We won’t ride into the great helmet debate, rather look at the difference between legal lids, referred to as ‘regulation’ and their counterparts, novelty helmets. Considered by many as a vital safety gear for motorcyclists, regulation helmets are required in 19 states and the District of Columbia when riding. Most states with motorcycle helmet use laws require riders to wear Department of Transportation (DOT) certified helmets.
The reason a rider wears a novelty helmet comes down to one of two distinct reasons, either it was bought accidentally thinking the helmet was DOT certified, offering minimum standards of head protection in the case of an accident, or the biker may be trying to skirt helmet laws. We know it’s a stretch to think some bikers would wear flimsy novelty helmets that offer little-to-no protection in a crash in an effort to ‘stick to the man’, but evidently it does happen occasionally.
The difference between the two types of helmets is worth knowing about. Novelty helmets don't provide good head coverage and their thin foam liners and lightweight shells can't absorb energy or adequately cushion a rider's head during a crash. They often have weak chinstraps that could come undone in a crash.
A thought should be given to what helmets are designed to do. Wearing a helmet to keep a rider’s head from hitting the hard ground after coming off a motorcycle is only partly true. An equally important function of a motorcycle helmet is to absorb the energy created when a biker’s head does come in contact with an unexpected surface unexpectedly. What energy isn’t absorbed makes its way into the rider’s head and shakes about their brain, causing what could be life-changing, if not deadly damage. More expensive helmets have several layers of various materials to absorb different wavelengths of energy created by different surfaces and situations.
The latest motorcycle technology seen in Bell Helmet's ProStar, featuring three impact-absorbing layers
Novelty helmets are marketed to motorcyclists online and sold at motorcycle outfitters alongside sturdier, well-padded regulation headgear with the understanding they aren't meant for use on the highway or as protective equipment. Case in point, a typical warning label sewn into the interior fabric lining indicates that the "novelty head wear" doesn't meet any safety standards.
This should be important to riders who genuinely want the protection of a certified motorcycle helmet. A 2009 NHTSA study of motorcyclists injured in crashes and transported to a Baltimore shock trauma center during 2007-08 showed that 56 percent of those wearing a novelty helmet had serious head injuries, compared with 19 percent of riders who were wearing a helmet certified by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
Bikers in the market for a motorcycle helmet should look first at the thickness of the product being considered. Generally speaking, novelty helmets have thin padding and a chin strap similar to that found on a child's toy where a regulation helmet has a thickly padded inner liner and sturdy chin strap.
Labeling differences between Novelty Helmets and Regulation Helmets
The first thing bikers normally look for when buying a DOT certified helmet is a sticker or labelling it has been tested and meets the minimum standards. Regulation helmets are sold with a DOT label on the back shell, containing the letters ‘DOT’, ‘FMVSS No. 218 certified’ and include the manufacturer name and/or brand and the model designation. The labels found on certified helmets made before May 13, 2013 are slightly different, simply containing the letters ‘DOT’.
If the label isn't there on newer helmets, regardless of the deal being offered, riders wanting the certified safety standard shouldn’t buy the helmet.
Riders considering a helmet manufactured before 2013, finding the simpler DOT sticker may not carry the certification it promises. Old counterfeit DOT stickers remain in circulation and are easy to find on Amazon.com and other online vendors, sold on the understanding they are "replacement" labels are for helmets that are already DOT-approved.
Aside from this uncertainty, riders should appreciate how a helmet’s warranty may be affected by its older manufacturing date. Clutch and Chrome covered helmet warranties in our article ‘Motorcycle Helmet Warranties - What You Should Know’ which found some start when the helmet is made and not necessarily when it’s taken out of the box for the first time.
Eventually all bikers riding in states with motorcycle helmet use laws will need to make sure they have a DOT approved helmet. The government agency responsible for fashioning the laws around motorcycle helmets, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) want to tighten laws and have law enforcement to play a more active role in ensuring riders are wearing certified helmets. Streamlining federal compliance tests, helping law enforcement officials easily identify non-compliant helmets and even how motorcycle helmets are identified when sold are all initiatives being pursued by the NHTSA.