Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Knowing when a motorcycle helmet isn't safe

There are plenty of creative designs out there for motorcycle helmets. A motorcyclist can choose from eye-catching headgear that includes Mohawk hairstyles, Viking helmets, skulls, and comic book characters.

A stylish helmet is sure to appeal to a motorcyclist, but it can also carry hidden dangers. Novelty helmets often focus on looks rather than head protection, and may even include a warning to this effect. Other novelty helmets have been modified to make it seem like they have been approved as a safety measure when in fact they have not.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, motorcyclists were significantly more likely to be injured in a crash if they were wearing a novelty helmet than if they were wearing a helmet approved by the Department of Transportation. In a 2009 study, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration looked at motorcyclists who had been admitted to a shock trauma center in Baltimore between 2007 and 2008. While 56 percent of those who were wearing novelty helmets had serious head injuries such as brain damage or skull fractures, only 19 percent of those with a DOT-certified helmet had comparable injuries.

Some motorcyclists may purchase a novelty helmet because they like its appearance and erroneously believe that it offers head protection. Make sure you check the helmet for signs that it is not safe or has been modified to wrongly claim that it has been approved by the DOT.

Motorcycle Helmet differences

The DOT conducts annual tests to make sure that helmets will meet basic federal safety standards. Tim Watson, writing for the motorcyclist consumer organization RideApart, says these tests require that motorcycle helmets sold in the United States provide the minimum level of protection for a rider's head and brain in the event of a crash.

The tests put the helmet through plenty of abuse, including impact and durability tests. Once a helmet has been approved, it has a DOT label painted or affixed to the back to certify it.

Novelty helmets, by contrast, warn buyers that the helmet has not passed these tests. The Michigan State Police say these labels, located inside the helmet, may say that the helmet is not intended for street use or protection and that the rider should wear it at their own risk.

DOT-approved helmets also include warning labels, but these are related to basic safety. For example, they might say that the helmet should be fitted properly, free of modifications, and replaced if it is involved in a severe impact. There are several other ways to distinguish a DOT-approved helmet from a novelty one. The Washington State Patrol says the helmet's interior liner should be thick, often featuring at least a one-inch layer of polystyrene foam. You may have to feel for this layer, as it is not always visible. Novelty helmets will have no liner or will only feature soft padding for comfort.

Checking the heft of a helmet is another way to test its safety. Helmets that meet federal standards weigh about three pounds. Novelty helmets are considerably lighter, weighing one pound or less.

Look at the chinstrap to see how it is constructed. The chinstrap on a DOT-approved helmet will be sturdy and have solid rivets. IIHS says novelty helmets have weaker chinstraps which can easily become unfastened in a crash. The Michigan State Police says helmets come in three main styles: full face, open face, and "shorty." Full face and open face helmets are much more likely to have DOT approval. "Shorty" helmets, which are generally dome-shaped and cover the top of the head, are less likely to meet safety standards.

DOT standards do not allow helmets to have any feature that protrudes more than two-tenths of an inch from the surface. While items such as visor fasteners are allowed, longer features such as spikes are not.

Spotting fake motorcycle helmets

Nineteen states and the District of Columbia require motorcyclists to wear regulation helmets while riding. IIHS says that motorcyclists seeking to avoid these rules might choose to wear a novelty helmet instead, and may attach labeling that wrongfully asserts that it provides adequate safety protection.

One popular way to pass off a novelty helmet as a DOT-approved one is to create a false DOT label. This designation is painted or attached to the back of the helmet to indicate that the helmet meets DOT regulations, even though it does not. Helmets approved by the DOT currently require the letters "DOT," "FMVSS No. 218 certified," and a label with manufacturer's information. Prior to May of 2013, only the "DOT" label was required. This simpler designation made it easier for riders or unscrupulous dealers to affix a counterfeit label to a novelty helmet and pass it off as a regulation one.

The Washington State Patrol says checking the interior of the helmet will let you know if a DOT label is legit. Regulation helmets include a label with the manufacturer's information and may include labels from independent organizations such as Snell or the American National Standards Institute.

It is unlikely that a novelty helmet with a counterfeit DOT sticker will also have fake labels from the manufacturer or independent standards organizations. The Michigan States Police notes that these labels can help you assess the safety of a helmet if the exterior DOT label has been removed or hidden by a custom paint job.

IIHS says the NHTSA is proposing an update to its rules to make it harder for novelty helmets to be passed off as regulation ones. The new rule would clarify the definition of a motorcycle helmet by saying it will only qualify if it is manufactured to protect riders and distributed by a company that sells regulation helmets and gear.

The NHTSA is also proposing that federal standards be amended to require inner liners to be at least three-quarters of an inch thick and for the inner liner and shell to be at least one inch thick when combined. IIHS says this standard would allow police officers to easily check a helmet's dimensions with a caliper or ruler.

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