Everything You Ever Needed to Know About: Bicycle Helmets

Helmets are the most basic safety accessory a cyclist can have—a helmet can save your life in a crash. If you only get one piece of “gear” for yourself or your children, a helmet is the thing to have.

What Can a Helmet Do for Me or My Child?

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “Head injuries account for 62% of bicycle-related deaths, for 33% of bicycle-related emergency department visits, and for 67% of bicycle-related hospital admissions.” This means that head injuries are the number one cause of bicycle-related deaths and hospitalizations. Putting on a helmet can seriously reduce your chances of being part of that statistic. Instead, you’d be part of this one, again from the CDC: “from 1984 through 1988, if a presumed helmet-use rate of 10% had been increased to 100% (i.e., universal helmet use), an average of 500 fatal and 151,400 nonfatal bicycle-related head injuries could have been prevented each year “

How Much Do They Cost?

Don’t get too worked up about the price of your helmet. They range in price from around twenty dollars to several hundred dollars, but all are subject to the same basic safety standards. Three organizations have set the safety standards: the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the Snell Memorial Foundation, and American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM). Even the twenty dollar helmets meet the minimum standards of these organizations and will prevent you from suffering a serious head injury in the event of a crash.

Why the Difference in Price?

The primary reason for the wide price range has to do with style and comfort, not safety. Many expensive helmets feature extra ventilation, as well as more complicated fit systems. While a twenty dollar helmet might be adjusted for size by adding or taking out padding (which typically is attached to the interior of the helmet with Velcro), more expensive helmets tend to have some other fitting device, such as a plastic “fit and stabilizing system.” This is essentially a plastic band inside the helmet that can be tightened once the helmet is on your head to keep the helmet from moving around.

Where Do I Buy a Helmet?

Helmets are available for sale in big box stores, but usually you will only find the low end models in places like Wal-Mart or Target, though these stores tend to have a wide selection of child-specific helmets. I recommend going to a local bike shop to get a helmet, or at least to try some on for size. Shops tend to carry nicer helmets that will be more comfortable and easier to fit. Usually the shop is more than happy to order a helmet for you, too, if they don’t have exactly what you need. Bonus: if you read the rest of this and still aren’t sure if you can fit your helmet correctly, someone at a bike shop will definitely be able to help you.

How do I Make Sure My Helmet Fits?

Most helmet manufacturers have a size chart either printed on the helmet box, or on the company’s website. Additionally, nearly every helmet comes with fit pads that Velcro in to the helmet to make it more snug, and can be removed if the helmet is too tight. It is important that the helmet is snug so that it does not fall forward or back when jarred in the speed of a crash. If you can afford a helmet that has a fit and stabilizing system, it is recommended that you purchase one, as this is one of the easiest ways to prevent movement of the helmet on the head.
In addition to making sure the helmet fits snugly, it is important to be sure that the chin strap fits correctly as well. The straps should fit snugly, but you should still have enough room to open your mouth as if to speak or eat. The strap should also be worn under the chin, near the throat, and not at the end of the chin. If you haven’t worn a helmet before, this might feel uncomfortable, but remember, the whole point is to keep this thing on your head in a crash, which means it needs to be secure.

To double check the fit of your helmet, put it on as you would to ride. Grab the helmet with your hands and twist the helmet left and right. When you do this, the skin on your forehead should move along with the helmet. If it doesn’t, try adding more pads or tightening the fit and stabilizing system in your helmet.

What about Fitting Children’s Helmets?

Children’s helmets are often more difficult to fit than adult helmets. There are fewer high end models for children that include the fit and stability systems found in many adult helmets, and parents tend to buy a helmet on the larger side, with the idea that they can insert more padding and their kids will “grow into it.” The same fit guidelines apply for children, however, so be sure to buy a child-specific helmet that fits your child now, and take the time to be sure all straps and pads are in place so the helmet fits snugly.

When Should I Replace My Helmet?

If your helmet is damaged in a crash, it is important that you replace the helmet. While helmets can do amazing things to protect you from head injuries, they are not rated to withstand a crash after being damaged. If you aren’t sure if your helmet has been damaged, some companies (like Giro) offer free inspection of your helmet, and will recommend whether or not it should be replaced. If your helmet’s company does not offer this service, it is a good rule of thumb to replace the helmet if you have any doubts about whether or not it is damaged. Most companies recommend replacing your helmet every two to three years even if you haven’t crashed, because the materials helmets are made of will eventually break down, and helmets often suffer wear and tear from being banged around or dropped in every day use.

How Should I Take Care of My Helmet?

It’s a great idea to develop a habit of cleaning and inspecting your helmet every couple of rides. Because helmets are made of materials that can be broken down by many chemical cleaners, it is recommended that you use warm water and a gentle soap (like dish soap) to clean your helmet. While you’re cleaning it, look for any cracks, warping of the surface (caused from heat or sun damage), or other irregularities in your helmet. Store your helmet in a cool, safe place where it is unlikely to be banged around or take a fall.