Each year, more than 500,000 bicyclists are admitted to hospitals, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). Many of them are suffering from head injuries, which could be minimized or prevented by wearing a bicycle helmet Since 1999, all bicycle helmets made or sold in the U.S. must comply with CPSC safety standards, which require them to provide protection against a variety of test drops against different surfaces, according to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (BHSI).
If safety is your only priority, an inexpensive bike helmet will probably suit your needs just fine. More expensive helmets earn their price tag because they are lighter and have more ventilation, which appeals to serious cyclists who ride for hours. Although there's a lot of overlap, helmets are often categorized in the following ways:
Sport helmets are intended for all-around cycling use and are often the most inexpensive, usually costing around $30 to $50. These helmets usually have a smooth, rounded design with small vents. Many come with a detachable visor.
Road helmets, also known as performance or racing helmets, are the lightest and most aerodynamic, with very large vents to improve ventilation and reduce weight. Road-racing helmets are typically the most expensive, with some costing over $200.
Mountain bike helmets are similar to road helmets, but they're generally not as light or aerodynamic and have thicker straps to contend with the extra bouncing and jostling of rigorous terrain. They may also have small visors to keep debris off your face, although many road helmets now include visors as well.
Youth helmets often mimic adult sport helmets, but they are smaller and decorated in patterns that appeal to kids between the ages of five and 12. Many also have pinch-guard buckles to prevent the buckle from catching on a child's delicate skin. The top-rated youth helmets typically cost around $30.
Toddler helmets have more rear coverage for added protection, which tends to leave less room for ventilation. As a result, toddler helmets usually only have a few vents. Bike helmets for toddlers are usually decorated with cute, colorful graphics and also have pinch-guard buckles.
BMX helmets look very different from other cycling helmets. Some are like a thick, smooth cap, covering only the scalp, and some are bulky, covering the entire face down to the jaw line. BMX helmets have more coverage around the back and sides of the head.
Women's helmets feature more feminine colors and sometimes have space for a ponytail, but otherwise they're structurally the same as men's helmets. However, women's helmets usually accommodate smaller head sizes.
Not all heads are the same, and helmets will fit differently on round or oval head shapes. People with smaller heads may have more luck with women's or youth helmets. Those with larger heads have fewer options than in previous years, so they may have to opt for Bell's XLV (*Est. $40), which fits head sizes up to 25.6 inches.
Bear in mind that a helmet protects only the part of your head that it covers. In most crashes, the forehead and top front of the head strike first. Experts recommend buying a helmet that sits low on the forehead, about one finger-width above the brow. If you have a high forehead you may need to look for a deeper helmet or remove the top pads inside the helmet.
Whatever the size or shape of your head, experts say to make sure you get a helmet that fits. A well-fitting helmet should make contact with your head evenly and be comfortably snug, but not tight. Be sure that there aren't any pressure points (parts of your head that push more tightly against the helmet than other parts), as these pose a hazard in the event of a crash. If you feel pressure at the temples or forehead, then the helmet is probably too tight. Most helmets come with little adhesive pads that you can add to the inside to deal with any loose spots.
When evaluating a helmet's fit, experts suggest looking for the following criteria:
Level: A helmet should never be worn tilted back, exposing the forehead. Since the forehead is the most likely site of impact, it's imperative that your helmet covers the forehead. Position the helmet so that it is level on your head. (If you have trouble telling the front from the back, remember that the straps usually come from the back.)
Eyes: If you look up, you should see your helmet. If you don't see it, it's tilted too far back.
Ears: The side straps should form a V or Y under the ears, slightly in front of the earlobes.
Mouth: The chin strap should be snug under the chin. If you open your mouth wide, you should feel the helmet push down on top of your head.
Test: Once secured, the helmet should not move more than an inch in any direction when pulled, and it should definitely not come off. Slide a finger under the strap to make sure it's not too tight. If you can slide two fingers under, the strap is too loose.
Parents should recheck the fit on their children periodically. Children outgrow things quickly, and a helmet is no exception.
According to experts, helmets should be replaced:
In addition to the above considerations, experts say you should look for the following when purchasing a bicycle helmet:
In the U.S., the CPSC standard is the benchmark. According to federal law, all bicycle helmets made or sold in the U.S. since 1999 should conform to it and bear a sticker affirming it. The CPSC is not the only standard, but if you are overwhelmed by all the acronyms, this is the main one you need to remember.
The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) maintains safety standards on a number of different products, including bicycle helmets. It's a voluntary standard and is self-certifying, meaning that a manufacturer can claim to meet ASTM requirements without undergoing any testing. The Snell Memorial Foundation maintains safety standards on a number of different helmets, including those for bicycles. In order to be certified, a model has to be submitted to Snell for extensive testing and follow-up testing, and the manufacturer has to pay high testing fees. Snell is universally regarded as being the toughest standard, thought it does have more than one level: the B-90, which was issued years ago, and the more recent B-95. According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, the CPSC, ASTM and Snell B-90 standards are comparable. The Snell B-95 standard is tougher, but few models have been tested with it.
It is also worth noting that different sports require helmets that conform to different standards. A helmet made to protect you on a bicycle may be a liability in another sport, such as horseback riding. Some bike helmets have dual certification for cycling and skateboarding.