It was more than 100 years after the invention of the bicycle that bike helmets came into widespread use and another decade before safety standards for them were established. Although more than four decades have passed since the birth of the modern bike helmet, there's no law requiring adults use them and only 21 states mandate their use by children. However, as far as safety goes, helmets are unbeatable value as they provide indisputable levels of protection to the most important body part, the head.
The sad facts
Of the 817 bicyclists killed on the roads in 2015, the latest year for which statistics are available, only 17 percent were wearing helmets.
The victims weren't stunt-riding teens or children with little experience on two wheels: more than 88 percent of bicyclists killed are over 20 years old, with the average age of fatalities at 45.
The benefits of helmets
Let's face it: if you get thrown from your bike in a traffic accident, a helmet is your best protection against permanent brain damage or even death. Helmets are 85 to 88 percent effective in preventing brain and head injuries, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Wearing a helmet can also pay off should your injury result in a court case against an at-fault driver. Even though helmets are not required by law, it’s not unusual for juries to find adult cyclists negligent and reduce compensation for injuries accordingly if the rider wasn’t wearing a helmet at the time of an accident.
The right helmet for you
Choosing the right helmet depends on your riding style as well as your personal style. There are three basic styles of bike headgear, each geared toward different riding conditions.
Road bike helmets
These lightweight, aerodynamic helmets incorporate lots of ventilation to keep your locks from getting sweaty. The large vents are designed to keep you safe if you land on a smoother surface such as pavement. These helmets don't have a visor, offering an unobstructed view when crouched low over your bike.
Triathlon and time trial helmets
Triathlon and time trial helmets are also known as “aero” helmets. They aim for maximum aerodynamics with features like pointy backs and sleek design. Triathlon helmets often include magnetic buckles, clip-on visors, or other features designed to let you transition between sports easier, especially if you've got numb fingers from a long, cold swim. These helmets are designed to be used in competition where the rider stays in the low aero position for extended periods of time. Aero helmets are not a good fit for everyday riding as they often limit peripheral vision and their aero advantages are diminished when the rider is riding upright or looking down.
Mountain bike helmets
Helmets designed for mountain biking provide enhanced coverage for the back and sides of your head. The air vents are smaller and more recessed for protection when hitting the ground with uneven terrain littered with rocks and branches. Mountain bike helmets often include a built-in visor to protect the rider's eyes from the sun as many riders forego sunglasses when riding through sun-dappled forest with sudden changes from light to dark. A mountain biker sits more upright on the bicycle, so the visor doesn't obstruct vision. While they are made out of the same material as road bike helmets, mountain bike helmets are noticeably thicker and also provide significantly more coverage for the back of the head.
Some extreme off-road bicyclists and BMX riders prefer full-face helmets to protect the mouth and lower face in the event of getting pitched onto the ground. Built-in chin guards and full-over visors do a good job of deflecting flying debris as well.
Besides full-face helmets, BMX helmets come in classic cuts known as "peanuts" or "old skool" that have less ventilation but plenty of protection. A gull-cut variation on the helmet also covers the ears but provides slots for hearing.
Recreational helmets are usually less expensive than specialty helmets and sometimes incorporate visors. Some companies make helmet covers for recreational models that look like you're wearing your favorite style of hat. You can even change them depending on your mood and outfit.
Although you can certainly wear any type of helmet that suits you when you commute to work, commuter cycling helmets offer a few perks to make life on the road easier. If your bike to or from the office includes riding when the sun's not shining, look for helmets with a built-in headlight and taillight. Not only does it make you more visible to cars, it can help you avoid obstacles in the darker areas of your route.
The latest technology
Since 2016, some bike helmets include the Multi-directional Impact Protection System (MIPS) to reduce rotational forces that could be applied to the head during some crashes. MIPS is designed to address rotational impacts by adding a low-friction layer which provides an essential slip-plane.
A helmet that comes in the one size fits all variety is better than no helmet at all, providing you use the included inserts in the right areas to ensure a proper fit. Even better is a helmet made for your head size. Wrap a string or ribbon around your head about an inch above your eyebrows and then measure the length with a ruler or yardstick. Use the following chart to determine the best size for your head and adjust the fit with the helmet's sizing wheel to ensure a snug fit.
- Under 20 inches: Extra small
- 20 inches to 21.75 inches: Small
- 21.75 inches to 24.75 inches: Medium
- 23.25 inches to 24.75 inches: Large
- Above 24.75 inches: Extra large
Other than adjustable straps, most modern helmets have an adjustment mechanism that allows you to tighten the helmet around your head. These mechanisms come in many shapes, such as a ratchet twist knob or locking sliders. Make sure not to overtighten the helmet as it might cause excessive pressure on your head, resulting in a headache; adjust it just enough to where it doesn’t move around when you shake your head from side to side.
Preparing for anything
Although a helmet can protect your head from serious injury, you still might suffer other injury or damage to your bike. Get peace of mind knowing you're covered for damage, medical bills, and theft when you get insurance for your bicycle should a mishap or accident occur. Even with careful preparation, the worst can sometimes happen. Buying bicycle insurance is the best way to protect yourself should your bike become lost, stolen or involved in an accident any time of year.