protection. If you’re buying online and the deal is too good to be true, consider taking a pass, buying from a trusted local bike shop, and getting the protection you pay for.
The Bottom Line: Helmets Matter
Keep yourself and your family safe when you head out on your bicycles this year. Buy new, safety-compliant, well-fitting helmets.
If you’ve had a bicycle accident and have questions about your legal rights, contact an experienced attorney.
Dolman Law Group
800 North Belcher Road
Clearwater, FL 33765