Updated: Jun 10, 2022
How do you make sure you buy the right crash helmet – and why does it matter so much? Here are the three things you should consider when shopping. But first, the parable...
Everyone who's crashed a motorcycle should understand why helmets are so important. I'd been riding for only two or three years when a car pulled out in front of me on City Road in Islington. I had enough warning to do a full emergency stop, grabbing the clutch at the last second with enough force that I pivoted over the top at the moment of impact, snapping a bone in my hand. I cracked the car's windscreen with my head as I landed on the bonnet. I was concussed, but no worse. Fast-forward 15 years to my next crash when I managed to break a great many more bones despite, again, landing on my head. I was concussed, again – but in both crashes, the only thing that saved me from a far worse head injury was that each time I was wearing a decent helmet that fitted me correctly.
1. Choose the right type of helmet
This is a fairly simple choice: full face; flip-front; or I-like-the-taste-of-flies open face. This is really about personal preference, though I dislike eating bugs plus I have a morbid fear of scraping my chin open on tarmac – I did that on a Raleigh Chipper when I was six; I don't want to do it on anything with a motor – so I'm not a fan of open-face lids. But that's just me.
Flip-fronts can be hugely useful – for petrol stations and just talking with people (especially when instructing). On hot days, at low speeds, it can be pleasant to ride with the front flipped up. Note though that not every flip-front helmet is rated for being ridden with the chin-bar raised. Suitable ones are referred to as "dual-homologated" and will have a "P/J" rating. If the label on the chin strap ends with just a "P" it is only approved for riding use with the chin bar lowered and locked. Full-face lids are naturally more secure as the lower face is always protected by the chin bar.
If you have an adventure bike, there is on more choice to consider: do you want a peak? In their favour, peaks can be useful for shading the sun, diverting water and potentially saving your nose if you face-plant on a green lane – plus they look more "let's off-road". Against them, some can be noisy at speed, if the wind catches them (especially as you turn your head) there can be a bit of a tug, plus if you have another bike of a different style, it'll look a little out of place: peaky lid and sportsbike? That's like ballgown and wellies...
Though I do also wear a flip-front helmet, especially when instructing, I'm happiest and feel most secure in a full-face helmet. I've been wearing Shark helmets for more than 15 years. I was wearing a Shark in my big 2006 crash and I've trusted them ever since.
2. Safety and features
Every motorcycle helmet has to be safe to ride in, or it can't legally be sold. So they're all the same, right? No. All helmets have to meet a minimum ECE22.05 standard, but they are definitely not all equal. The UK government runs a separate testing scheme called SHARP that rates legally sold helmets on a one-start to five-star basis (find the results here). A new, more stringent ECE22.06 standard has recently been introduced and we can expect to see more helmets going for that rating. My advice is: always look for a SHARP five-star helmet – like my latest Shark Race-R Pro.
But helmets aren't just about impact protection. After all, like insurance, that's something we hope never to need to test. You have to be able to live with a lid – and the huge range of prices is a result of variations in spec, build quality and features. As a very loose, borderline libelous guideline, cheap lids will have fewer or worse features and lower build standards; expensive ones will have hi-tech materials, well-developed features that work, and will be finished better. So find one with the features and spec you need.
Start with the shell. The best ones will be made of fibre – either 100% carbon fibre or a mix of aramid-type fibres for strength with low weight. Budget helmets will use injection-moulded polymers, making them much weightier. If you can afford a fibre shell, get one. My Shark Race-R Pro is a multi-fibre construction and amazingly light as a result.
Liners are the next key area to look at. Helmets work with a hard outer shell, a layer of expanded polystyrene (EPS) to absorb impact, then a "comfort" liner that is actually there to make sure your head stays in the right place within the helmet – comfort is its secondary job. Top-end lids often use complex EPS liners with variable densities to improve their ability to absorb impact.
