When it comes to bike helmet safety, it can be tempting to assume that all you need to do is throw on “any old helmet” and you’re good to go. Although there’s no disputing wearing a helmet is important, there’s a lot more that goes into it.
Wearing a bike helmet actually saved my life.
One moment I was turning around at the end of a bike trail, and the next, I was waking up on the ground. Without knowing it, I had hit a slick patch of painted concrete, causing the bike to slide out from underneath me. My helmet was the first to make contact with the ground.
I was fortunate. I walked away with a few scrapes and a torn hamstring. But if I hadn’t understood proper bike helmet safety, the outcome might have been very different.
While there’s no such thing as an injury-proof helmet, the following bike helmet safety guidelines will help improve the protection you get from your helmet.
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Why Are Bike Helmets Important?
Head injury is by far the greatest risk posed to cyclists. According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), cycling has the highest number of head injuries compared to all other sports and recreational activities.
And it’s not just high-speed collisions or accidents that are to blame for these injuries. Falling off your bike at slower speeds or even a standstill can also cause serious injury.
The good news is a study conducted by the International Journal of Epidemiology found that wearing a bike helmet significantly reduced the odds of head injuries, both serious and fatal. This is because much of the impact energy from an accident is absorbed by the helmet instead of the head or brain.
“The energy’s got to go somewhere—it can be your head or your helmet,” said Steve Rowson, biomechanical engineer and director of Virginia Tech’s Helmet Lab. Even in a slow-moving fall, “it can be the difference between life and death,” said Rowson.
How Do You Know if a Bike Helmet is Safe?
Bike helmets manufactured after 1999 are required to meet the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) bicycle helmet standard (16 C.F.R. part 1203). Helmets meeting this standard are designed to reduce the likelihood of serious injury and death from impacts to the head.
The easiest way to know if a bike helmet was tested and meets the federal safety standard is to check the label. This label is typically found on the helmet’s inner lining or chin strap. It’s required to include manufacturer information, serial number, month and year the helmet was manufactured, and a statement that the helmet complies with the above standard.
There are also other organizations that perform safety tests and have certifications for bike helmets, such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), and the Snell Foundation. Additional labels may indicate whether the helmet passed safety tests and received endorsements from these organizations as well.
Be sure to avoid helmets that have decorative elements like horns or mohawks. These elements prevent the helmet’s smooth surface from sliding after an impact and can lead to injury.
Lastly, bike helmet prices can vary widely. Just because one helmet is more expensive than another doesn’t mean it’s better. Because of this, the University of Virginia Tech put together a resource that provides a rating and ranking for 188 different bike helmets.
Is There a Correct Way to Wear a Bike Helmet?
The short answer is: Yes.
Understanding how a bike helmet should fit is critically important. One of the most common mistakes beginner cyclists make is wearing one incorrectly.
The first step is to get an accurate measurement of your head. The simplest way is to wrap a soft tape measure around your head just above your eyebrows and ears. Make sure the tape measure stays level the whole way around. If you don’t have a soft tape measure, use a string and then measure it with a ruler. Because sizing can vary from one helmet brand to another, be sure to check the brand’s fit and sizing charts before purchasing.
Once on your head, ensure the helmet is level with the front edge one to two finger widths above your eyebrows. The side straps should form the shape of a “V” under and slightly in front of your ears. If you have longer hair, it’s recommended to leave it loose or tie it back at the base of your neck.
Most bike helmets have a retention system with an adjustment knob on the back that can make them tighter or looser. This knob should be tightened until the helmet is snug but still comfortable. You don’t want it to move when you shake your head from side to side.
The chin strap should be centered under your chin and tight enough that you can still fit two fingers between the strap and the bottom of your chin. If you open your mouth or yawn, you should feel a bit of tension without it being too restrictive.
If you’re unable to get the helmet to fit, consult with the manufacturer or store where you purchased it. Do not add extra padding or parts or make adjustments that aren’t outlined in the manufacturer’s instructions. It’s critical that you do NOT wear a helmet that doesn’t fit properly.
What’s the Proper Way to Care for a Bike Helmet?
Bike helmet safety goes beyond just wearing a bike helmet. How you care for your bike helmet can significantly impact its safety, effectiveness, and longevity.
When cleaning your helmet, use a simple microfiber cloth, dish soap, and warm water. Avoid using harsh chemicals or products such as bleach, acidic cleaners, or scouring pads. Additionally, do not soak any part of the helmet in water. Both soaking and using chemicals can weaken and even damage the materials and adhesives in the helmet.
