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Bike helmets

Bike helmet buying guide

Last updated: May 2015

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Getting started

The racy good looks of today's bicycle helmets mask a serious purpose: protecting their wearers from head injuries and even death. When it comes to choosing a helmet, safety is the most important factor.

How we tested bike helmets

We put helmets through a brutal pounding in our labs using an apparatus that dropped them at 7 mph and 14 mph onto a flat anvil to find out how well they could withstand the impact. We use an electronic sensor inside a dummy metal head to detect how much force would be transmitted to a rider's head in an accident. Because people fall and hit their heads in different places, the helmets were struck at the front, crown, back, and side.

In addition, we test the strength of helmet chinstraps and buckles, called the Retention System Strength Test. We drop an 8 3/4-pound weight 2 feet so that it yanks on the strap to simulate the force that might occur in a crash.

We also evaluated the helmets for ventilation, ease of use, fit adjustments, and other features.

What we found

We found several adult helmets to recommend and one youth helmet, which is intended for children age 5 or older. See our Ratings (available to subscribers).

A bike helmet can not only save a life, but it can also prevent or lessen the severity of brain injury during a bicycle crash. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 87 percent of the bicyclists killed in accidents over the past two decades were not wearing helmets. And when it comes to nonfatal injuries, a 2013 Institute of Medicine committee review of sports-related concussions found that wearing a helmet reduces the risk of traumatic brain injury (TBI) by nearly 70 percent.

It's important to note that wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle is essential and that any bike helmet is better than none in an accident.

How to get a good fit

A good fit is crucial so that in the case of an accident, the helmet remains in place and protects the head. Straps must be snug and the helmet positioned correctly. Once it's properly adjusted, only minor adjustments are likely to be necessary thereafter. Some specifics:
  • The front of the helmet should be level and no more than one or two finger widths above the brow.
  • The helmet should fit snugly, with the head partially compressing the soft foam pads inside, even before the straps are tightened. Select the size that fits as closely as possible without being uncomfortably tight. Then use the sizing pads, if provided, to fine-tune the fit.
  • The straps should form a "V" under each ear.
  • The buckle should be centered under the chin, not to the side or along the jaw. The straps should be snug enough that the helmet is pulled down when the mouth is opened. If the helmet is tipped back or the straps are loose, it will not provide suitable protection in an accident.
  • Straps might shift over time. Periodically check the tension and the position of the straps. If the helmet shifts when pushed, take the slack out of the chinstrap.
  • Head sizes and shapes vary. If a helmet can't be adjusted to stay on your head, try a different model. Try several sizes, models, and brands until you find the best fit.
  • Bike helmets should be replaced every five years, or sooner if the manufacturer recommends it, because the helmet's materials may deteriorate. If the helmet has been worn in an accident, replace it, even if it does not appear to be damaged.
  • If our rated models are not available, look for a label or sticker on the package that says the helmet meets the CPSC Bicycle Helmet standard.

Bike safety

Besides wearing a properly fitted bike helmet, follow these safe-riding tips to avoid accidents.

  • Get a good fit. Make sure that you can straddle the bike while off the seat and still have 1 or 2 inches of clearance for a road bike (3 to 4 inches for a mountain bike) to ensure that you are starting with the right size frame. Adjust the handlebars and the seat to fit the rider.
  • Check your equipment. Inflate tires properly and make sure the brakes work.
  • Make sure you're visible. Day or night, wear neon, fluorescent, or brightly colored clothing, and place reflectors, reflective tape, or a flashing light on your bike.
  • Avoid riding at night. It's harder for others to see you. If you must ride in the dark, use lights, wear reflective clothing, and make sure that your bike is equipped with reflectors in the front and back, on the pedals, and on the wheels or tires.
  • Control your bike. Carry items in a backpack or bicycle carrier, and not your hands. Keep both hands on the handlebars.
  • Watch for and avoid road hazards. They include pot holes, sewer grates, broken glass, gravel, leaves, dogs, puddles, and more. If you can do so safely, alert riders behind you to upcoming hazards.
   

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