|Photo by Roland Tanglao, Flickr (CC)|
Look for a sticker inside the helmet indicating standards compliance: Consumer Product Safety Commission or ASTM's F1447. After that, the BHSI states most standards compliant "helmets have about the same impact protection regardless of price." Consumer Reports provides results from its impact absorption test, revealing that while vendors may play to the standards - there are better performing helmets out there.
The helmet should be confortable. If the helmet isn’t comfortable, you wont wear it - and that's counter productive. And every head and every helmet is a bit different - once you decide what type or brand of helmet you would like, be prepared to go try them out like a suit, and find one that fits you well.
In the summer, it's hot and a helmet can act like a hat, trapping heat. I chose a light colored helmet with good vents to move air and cool my head. Good ventilation will also help your head stay drier. Light or bright colors will reflect solar heat and are more visible. During the winter I wear a cap underneath the helmet to keep me warm.
A common mistake I see people make is buying spiffy aerodynamic helmets, the one's with the fins on the back, because somehow the fins are going to make them go faster. This is like buying a 1950s Cadillac with fins thinking that the fins are going to make that whale of a car go faster. It aint. If there comes a time when you need to use your helmet for something more than a style accessory, you do not want anything (fins, cameras, lights) sticking out from the helmet that, when you hit the ground, will cause your head to torque or rotate. The BHSI recommends smooth helmets that do not have points that snag when you crash.
Wear the helmet correctly. Don’t wear them backwards. Don’t wear them on the back of your head. Don’t wear them on your handlebars. Clip and tighten the straps so the helmet is snug on your nut.
Finally, replace a helmet after a crash or if the helmet is damaged. But beware of stores that may attempt to convince you that your helmet is old, dried out, and needs to be replaced. Baloney. Your helmet is constructed out of EPS foam (like Styrofoam) - it doesn’t dry out. According to the BHSI, "All of that is nothing but marketing hype to sell a replacement helmet before you need it." If your helmet is damaged, replace it. But BHSI says, "Unless you mistreat it we would not expect it to "dry out" enough to alter its performance for many years."
Epilogue: Since I drafted this article, Bicycling Magazine came out with an excellent article on helmets. According to the article, while most current helmet vendors meet the CPSC certifications and therefore offer approximately the same amount of protection - a new helmet design is being produced that may offer greater protection against concussions! The MIPS (Multi-Directional Impact Protection System) has a rotational liner that allows the helmet, upon impact, to absorb some rotational impact and reduce the risk of concussion. Describing this as the helmet industry's "air bag moment," the Bicycling Magazine article reports that several MIPS helmets from different vendors are finding their way into the market. The sporting community is becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of concussions and the important role of helmets. Improved helmet design is great news and I am looking forward to trying one of these out at my local bicycle shop.