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Helmet Guide: finding the right fit

by SRP on May 28, 2020

Helmets—adorn thyself: Why you should wear them, which ones to buy, and how to rock a proper fit

Like many middle class Americans raised in the suburbs, my primary mode of transportation before I turned 16 was a bicycle. So it follows that my primary piece of head adornment from six to 16 was a helmet. I wouldn’t have considered hopping on my bike without strapping on my helmet first (and if I ever did, and my mom found out, no doubt she would have made me).

That’s why as an adult, who once again uses a bicycle as her primary means of transportation (and once again is always wearing her helmet), I don’t understand those who bike sans head protection. Your brain is your most important (and most expensive) asset. Shouldn’t you want to protect the organ that makes you you?

I’m not your mom. I can’t make you do anything. But please know that wearing a helmet can prevent serious head injury if you ride a bicycle, especially for those who ride regularly in urban areas or on high traffic streets. Consider the following:

  • A study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that helmeted riders in the group they studied had an 85 percent reduction in their risk of head injury during a crash.
  • Cyclists sustain more head injuries than football players. According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, cycling played a role in about 86,000 of the 447,000 sports-related head injuries treated in emergency rooms in 2009. Football, on the other hand, accounted for 47,000 of those head injuries, and baseball, 38,394.
  • A February 2017 analysis in the International Journal of Epidemiology reviewed 40 separate studies and found helmet use significantly reduced the odds of head injury. They also found the odds of a fatal head injury to be lower when cyclists wore a helmet.
  • According to Stanford bicycle program coordinator Ariadne Scott, Stanford trauma surgeons note that 98 percent of people who suffer head injuries from bike crashes were not wearing a helmet.

Which one to buy?

If you’re now thinking about buying a helmet (or you have one, but could use an upgrade) here’s what to know:

  • You don’t need to spend a lot to get a helmet deemed “safe.” Helmets are required to meet minimum federal safety standards, so any price hike reflects additional features, like better airflow, lighter weight, more outlandish colors—not necessarily safety. You can purchase a Consumer Product Safety Commission-tested helmet at the Stanford Campus Bike Shop for $25.
  • Make sure to get one with MIPS, an additional system that can reduce brain injury.
  • Most helmet manufacturers recommend getting a new helmet every five years or after a crash (this includes minor impacts where your head hits the ground).
  • Buy a helmet that suits the kind of biking you plan to do. For instance, any helmet with MIPS should work fine for most types of commuting. If you’re doing downhill mountain bike races, you’re going to need something more serious.
  • Mens vs. womens: There’s no real difference between these, aside from size: “Mens” helmets are likely to run a tad larger. Colors may be different, and features like the Specialized ‘hairport’ to accommodate riders with ponytails are targeted at women.

Is this thing on?

Helmet fit is critically important. If you’re wearing an improperly fitted or positioned helmet, you may as well not be wearing one at all—it’s not going to protect your noggin in a crash. The League of American Bicyclists has an excellent video demonstrating proper fit, but here are steps to effectively fitting your helmet:

  • When you put your helmet on, there should be a two-fingers width between your eyebrows and helmet. Don’t wear your helmet tilted back—that won’t protect your face during a fall.
  • Shake your head from side to side. Does your helmet move? If so, you need to snug it up by tightening the straps or adjusting the cage inside the helmet (note: you can usually do this by reaching your hand behind your head and spinning a wheel located at the helmet’s base).
  • The side straps should come to a point just below your ears forming a “Y.”
  • There should be about half an inch between the chin strap and your chin
  • Make sure to buckle the chin strap!

Extra Credit

Stanford is doing some great things to help raise awareness about traumatic brain injuries. First, students and faculty there started Synapse, a first of its kind support group for those impacted by traumatic brain injuries. Then there’s CrashCourse, an virtual teaching aid targeting students, parent, and coaches. CrashCourse gives users a quasi-visceral experience of a concussion, using Stanford Football players. The founders are considering creating a more general version that includes bike-related head injuries.


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