The margin for error in a crash is slim for motorcyclists. Wearing the right helmet can mean the difference between life and death. Maryland motorcycle safety laws require that all riders wear helmets. Helmets must meet specific safety standards defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Here, we discuss how to choose the best motorcycle helmet and explain the performance criteria outlined in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 218.

Types of Motorcycle Helmets

There are six different styles of motorcycle helmets — each offers varying levels of protection and safety.

  1. Full Face Helmet. Full face helmets are the safest choice, since they offer the best coverage for your head and neck. They also protect your chin, which has been shown in research studies to be one of the prime points of impact in a motorcycle crash. The front of helmets experienced severe impact in about 50% of crashes, the greatest number at the chin.
  2. Modular Helmet. Also called flip-up helmets, modular helmets offer full-face protection, but allow the rider to lift the chin bar and visor. The hinge adds to the overall weight of the helmet and reduces its safety slightly, since it adds a potential weak point. With the chin bar and visor down, however, it offers good protection compared to an open face helmet.
  3. Open Face Helmet. Wearing one of these “three-quarter” helmets is much like riding with a modular helmet in the flipped-up position. It covers the top, back and sides of your head, but leaves your face and chin vulnerable. This significantly reduces safety in a crash. Also note that an open face helmet cannot protect you from road debris or the weather as you ride.
  4. Half Helmet. Colloquially known as a “brain bucket,” half helmets do not offer much protection in a crash. They cover the top of your head, plus back of your neck and ears on some models. This means no protection for your chin or face. Still, there are some DOT-approved half helmets on the market. Note that many do not have visors or face shields. If you are wearing one of these while riding in Maryland, you also will need goggles or other suitable eye protection.
  5. Off-road Helmet. These helmets are typically light and while they meet the same standards for safety as road helmets, they are not the best option for road use. Designed for dirt-biking and motocross, these helmets feature extended peaks designed to keep the sun and debris off a rider’s face, and an oversized chin bar to protect the face from potential impact with the handlebars. While these helmets are popular in hotter climates due to their improved airflow, the large peak on the front of these helmets creates drag at high speeds, which can potentially injure the rider. Since most don’t offer any eye-protection, so you’ll also need glasses or goggles in Maryland.
  6. Dual-Sport (Hybrid) Helmets. Dual-sport helmets are a cross between full face and off-road helmets. They offer some of the properties of the off-road helmets such as a larger — though more aerodynamic — visor and lower chin bar, but the interior padding a full-face road helmet. Some people prefer them for their versatility, especially if they plan to ride on multiple types of terrain in a single trip out. 

Critical Safety Features and DOT Standards

Full face helmets are the safest style, offering the best head and neck coverage.

The U.S. DOT has defined the safety criteria for motorcycle helmets in the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 218, usually abbreviated FMVSS 218. All motorcycle helmets sold in the United States for on-road use should meet these standards. They take into consideration the helmet’s performance in these basic areas:

  • Impact. Can the helmet sufficiently absorb the shock of impact during a crash?
  • Penetration resistance. Can the helmet resist penetration by sharp objects such that they will not reach the rider’s head?
  • Retention. Can the straps that hold the helmet in place resist a reasonable amount of tension without stretching or breaking?
  • Peripheral vision. Does the helmet allow peripheral vision no less than 105° from the helmet midline?

In addition to these performance areas, protrusions outside of the helmet are limited to those required for operation of essential accessories and shall not protrude more than 5mm. Helmets that meet or exceed all these standards will display a DOT label. Some manufacturers also submit helmets for testing through private, nonprofit organizations such as Snell or the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Stickers from these organizations are also a good indicator of helmet safety quality.

What to Look for When Buying a Motorcycle Helmet

Aside from the DOT sticker, you should look for the following features in a safe motorcycle helmet.

  • Weight. One of the first things most people notice about unsafe helmets is how light they are. A safe helmet will feel substantial and will likely weigh at least three pounds if it complies with all the DOT performance standards. Unsafe helmets might weigh less than a pound.
  • Construction and Design. A safe motorcycle helmet will have solid rivets, a sturdy chin strap and should not have any protrusions more than 5mm that are not critical to the functionality of the helmet. Novelty helmets with horns or other decorations are not safe.
  • Inner Lining. The inner lining of a compliant motorcycle helmet is usually at least an inch thick and should feel firm when you squeeze it. If there is no lining, just a thin layer, or if the lining feels mushy, like a soft-foam padding, it’s unlikely to be a safe helmet.
  • Manufacturer’s Labeling. By law, manufacturers can only sell motorcycle helmets in the United States that comply with DOT standards. To keep them accountable, the law requires the manufacturer to label the helmet with their name, the model, size, month, year, and materials. If this label is missing, this is a red flag that it’s not a safe helmet. In this case, you should be suspicious that DOT stickers or other safety credentials are fake and that it is just a novelty helmet.

Always Wear Your Helmet

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, motorcyclists wearing a helmet are three times less likely to die from fatal head injuries in a crash. You should always wear your helmet, no matter how short the ride or how slow the speed. Even a low-speed crash can be devastating on a motorcycle.