Monday, September 10, 2012


First in a series…

A professional acquaintance of mine – a Registered Nurse – approached me the other day brimming with chagrin or, perhaps, something else.  It seems her son had returned from overseas and, after having read portions of my blog (which, I believe she turned him on to), purchased a Honda 750 Shadow.  As all concerned mothers are, she was interested in him surviving this phase.  (After 40+ years of my riding, my mom is still concerned about my “phase.”)  The conversation steered itself toward riding gear.  I promised to gather some resources and share some thoughts, all of which prompts this short series of posts.

The most important single piece of riding gear one can use is a helmet.  Helmets are engineered to withstand and distribute tremendous force all in an effort to protect the rider’s delicate cranium better than the mere ¼ inch of bone matter with which we are all naturally endowed. 

I’m no expert, but it seems to me like the physics of a bare head hitting a freeway divider at 65 miles an hour are a lot more unforgiving than that same head encased in Kevlar, Fiberglas and thick foam padding. 

Helmets must meet regulatory requirements that have been established both in the US and Europe.  Two standards setting organizations are ANSI (American National Standards Institute) and Snell.  The US Department of Transportation awards "DOT" stickers to helmets meeting specific standards, but the Snell benchmarks are far more rigorous, so I look for that Snell approval.  While most (all?) marketed helmets meet accepted standards, there are styles of helmets that are inherently safer than others. 

Full coverage helmets are one-piece units that that fully cover the rider’s head from the top of the skull to below the chin.  A thick, padded band of the same material that makes up the helmet wraps around the lower part of the face protecting the rider in situations where one may be tossed over the handlebars and skidding along the pavement on one’s face.  Full coverage helmets have a clear or tinted visor that rotates into place protecting the eyes from bugs, debris and wind.  Full coverage helmets come in range of prices, but price should be the lesser of the buyer’s concerns.  Comfort, fit – it should be very snug, ventilation, and weight should enter into one’s thinking.  Mine is white in color because it shows up better and because it is cooler on hot summer days. Also, find one from which it is easy to remove the face shield for cleaning. 

Convertible or modular helmets serve as an alternative to the full coverage model.  Although they look the same as full face, the chin bar is hinged so that with a push of the button, the bottom of the unit can be rotated up and out of the way when safe.  “When safe" does not include while riding.  Modular helmets can only fully protect the rider at speed when closed.  However, when filling up or when stopping by the side of the road for a conversation, the flip-up nature of these can prove to be more convenient than having to take the whole thing off.  Convertible helmets used to get a black eye for product integrity in the event of impact, but manufacturers and enthusiasts seem to think this is no longer the issue it once was.  Modular helmets can be a tiny bit heavier than full face.  I wear mine on short trips around town.

Open face helmets are those units the more gentrified among us may have remembered as kids.  A.J. Foyt?  Indianapolis 500?  They lack the chin bar.  Snaps are provided around the front from ear to forehead to ear so that plastic eye protection can be added.  Open face helmets are cooler but do not afford all the protection that the full-face units provide.  I use mine only if I am driving around the block to dry the bike after a wash.  And once my open face helmet is worn out, I’ll not replace it.

Shorty helmets offer the least protection.  While many are padded like their afore-mentioned cousins, chances are that in the even of an impact, parts of the head and neck will be less protected.


Snell Foundation helmet standards:

How to identify unsafe helmets (from the National Highway Traffic safety Administration:

Enthusiast magazines offer product reviews on helmets from time to time.  Here are just a few of many, many magazine websites worth exploring:

Also: plugging “Motorcycle Helmet Product Review” into your search engine may access many on-line sources.

California has a mandatory helmet law for all riders of motorcycles.  Three years back, riding home from work, I-80 was clogged.  Rescue personnel had arrived, their bobbling red lights indicative that something up ahead wasn’t good.  To avoid the jam, I exited, taking an available off-ramp to an overpass and planned to use surface streets to wind my way home.  Looking down on the six-lane, medicos were just draping a green plastic sheet over a crumpled body recently moved away from the concrete divide.  Later, I found out that the victim had just rented the Harley he’d wrecked some three miles up the road.  In keeping with the law, he had equipped himself with a “beanie” style helmet, one that is thin in structure and that passes over the rider’s ears, offering little protection for the temple or the base of the skull.  Frequently this style of inadequate protection bears an after-market protest sticker reading “Helmet Laws Suck.”  The Church of the Open Road believes that being dead (or permanently disabled) sucks more.

© 2012
Church of the Open Road press


  1. OK, as a veteran of the freeway-wars of SoCal as an EMT/Ambulance-driver for about 3 years I can vouch for this: No helmet protects you against a broken neck. The most important piece of safety equipment lies underneath the helmet, and th
    at is the mind of the rider. Without due care and caution no helmet anywhere is going to help much. Having said that, there is still risk. The bike accidents I saw largely fell into two categories: a)the young rider showing off or going too fast, and b)the experienced rider getting hit by an automobile whose driver would always say "I never even saw the motorcycle." So, I'm not saying don't get the best safety gear. Do it! But then be as wary as possible. There are undoubtedly advantages of visibility and maneuverability for motorcyclists, but not having a layer of protective metal between yourself and an impact is a profound disadvantage that really should not ever be forgotten!

