Motorcycle / Bicycle Accident Injury Effectiveness of Helmets

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
Facial Lacerations
Injuries to the Nose, Mouth, Jaw, Teeth

Motorcycle and Bicycle Helmets Do Not Offer Equivalent Protection.

Motorcycle helmets have two different official rating systems that many Americans are probably familiar with, DOT and SNELL, either of these provide the best protection available to motorcycle riders. There are actually two more, ECE and FIM. A helmet can be have more than one approval from these different standards being DOT and ECE etc.

  • DOT: Standards determined by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
  • SNELL: This is a voluntary testing procedure, and is only required by certain race bodies.
  • ECE: Standards determined by the Economic Commission for Europe.
  • FIM: A relatively new standard, the FIM rating is used for helmets that meet safety criteria established by motorcycling's global racing organization for track use.

You can learn more about the history of these different standards, and the types of motorcycle crash testing that each respectively does to earn the rating. One quick take away from this interesting in depth history and differences is that the ECE standards are for motorcycle riders in European countries where the speed limits may be consistently lower than in the USA, meaning that the ECE standard may not be tested against as much force as motorcycle helmets which meet the USA DOT standards.

Bicycle Helmets

As a spokesperson for helmet-maker Giro told a cycling trade magazine in 2020: "There are many misconceptions about helmets, unfortunately," adding: "We do not design helmets specifically to reduce chances or severity of injury when impacts involve a car." (Slate 2023)

Part of the problem with Bicycle Helmets is the way that they are tested, typically the drop test, which does not approximate the type of force nor impact that a bicycle rider experiences if struck by a motor vehicle.

In 2021 we finally had some significant work on improving bicycle helmets.

Restating that bicycle helmets are not designed to withstand nor protect a cyclist's head in a motor vehicle accident, in fact offering very little protection to the cyclist from head injury. It's not surprising that some mountain bicycle riders wear the better motorcycle helmets with the full jaw and face protection even though they aren't contending with cars.

Volvo's 'World First' Bicycle-Helmet-Versus-Car Test Flags Helmet Safety Flaws

That bicycle helmets are not currently tested against such impacts will be a revelation to many cyclists and motorists, many of whom erroneously assume that bicycle helmets offer greater protection than they are actually designed to provide.

"Current bike helmet testing procedures are fairly rudimentary," state Volvo and POC. They involve "helmets being dropped from different heights on either a flat or an angled surface, and do not take into account vehicle to bike accidents." The tests mimic low-speed falls on to curbs rather than any impacts from motor vehicles.

Imagine, there was a day not so long ago when even velodrome racers didn't wear much in the way of real helmets, or, "brain buckets," as they call them, and even USCF Officials fought over bringing in ANSI helmet standard, according to The Brain Bucket Bash by Les Earnest;

This article appeared in the September 1989 issue of Cyclops USA.

In Dave Prouty's recent book [David Prouty, In Spite of Us, VeloNews Press, Boulder, CO, 1988] relating his experiences as the first Executive Director of the USCF, he gives himself much of the credit for bringing about the adoption of the ANSI helmet standard in late 1985, and for successfully dealing with the insurance crisis of 1986. He somehow overlooked the fact that he helped cause that crisis by helping to defeat the ANSI helmet rule in 1984 when I first proposed it to the Board.

I had placed the proposed ANSI helmet rule on the legislative agenda of the October 1984 meeting of the USCF Board of Directors. In mid-September I was pleased to receive a letter from USCF attorney Brian Geddes that generally supported my proposal on the grounds that it would reduce the Federation's liability.

The New York Times Blog wrote in June 2013, "Really? Cycling Is the Top Sport for Head Injuries"

[...] According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, cycling accidents played a role in about 86,000 of the 447,000 sports-related head injuries treated in emergency rooms in 2009. Football accounted for 47,000 of those head injuries, and baseball played a role in 38,394. [...] In New York City, 75 percent of all fatal bike accidents involve a head injury.

Fortunately we do have more recent work into improving bicycle helmets. One recent study conducted by Virginia Tech in conjunction with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that the “urban” style helmets that look like they cover more of the head actually appear to provide less protection than the sleeker designed road helmets. This study also is looking into the ways that a bicycle rider makes contact from a fall, looking at the brim, the sides of the helmet, and even trying to similate a curb type of surface.

Urban-style helmets — which have nearly solid covers with few vents — and those that haven’t adopted the latest anti-concussion technology were more than twice as likely to result in injuries, researchers from Virginia Tech and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found in a recent study.

Another Problem: Bicycle and Motorcycle Helmets Need To Be Replaced From, "time to time"

Most say, for both bicycle helmets and for motorcycle helmets, that you should replace your helmet every 2 – 3 years. Motorcycle helmets should have the year they were made stamped on the chin straps (helmets manufactured after 1974).

Dropping your bicycle helmet is not good for it. Even when your helmet looks ok, the"crush liner" in your helmet, a protective layer, which may not protect you if it deteriorates or takes any impact. "One thing experts agree on is that after a crash, you need to replace your bike helmet as soon as possible." (Consumer Reports, When You Really Need to Replace Your Bike Helmet) Other materials in your helmet may just naturally break down over time as well, causing your helmet to lose it's full protective ability.

For both bicycle and motorcycle riders, a better signal of when an impact means their helmet should be replaced would be quite helpful because good helmets can be expensive, and it might just be that you dropped your helmet. You don't want to be taking chances with your skull or brain but you also do not want to waste money on replacing a still good helmet. Some helmets can be taken to the manufacturer to inspect and make sure they are still in a functioning condition. One new prototype invention for bicycle helmets has a special layer, that emits a foul oder if it is damaged.

