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What You Need to Know About Bicycle Helmets

Chances are, if you're involved in any kind of bicycle education effort, the topic of bicycle helmets will come up. You may wonder about how important they really are, what the law states about them, how to fit them, or where to find them. This page is designed to answer basic questions and steer you in the right direction.

Why helmets?

Cycling is a great form of exercise and a most efficient means of transportation. With the spotlight on health and physical fitness, bicycling is experiencing even more popularity.

As popular as the sport may be, it's not without risks. Studies have shown that injuries occur more often with bicycling than any other team or individual sport. While most injuries are not serious, those that involve the head are. Nationally, nearly 1,000 cyclists die each year from injuries received in serious bike crashes, most involving injury to the head. Many more sustain serious head trauma, often resulting in disabilities such as loss of hearing, vision, speech, short-term or long-term memory, the ability to concentrate and paralysis. Brain damage is often permanent, but preventable.

Improving your cycling skills and wearing a bicycle helmet are the two most significant things you can do to reduce your risk of injury. A helmet is your protection when you end up crashing in spite of all else.

Who should wear a helmet?

Bicyclists of all ages and skill levels benefit from the protection a helmet offers. Just because you're only going around the block or don't plan on going very fast is no excuse. Crashes can happen at any time at any speed, anywhere and the results can be devastating.Helmeted adults not only protect themselves; they are positive role models for children.

How do you get children to wear helmets?

It helps if the child has picked out the style and color they really like. It should fit and be comfortable, too. It helps if other children, parents and teachers wear them. Seventh grade seems to be the most resisting age for helmets, when the feeling of invincibility is strong and the rage for fashion is undeniable. The key motivator of helmet use for kids is fashion, not safety. Try to make use of that. School-wide or community-wide helmet distribution efforts help bring helmets into the acceptable mainstream.

Are helmets required by law?

In New York State, all bicyclists under the age of fourteen are required to wear approved bicycle helmets when they are operators or passengers on bicycles. Children under the age of one are prohibited from being transported on a bicycle. Child passengers one through four years of age must also ride in a specially designed child safety seat in addition to wearing a helmet.

In-line skaters and non-motorized scooter operators under the age of 14 are required to wear approved bicycle helmets.

Any parent or guardian whose child violates the helmet law is subject to a fine of up to $50.

What's the best hemelt to buy?

Make sure the helmet has a sticker on the inside, certifying that it meets the CPSC standard (Consumer Product Safety Commission). Consumer reports publishes reports of how various helmets performed in a series of tests designed to test impact performance and strap strength. Other standards that you may come across in your search include Snell and ASTM. Most ANSI standards are out of date. The best helmet is not necessarily the most expensive one, but one that fits.

How much do helmets cost?

Helmets sell in bike shops or by mail order from about $20 and up, or in discount stores for $10 or even less. A good shop helps with fitting, and fit is important for safety. A discount store helmet can be equally protective if you take the time to fit it carefully.

How do you get a good fit?

Choose a size that most closely fits your head. Select a helmet style and color (bright) that looks good on you.

Use the sizing pads to make minor adjustments for a custom fit. Most helmets come with two or even three sets of foam pads. Adjust the straps so that the helmet sits level on your head and does not move more than an inch in any direction. Be patient. Finding a helmet that you like and fits right will be time well spent.

Go to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (BHSI) for more fitting suggestions.

Do children grow out of a helmet?

Generally, no. Although heads grow at a slower rate than arms and legs - eventually a helmet can be outgrown. Many child helmets come with two or even three sets of foam fitting pads. You can start with thick pads and use the thinner pads as your child's head grows. The fitting pads do not affect the impact protection of the helmet, which is provided by the firmer crushable polystyrene foam (picnic cooler foam). Depending on helmet styles and the head its on, sometimes pads do not always do the trick and you simply need to get a different helmet.

When should a helmet be replaced?

Replace a helmet after any crash. Impact crushes some of the foam, making the helmet less protective. This damage is not always visible, and because the helmet softens the blow, you may not realize you hit your head. Most manufacturers recommend that helmets be replaced every five years, depending on usage.

Where do I go for more information?

The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute is one of the best places for comprehensive, unbiased and up-to-date helmet information. They can be found at Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute.

BHSI is located at:

  • 4611 Seventh Street South
  • Arlington, VA 22204-1419
Phone: (703) 486-0100

You'll find detailed statistical information, brochures, a toolkit for helmet promotions, and more.