Frequently Asked Questions
About Bicycle Helmets
Summary: We get these questions a lot. Each answer has pages of information behind it if you want more detail.
What is the Best Helmet to Buy?
Your first concern should be finding a helmet that fits your individual head. You may have to try on several brands to find one that fits your own head well. Pick one that is round and smooth on the outside without snag points. Then make sure it has a CPSC standard sticker inside, required by law in the US since 1999. Next is wearability: you can see the vents and feel the comfort. Select a bright color for visibility. We don't have to tell you to check the price tag. Consumer Reports has helmet rating articles every two or three years, and we have a review up of the most recent one. They can only test a small fraction of the models on the market. They find that the best performers are not usually the most expensive models. We think you can do just as well by finding a helmet that fits you well and is round and smooth on the outside.
The best child helmets are light and ventilated, with impact protection equal to adult helmets and more coverage in the rear required by the CPSC standard. For kids over 5, a small adult helmet works fine. There are no tiny helmets available because nobody recommends riding with a child under one year old, whose neck structure and brain are just not ready yet. If in doubt, take helmet and child to a pediatrician and ask. Kids don't want to look like geeks, so let them pick their helmet out for best acceptance, just as you would for an adult. The helmet should have a CPSC standard sticker inside. Consumer Reports always rates some child helmets in their articles.
What Helmet Should I Buy for my Child?
Coolness depends on ventilation, and that depends mostly on the size of the front vents, whatever the ads may say. Consumer Reports publishes coolness ratings in their articles, but don't cover very many helmets. Generally you can look at a helmet's front vents and judge its ventilation. Most riders will not need all the vents you see in the most expensive models.
What is the Coolest Helmet?
Prices are low at many stores now. Wal-Mart and Target discount stores have smooth, round, helmets meeting the CPSC standard on sale regularly starting at $10, with better-fitting designs starting at about $15 to $30. Most other discount stores also have good helmets under $30. Local bike shops have major brands for $35 to $150, with discounts available on the Internet. They all have the same CPSC certification for impact and strap performance. Cheaper helmets are plainer, have smaller vents and may lack a rear stabilizer, but some perform better in impact tests than the most expensive models with huge vents and less foam. We still recommend buying your first helmet at a bike shop, for help with fitting.
Where can I get my helmet cheap?
In past helmet articles, Consumer Reports has rated the most expensive helmets they tested below most of the cheaper models. We don't have lab test data on all the helmets out there. In the US, all of them are required by law to meet the same CPSC impact standard. If money buys you a better fit, with more stability on your head in a hard crash, then the more expensive helmet is worth it. If it just buys you a spiffy-looking, squared-off, poorly-rounded exterior with excessive vents, foam that is too hard trying make up for that, and points to snag, definitely not.
Is a cheap helmet as good as an expensive one?
For best protection you want the helmet level and low on your head. So put thin pads in the top, or no pads at all. Adjust the side pads so that the helmet touches all the way around at the brim. Then adjust the straps so that the V on the sides meets just below your ear, and the chin strap is just snug against your chin but not too tight. Now shake your head. Then put your palm under the front edge and push up and back. Can you move the helmet more than an inch, exposing your bare forehead? If so, shorten the strap just in front of your ear, and loosen the rear nape strap behind your ear. The two straps should still meet just below your ear. Now reach back and grab the back edge. Pull up. Can you move the helmet more than an inch? If so, shorten the nape strap. If the front bumps on your glasses or sunglasses, tighten the nape strap. Now your helmet should be level, solid on your head and comfortable. You should forget you are wearing it most of the time, just like a seat belt or a pair of good shoes.
Does This Helmet Fit Me as Well as it Should?
Some straps creep and loosen after only one ride. We suggest buying a helmet with standard-width straps, not the skinny ones. You can add little rubber bands or o-rings to the straps to slide up against the buckle when it is adjusted right to lock it. And after you get your helmet adjusted perfectly, you can sew the strap ends in place.
How can I prevent "strap creep?"