  2. IMHO the most important feature of a helmet is it has to fit well. You can buy the most expensive helmet or the coolest looking one, but if it doesn't fit your noggin' it's all but worthless.

    I've had helmets that fit great in the store, but after a few miles started hurting here or there with pressure points.

    Or, the ones that fit great at first, but once broken in are too loose.

    If you can try one on, then walk around the store for 1/2 hour or longer to see if it still feels OK.

  3. Proper and comfortable Fit is essential. If it hurts your head, you won't wear it.
    When that happens, the pavement hurts your head. Maybe a long time before that happens, but the damage can last extremely long.

    I have only found a good fit for my head in two brands of helmet: Shoei and HJC.
    Both are well-made, both are comfortable, both have excellent Certification compliance.
    There is NO doubt which is the better helmet.

    But dings happen. You set it on the rear rack while refueling, wind gust knocks it off to the pavement -- whatever.
    Supposedly a surprisingly few "minor" dings can significantly decrease the helmet's protective ability.
    At the price difference between the two brands, I am MUCH more likely to replace a dinged HJC than I am a dinged Shoei.
    Same thing with the aging of the helmet. I once babied a FF Shoei for 18 years because I was too cheap to replace it.
    HJC? Only a few years per.

  4. No two helmet manufactures make a helmet off the same mold. What I mean is that your head is not perfectly round and neither are helmets. So find a helmet that the fit contact is around most if not all your head. SNUG is good initially because there will be shrinkage in the liner. A just right cozy fit now, will probably be a loose fit latter. I prefer a helmet that meets more than just DOT standards. My head is better that that.

  5. Helmets? Full face offers the most protection. Also, be sure to wear the size you want in a store for at least 20 mins. That's how long it takes for "hot spots" to develop (for ea individual brand!).

    Really, when it comes to gear, in the MSF classes we always point out, if it's not comfortable "you'll find an excuse not to wear it".

    But conversely, the last thing we want to do is have something that's so "outsized" for us, it doesn't do it's job.

  6. Wearing a helmet is mandatory here, so choosing not to is not an option.

    I believe a lot of other factors, rather than just the safety score of the particular helmet have to be considered. For example, as I live in in an often hot climate where it may be 80F-100F when I'm riding, I prefer a modular helmet as I can open it as soon as I stop and I don't feel so hot and claustrophobic, it enables me to use my SLR camera easily and has excellent peripheral vision. I'm aware that as a modular it doesn't score as well as a regular full face of the same brand (Shoei) but overall I'm more comfortable in it and I think make better decisions as I ride and that contributes to my safety as well.

    Another factor has to include the price point as well. I buy moderately priced helmets and change them every 4 - 5 years. However, I have friends who buy helmets that cost twice what mine does, (citing greater safety)but then wear them for 8 to 10 years - which I don't think is so smart as the foam liner will have deteriorated.

    Like most things in life it's about choice, however, being well informed usually leads to better choices.

  7. I currently own a selection of helmets, 4 in fact - as opposed to just one. Maybe it's because I own a small selection of motorcycles - 3 instead of just the one.

    As already stated by others above, the fit of the gear is essential. In motorcycle land, price somewhat equates to quality, but that may not always be the case.

    For the record I would gravitate towards Arai, Shoei, Nolan and Shark based on personal experience.

    The other consideration is helmet style - full Face, flip top, open face or variations of those 3. For a beginner I would choose the full Face.

    For a beginner wanting a greater margin of safety, the colour of the helmet is also a key factor. motorcyclists are invisible to some road users. so go for Neon yellow or white are good choices.

    personally I prefer open face for city/ urban riding, flip top or full Face for open road distance riding. and all my helmets are dark coloured, not a shining example for beginners

    There are other 'aesthetic' reasons why someone opts for a particular kind of helmet, the look the want. Motorcycle gangs seem to have a penchant for WW2 German soldier styled helmets, cafe racers for pudding bowl helmets, and Harley riders would wear nothing but a scarf wrapped upon their noggin, and pirate style.

  8. Rider training is the best money for the buck. After that, riding gear last much longer.

  9. You've gotta take the course. I know that lots of us here didn't have that option when we started to ride 40+ years ago, but it was the first thing I did when coming back from my 30 year break from riding.

  10. A MSF course is a great place to start for the new rider and the RN. Many of the RN's fears will disappear if the course is taken. Who knows, maybe we would gain another rider. Many RN's are anti bike because of what comes through the ER.
    Most of the time, an anti-bike attitude is because of the actions and attitude of the 10% (or less) that give us a bad name.

    And for the gear, ATGATT.
    Buy the best gear that you can afford. This does not mean the helmet with the fancy graphics or the jacket with Honda's name on it. There are some great buys on super helmets if you purchase one that is a single color. Safety is is more important than fashion.

    YOU BUY WHAT FITS-NOT WHAT YOU WANT. My wife bought me a great helmet that is the same color as my bike. It is my back up helmet because even though it fits, my other helmet fits better.

    If you no choice but to ride today and YOU KNEW that someone was going to hit you, you would wear all of your gear, right? Gear and attitude should go hand in hand.

  11. "Mine is white in color because it shows up better and because it is cooler on hot summer days."

    That's important information for everyone. White helmets make you easier to spot in traffic, black helmets the reverse.

    The Wells study from New Zealand quantifies it: a 24 percent reduction in accident rate by switching from a black to a white helmet.