Surprising Truths and Myths on Motorcycle Helmet Safety

Every motorcyclist knows to wear a helmet. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been playing Jiminy Cricket and has been browbeating riders with the mantra since Easy Rider. And so, like mindless children diving under desks in fear of a Cold War-era nuclear explosion, motorcyclists gut their exhaust pipes, toss on a skid lid and solemnly advise, “ATGATT” – all the gear, all the time.

Motorcycle Helmet MisconceptionsYet with one exception, motorcycle fatalities have escalated for fifteen years as more people, from Millennials to Baby Boomers, give the finger to The Man and take to the roads. Helmets fly off the shelves, for what market has a stronger foundation than fear of death? And yet funeral homes remain well attended.

Cheap out!

Surprisingly, one possible reason for the carnage is that people purchase helmets that are too expensive.

In 2005, Motorcyclist journalist Dexter Ford published “Blowing the Lid Off” for The New York Times. He was subsequently fired by Motorcyclist for his audacity. His crime? He argued that Snell-rated motorcycle helmets, which are usually more expensive than DOT-certified helmets, are so stiff that they transmit too much shock to the skull and spine. Instead, Snell-rated helmets are best suited for high-speed crashes, where sharp objects would pierce lesser helmets.

However, according to the “Hurt Report,” a comprehensive study of motorcycle crashes in the 1970s, Average Joe Rider is most likely to wreck in a low-speed corner or in an intersection. The median crash speed is approximately 20 mph, which means that most motorcyclists are safer with inexpensive, DOT-certified helmets. In other words, a $10 helmet is not necessarily fit for a $10 head. Who knew? You can now settle for cheap motorcycle helmets along with your cheap motorcycle insurance!

Those who live free, die hard

Yet no helmet is any good collecting dust mice in a forgotten closet. In general, helmets are 37 percent effective in preventing fatal crashes, but less than 70 percent of riders wear a helmet. Those that do often don shorty skid lids, pygmy-sized half helmets popular with Sons of Anarchy armchair riders. Skid lids, beloved for their braggadocio, protect only the crown of the head; the sides and front are left exposed. Yet 25 percent of sliding crashes involve damage to the chin and cheek, and stripped naked of skin and sinew, bone disintegrates like paper through a shredder. Due to their intrinsic riskiness, half helmets are eschewed by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation.

“But I can’t see!”
“It’s so hot!”
“It looks silly.”

The list of excuses to avoid a full-face helmet runs longer than the Nile River. Most are easily debunked by a little something called science.

The myth: Helmets are like blinders on a horse.

The fact: According to the NHTSA, normal peripheral vision is between 200 and 220 degrees. By federal law, helmets must offer at least 210 degrees of vision. Crash studies have discovered few, if any, crashes due to abnormally restricted vision.

The myth: Helmets are uncomfortable and burn like the Sahara on a summer day.

The fact: A cursory Google search returns 27,000,000 results for the terms, “Motorcycle helmet.” With dozens of major brands available, any rider can find a helmet suited to his or her head shape and hair style. Riders who feel claustrophobic in a full-face helmet may opt for a 3/4 helmet or a modular full-face helmet, all three of which feature extensive air ventilation. Half helmets, so-called “brain buckets,” are an oxymoron, because anyone who purchases a helmet that covers as much skin as a baseball cap evidently has no brain worth protecting.

The myth: Helmets restrict vital traffic sound signals.

The fact: In a study conducted by the University of California of more than 900 on-scene motorcycle wrecks, not one rider was endangered due to a lack of hearing. Besides, consider cars. Luxury auto manufacturers such as Lexus and BMW stuff their vehicles full of sound insulation like Christmas stockings, and no one complains.

The myth: Helmets snap spines like matchsticks.

The fact: Unperturbed by details such as truth, science and safety, some motorcyclists lobby to repeal and prevent mandatory helmet laws. Their reasoning? Spines, in particular, broken ones. Citing a three-decade-old study by J.P. Goldstein, critics claim that the extra weight of helmets causes neck and spinal cord injuries. Recently, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine debunked that myth with a comprehensive examination of 40,000 motorcycle collisions. Ironically, the study discovered that helmets actually decrease cervical spine injuries.

When in doubt, shout crazy things As a last resort, many a leather-laden rider resorts to the de facto anti-helmet argument: the Bill of Rights. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom not to wear a helmet, proponents claim – first the Constitution, then emancipation, then suffrage, and now helmets. Here is the response of the U.S. Supreme Court:

“From the moment of the injury, society picks the person up off the highway; delivers him to a municipal hospital and municipal doctors; provides him with unemployment compensation if, after recovery, he cannot replace his lost job, and, if the injury causes permanent disability, may assume the responsibility for his and his family’s continued subsistence. We do not understand a state of mind that permits the plaintiff to think that only he himself is concerned.”

There are many myths shrouding the truth of motorcycle helmets, but one fact is impregnable: Safe motorcyclists wear helmets – all the time.