When storing your helmet, be sure to lay it flat. Don’t hang it by its straps, as this can weaken them over time. Also, keep it somewhere dry that doesn’t get too hot or too cold (like the trunk of your car). Exposure to moisture and extreme temperatures for extended periods of time can negatively impact the integrity of your helmet as well.
Lastly, avoid decorating (painting or applying stickers) or adding attachments or coverings to your helmet without first checking with the manufacturer. And definitely do not lean, sit, or stand on your helmet.
When Should You Replace a Bike Helmet?
There are several reasons to replace a bike helmet.
The first is if your helmet has been involved in a crash. Like airbags in a car, bike helmets are only designed to protect you against a single impact. Even if there aren’t any visible signs of damage, the foam inside the helmet may have compressed or cracked. Meaning it won’t be as effective in protecting your head against a future impact.
A bike helmet with visible signs of damage, even if it hasn’t been involved in an impact, is another reason for it to be replaced. Examples include a cracked shell or liner, missing pads or parts, or worn-out straps.
The age of your helmet is an additional factor to consider. Even the most well-constructed, high-end helmets are made from materials that naturally break down over time. Most manufacturers provide guidelines for replacing one of their helmets based on age. In the absence of these guidelines, the CPSC recommends replacing a bike helmet within five to 10 years after it was purchased.
If your helmet no longer fits properly, that’s another sign you should replace it. Over time, your helmet’s padding and straps can wear down and stretch out, causing it to feel loose. A helmet with a loose or improper fit may not provide the necessary protection in the event of a crash.
Lastly, you should avoid buying a used helmet. This includes using one passed down from a family member or friend. Because helmets adapt to the head of the original owner, it can lead to a loose or improper fit for another individual. Additionally, a used helmet may have been damaged or involved in an accident. This, too, can compromise its safety and effectiveness.
If you’re unsure whether you should replace your helmet, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and replace it.
Can a Bike Helmet be Used for Other Purposes?
The short answer is: It depends.
Just because a piece of headgear is labeled a helmet doesn’t mean it’s designed to properly protect your head in all circumstances. There are different types of helmets for different types of activities. Each helmet type has been designed to protect a person’s head against the typical kinds of impact found in the respective activity.
Bike helmets are specifically designed for impacts that may occur from falling off a bike. However, a bike helmet certified by the CPSC may be worn for recreational in-inline skating, roller skating, or riding a kick scooter. It should NOT be used for any other type of activity, regardless of how similar you feel the activity might be to the ones just listed.
It’s important to always wear a helmet designed and certified for the activity you’re engaged in. If you’re unsure whether your helmet is safe to use for a certain type of activity, make sure you consult with the manufacturer before proceeding.
Fortunately, most people aren’t ever involved in a bike accident that impacts their head. But if you are, you’ll be glad you were wearing the right type of helmet and followed the bike helmet safety guidelines laid out above.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I still get a concussion while wearing a bike helmet?
Yes. A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head, causing the brain to move rapidly back and forth inside the skull. Since a helmet is unable to prevent the brain from moving inside the skull, if hit hard enough, a concussion can still occur. Beware of claims that a particular helmet can reduce or prevent concussions.
Is it OK to wear something under my bike helmet?
Helmets are meant to fit snugly without anything between your head and the helmet’s inner harness. Wearing something on your head can push the helmet higher, affecting its fit and ability to provide proper protection in the event of an accident. That being said, beanies, skull caps, and cycling caps can be safely worn under a helmet as long as they’re made from a thin flexible material and don’t prevent the helmet from making contact with the head.
Are there different types of bike helmets?
Yes. Bike helmets are typically designed for specific types of cycling, such as road, mountain, triathlon, commuting, and so on. These helmets often have different designs and features that cater to the specific needs of each cycling type. Although bike helmets may vary slightly from one type to another, each is still required to meet the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) bicycle helmet standard.
How does a bike helmet protect my head?
A bike helmet protects your head by utilizing a combination of impact-absorbing materials, such as expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam, and a durable outer shell. The foam layer inside the helmet is designed to cushion and minimize the transfer of impact energy to the skull and brain. The outer shell helps distribute the force of an impact over a larger area, reducing concentration on any one spot. Together, these features create a protective barrier that helps prevent head injuries.
Am I required by law to wear a bike helmet?
Laws regarding wearing bike helmets vary from country to country. In the United States, there is no national bike helmet law. However, every state and city has its own bike helmet laws and regulations. In some areas, there are mandatory helmet laws that require cyclists of certain ages to wear helmets, while in others, helmet usage is optional for all age groups. When in doubt, always consult with the relevant authorities for your area.