Some bicyclists say this idea stinks, and is impractical for bicycle business commuters since if you crash on your way to some appointment, does this smell transfer to your hair or skin? Perhaps an audio warning or color change may be a less offensive warning indicator that would make more sense for bicycle and even motorcycle commuters.

Concussion? TBI? Even a mild brain injury can change your life forever.

I have experience representing people with brain injuries and have worked closely in the past with brain surgeons, neurologists, and neuropsychologists to prove the nature and extent of someone's brain injury.

It is important to get the injured person and their family and loved ones all the expert help possible.

The signs and symptoms of a traumatic brain injury can be subtle.

Symptoms of a traumatic brain injury may not appear until days or weeks following the injury or may even be missed as people may look fine even though they may act or feel differently.

The following are some common signs and symptoms of a traumatic brain injury:

• Continuing headaches or neck pain

• Mood changes

• Insomnia

• Sleeping a lot more

• Dizziness

• Nausea

• Light sensitivity

• Memory difficulties, inability to concentrate

• Confusion

• Difficulty thinking, speaking or reading

• Lack of energy

• Blurred vision or tired eyes

• Loss of sense of smell or taste

• Ringing in the ears

Effectiveness of Motorcycle Helmets

Head / facial injury as well as concussion, and brain injury are prevelant amongst motorcycle riders involved in an accident. Motorcycle helmet use is still not a law in many states. Many motorcycle riders choose not to wear the safest helmet possible when they ride. However, there exists good research data which addresses the common concerns and offer some simple tips of what to look for in finding the safest most effective motorcycle helmet.

In a 2009 study, a small number of motorcycle accident injuries were compared.

In the data set, 57 percent of motorcyclists were helmeted at the time of the crashes and 43 percent were non-helmeted. For both groups, about 40 percent of motorcyclists were treated at hospitals or died following the crashes. [1]

Even though the helmet wearing riders were more than half of the total accidents studied, the helmeted motorcycle riders came out much better than the non helmet wearing riders in terms of surviving the accident without traumatic brain injury, head injury, facial injury, or moderate to severe head and facial injury.

Helmets reduced the rate of TBI, head injury, face injury, and death.

However, 6.6 percent of unhelmeted motorcyclists suffered a moderate to severe head or facial injury compared to 5.1 percent of helmeted motorcyclists. Fifteen percent of hospital-treated helmeted motorcyclists suffered traumatic brain injury (TBI) compared to 21 percent of hospital-treated unhelmeted motorcyclists. TBI severity varied by helmet use. Almost 9 percent of unhelmeted and 7 percent of helmeted hospital-treated motorcyclists received minor to moderate TBI. More than 7 percent of unhelmeted and 4.7 percent of hospital-treated helmeted motorcyclists sustained severe TBI. [1]

The helmeted motorcycle riders in these accidents had much lower incidence of death from the accident, and lower medical costs as compared to the nonhelmeted riders.

Median charges for hospitalized motorcyclists who survived to discharge were 13 times higher for those incurring a TBI compared to those who did not sustain a TBI ($31,979 versus $2,461). Over 85 percent of hospital-treated motorcyclists without a TBI were discharged home, compared to 56 percent of motorcyclists with severe TBI. [1]

The medical bill difference was primarily due to longer hospital stays and the necessity of prolonged rehabilitation after the motorcycle accident when recovering from a TBI.

Motorcyclists admitted to the hospital with TBI were more likely to die, be discharged to rehab, or transferred to a long-term care facility. While 17 percent of all hospital-admitted motorcyclists had TBI, they account for 54 percent of all admitted riders who did not survive. […] While over 80 percent of motorcyclists with no, potential, mild, and moderate TBIs were discharged home, only 56 percent of motorcyclists with severe TBI were similarly discharged. Motorcyclists who received a TBI were also more likely to be discharged from the hospital dead or transferred to rehab or a long-term care facility. While over 85 percent of motorcyclists without TBI were discharged home, this percent drops to 56 percent for motorcyclists with severe TBI. [1]

Facial Injury

There were 7,350 facial injuries sustained by motorcyclists in our data (Table 15). As seen above, facial injuries were more common for unhelmeted motorcyclists compared to helmeted motorcyclists (9.2% versus 5.7%). This data provides an unadjusted estimate that motorcycle helmets are 37 percent effective at preventing facial injuries. [1]

So why not get the safest motorcycle helmet possible?

Some Helpful Tips: Selecting The Best (Safest) Motorcycle Helmet

There's a lot of motorcycle helmets out on the market but they are not all the same. Some motorcycle riders worry that a very protective helmet with the facial guard may interfere with their vision and hearing. In fact, motorcycle helmets go through rigorous testing to get the certifications that are most respected. The NHTSA has conducted research to find the facts about a motorcycle riders vision field and hearing wearing different motorcycle helmets. You can read the NHTSA report on the helmet vision and hearing and see what they studied.

There's a few technical things to look for when shopping for a great helmet.

The basics are really pretty simple for what to look pros/cons for in your motorcycle helmet and the NHTSA has distilled it down to a little brochure you can download . [4]

Unfortunately those novelty motorcycle helmets, according to the NHTSA, are just unsafe. [3]

Be aware that from time to time motorcycle helmets get recalled.

The NHTSA keeps a listing of recalls on important things like motorcycle helmets, car seats for kids and infants, etc.


1. Motorcycle Helmet Use and Head and Facial Injuries
National Technical Information Service,
Springfield, Virginia 22161
DOT HS 811 208
October 2009



4. How to Identify Unsafe Helmets
This brochure produced and hosted at NHTSA - The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration