When I was a boy growing up in Oklahoma, we called them “Brain Buckets” or “Skid Lids.” I am talking about motorcycle helmets. It was more of an observation than an experience. The helmets I remember seeing are the World War II military style helmets riders would wear. They seemed to be more for show than protection.
An article I wrote in 2009 was titled “Learning the value of a helmet the hard way.” That article related how I didn’t think I needed a helmet because I planned to only do easy trail riding.
That all changed when I came off a steep dune in the Hurricane Sands and buried my head in the sand to my shoulders with my ATV on top of me. The fact that I could have wound up seriously injured changed my mind about wearing a helmet.
I was recently in touch with Greg Kopf, brand ambassador for POWERSPORTSiD, a well-established online parts and equipment store for on- and off-road vehicles. While I knew something of helmet technology, he brought me up to date on the latest developments.
Kopf said, “During the early days of riding, safety gear was a luxury, not a requirement, and typically worn by motorcyclists.” He went on to explain that the first helmets used thick bonded leather. “They didn’t seem all that safe by today’s standards, but when they were introduced, motorcycle death rates dropped dramatically.”
“In 1941, the British designed the first hard-shelled crash helmet, which proved to be far superior to the leather design,” Kopf said. U.S. researchers improved on that design until technology has evolved into what is offered on the market today.
Along with design technology came regulations. In 1974, all motorcycle helmets were required to meet Department of Transportation (DOT) standards. Even though these are the minimum requirements for helmet safety, the testing is quite extensive.
Kopf said, “The DOT uses independent contractors to test all helmets to avoid bias, and they test helmets at random.” In addition to impact tests, helmets are inspected for ample padding, thickness and adequate field of vision. In Utah, anyone who rides on or in a motor powered machine, including a motorcycle, ATV or UTV, must wear a DOT-rated helmet as long as they are under the age of 18.
Another certification is available from the Snell Memorial Foundation. If you find a helmet with a Snell certification, that helmet has the highest level of protection available. “A helmet with this certification has undergone rigorous testing far more extensive than your standard DOT testing with tighter tolerances,” Kopf said.
European countries use two other types of certifications: the Economic Commission of Europe (ECE) and the Safety Helmet Assessment and Rating Program (SHARP). Because these are less stringent, I look for DOT and Snell certifications when I buy a helmet.
Three styles are available to riders when choosing a helmet: open face, full face and modular. The open face design is adequate for riding in a UTV because of the added protection a UTV provides. A full face helmet is recommended for ATV riders where less protection is available. Both of these types require eye protection by some style of goggles. The modular design is most commonly used by motorcycle riders you have seen on the highway. Eye protection is built in to this type of headgear, where the front of the helmet or a visor flips up and out of the way.
Another thing that is important to consider in purchasing a helmet is the material of which it is made. Kopf explained that there are two main types: plastic-based such as ABS and polycarbonate, and composite fiber materials such as fiberglass, carbon fiber and Kevlar.
Both will provide ample protection, but the plastic-based will be less expensive and heavy. They work well for the occasional rider. The helmets made of carbon fiber or Kevlar offer increased strength and protection and are much lighter. They are also more expensive and best suited for racing and for those who are thoroughly invested in riding off-road.
The final consideration in buying a helmet is ventilation. Your head can sweat a lot when air flow is limited. Kopf recommends Fly Racing’s lineup of helmets, which includes the Formula Solid helmet with True Functional Ventilation (TFV). Your dealer can help with this question. When you go, take plenty of water, keep the rubber side down and get your head in the game.