You must replace the helmet after any crash where your head hit. The foam part is made for one-time use, and after crushing once it is no longer as protective as it was, even if it still looks intact. Plastic shells can hide the foam damage, although there are usually at least some scrape marks on the outside. A few helmets made of EPP foam--mostly skate-style helmets--do recover. If in doubt, contact the manufacturer for an inspection. If your helmet is more than 10 years old or has a cloth cover, we recommend that you replace it. Many manufacturers recommend replacement every five years, but some of that is just marketing. Deterioration depends on usage, care, and abuse. If you ride thousands of miles every year, five years or even less may be right, but for most people it's probably too soon.
When Should I Replace My Helmet?
When you crash and hit a hard surface, the styrofoam part of a helmet crushes, controlling the crash energy and extending your head's stopping time by about six thousandths of a second (6 ms) to reduce the peak impact to the brain. Thicker foam is better, giving your head more room and more milliseconds to stop. The squishy fitting pads are for comfort, not impact. The impact is so hard and sharp that squishy foam just bottoms out immediately. A smooth plastic skin holds the helmet's foam together as it crushes and helps it skid easily on pavement, rather than jerking your head to a stop. Rounder, smoother helmets are safer, since they skid more easily. The straps keep the helmet on your head even after the first impact with the car. A helmet must fit well and be level on your head for the whole head to remain covered after that first impact. The outside should be a bright color for visibility in traffic. Reflective trim is useful at night to help you be seen, but you still need lights on your bike.
How does a helmet work?
Twenty-two states: Alabama, California, Connecticut, Delaware, DC, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee and West Virginia, including the District of Columbia require helmets for some riders, usually under age 16. So do over 201 cities and counties. We have the current list up. More than a half of the under-16 population of the U.S. lives in one of those states or cities. Enforcement is rare, and helmet acceptance is probably too low for compulsory laws to work well at present in most areas. New Jersey reported a 60% reduction in fatalities for the age group covered in the five years after they adopted their law.
Who Has Compulsory Helmet Laws? Do they work?
Prices are rising a bit as the economy recovers, but discounts are available. There are more bright colors, following the brighter colors in the car and fashion clothing markets. Some helmets with oversized vents are very cool but have less foam in contact with your head, which could concentrate crash forces. Some have easier strap adjustments and many have rear stabilizers to improve fit. At the higher end, many designs still have sharper, squarer lines, departing from the rounder, smoother, safer shape still found in skate helmets. But the newer "compact" models have better profiles. There are helmets made for downhill mountain bike racing with face protection. A few manufacturers produce "multi-sport" or dual-certified helmets, for biking and skateboarding but most are just bike helmets with more labels. The CPSC impact and strap strength standard is legally required for all bicycle helmets, but not for skateboard helmets. Helmets are cool, cheap and effective, and this is a good year to be buying one. There is no radical new technology coming or any other reason to delay buying or upgrading a helmet this year. But there is no compelling reason to upgrade if your current helmet meets the CPSC standard and is still meeting your needs.
11. What's New in Helmets?
12. What is the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute?
BHSI (pronounced "busy") began in 1974 as the Helmet Committee of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. It became BHSI in 1989, in hopes of setting up our own lab test facility. That did not happen, but the rest of the program did, and we are very active. We put our Web server up in 1995, and are now logging over 800,000 visitors a year. We produce pamphlets, an email newsletter, workshops, a Toolkit for Helmet Promotion programs including a program manual, and a comparison of bicycle helmet standards around the world, all available on the Web when you need them. We are members of the ASTM helmet standards committee and attend all committee meetings. We brief press people, answer inquiries and help students doing research. We are volunteers, and our annual budget is less than $12,000. We do not accept any funding from the helmet industry or retailers. We are supported by small donations from consumers that go directly into program expenses such as maintaining and updating our Web site, communications, research and attending helmet standards committee meetings. You can check out our budget and our program for the year too. There is more info on how we operate on our Can You Trust This Site page.
We are easy to reach by email or by telephone at 703-486-0100.
This page was last revised on: January 1, 2013.