The best lids will have liners that are plush, pleasant and – importantly – removeable for cleaning. With some helmets (usually racing-derived models) it's possible to order replacement cheek pads of different thicknesses to fine-tune the fit. The Race-R Pro's liner also has an adjustable chin curtain to help reduce wind noise. It all comes out for cleaning – and as all liners compress with use, these can even be replaced to keep an as-new fit, which I've generally done after about 20,000 miles in previous Sharks.
Perhaps the hardest thing to assess when looking at a helmet in a shop is the effectiveness of the venting: you really only learn about that when riding. My cycincal expectation is that it's going to be iffy or virtually non-existent on budget gear but top-end helmets – which will have had wind-tunnel development and feedback from sponsored racers – will generally have decently effective venting. That's certainly the case with my Shark.
An easier decision is on the fastening mechanism you want to use. Most flip-front and many budget helmets use some kind of quick-release system, whether it's a ratchet or seat-belt-type clasp. Most race-derived helmets use the traditional double D-ring fastener. That has the advantage of being optimally adjusted every time you put it on. The quick-release systems can be just as safe – as long as they're checked and adjusted regularly to keep them fitting securely, as they can slowly work loose over time.
The final bit of spec to consider is the visor. One of the things I like most about the Shark is the thickness of the visor: it feels bulletproof. Because the Race-R Pro is – clue's in the name – a race helmet, there's no drop-down sun visor but the mechanism for changing between clear and dark lenses is simple (I can swap visors without taking the helmet off), it's easy to adjust for a perfect seal and it locks closed.
As this model is track-focued, there's no Pinlock – to avoid having any seams interrupting the view through the visor. That's never been a problem for me as, between the anti-fog treatment and excellent venting, misting up isn't an issue. However, when looking for a new lid it is important to consider if that's important. Certainly, I'd always want a Pinlock in a flip-front helmet (and I'd want it included in the price – not an extra...)
So checking the spec and picking the features you need should guide you towards a short-list of suitable lids. But there's only one way to get the right helmet...
3. Check the fit
There is only one way to make sure a helmet fits properly – and that's to put it on. Ideally you should keep it on for at least 15mins, but half an hour is better. If it pinches or puts pressure on any part of your head, it's not for you. The reality is not everyone can wear every helmet – I remember being desperate for a Norick Abe replica and trying one on for about two minutes was enough to show that I just had the wrong-shaped bonse for it.
Never try to convince yourself that a helmet will bed in or get better. It won't. If it's leaving red marks or causing discomfort on a short test, it'll give you a headache when you ride, ruin your concentration (which is dangerous) and spoil your fun – you can't enjoy a ride when the crash helmet is hurting your head. It also likely won't protect you properly... if you need it.
But while a helmet can't be too tight, it does have to be a really snug fit. So put it on, do up the chin strap and then wiggle it around. Move it up and down: it shouldn't move more than the skin on your forehead stretches; if the chinbar covers your eyes, it doesn't fit. Turn it side to side: if it moves more than your cheeks stretch – if it spins round – then it doesn't fit. Finally, hold the back of the helmet in both hands and try to roll it forwards off your head; if it comes off then it clearly doesn't fit... This probably means you need a smaller size, but it may be that the range you're looking at just doesn't suit the shape of your head.
How much is too much?
So that's the bit I haven't touched on. What to spend. Because everyone has a different budget – and while my Shark Race-R Pro is a top-end, high-spec helmet that I feel I need because I ride bikes for a living, I know not everyone can justify the expense of a high-end helmet.
A friend of mine always uses the line, "If you have a £50 head, get a £50 crash helmet" which is harsh... but the reality is that the more you ride, the more important your lid is. More than any piece of kit, it defines your riding experience and it has probably the most important job to do if you come off. So it's always worth saving up for a good helmet – but making a good purchase means selecting the right lid with the right features and the best fit. The ideal one for you might not even be the most expensive one on your short-list.
• Please note this is not a standard paint scheme. I've always run the yellow-with-black-stripes since wearing sharks. Since leaving the magazine world, I have to pay for this luxury... This latest awesome design is from 3six2seven – check them out on Twitter.
• For info about the Shark range click here or visit your local high-quality helmet dealer.