Every Bullshit Helmet Argument Answered - Overdrive - Expert Opinion & Analysis - Overdrive

Every bullshit helmet argument answered

Motorcycle helmets: everything you didn't know, wanted to know, should know and all that

Executive Editor

People die. It happens all the time and it’s as regular as the heartbeat of a living person. As I’ve pointed out before, including in the context of my own wife, no one here’s getting out alive. But human beings (and all organism) are conditioned to preserve their own lives. Humans just seem to have some of the most indigenously developed solutions. In there are motorcycle helmets.

This column was born in a rather circular discussion that started with how J Nandakumar, a young motorcycle racer died recently at the Kari Motor Speedway during an event.

Riders dying no matter the circumstance is a very sad day. I always take solace in the idea that the dead are no longer in pain  and that motorcyclists who die riding pass away doing the thing they love. This doesn’t help the families who must deal with the loss of course. I can only wish peace and strength for them.

Back to the current and a lot of the blame – details are scarce – is being placed on the helmet which empirically is being blamed as having failed to protect the rider.

This column is not about that. I don’t know the details and so I don’t know if the helmet failed to do its job. I just don’t know enough about the circumstances to comment. But I do see that the helmet-focused discussion shows alarming misinformation and sometimes just outright bullshit surrounding motorcycle helmets. Here is my attempt to clear the motorcycle helmet knowledge mess up as much as I can.

Arai RX7 (1)

Dying and hurting

Helmets do a simple job. The EPS liner inside reduces the g forces your brain has to deal with in a crash. A good helmet will reduce the gs to a level your brain can survive. The shell prevents sharp objects from penetrating but its primary job is to spread impacts over a larger area to reduce spot forces and to alter the direction of the impact if possible to reduce the forces your neck has to deal with. The latter is why shells are as round as possible.

helmet shell - courtest Arai Helmet

So a good helmet might be able to reduce a potentially fatal impact into, say, a treatable/survivable concussion. However, human ingenuity and bravery means it is entirely possible to have impacts that are far beyond the capability of a helmet’s preventive abilities. In which case, people die.

The top helmets are excellent today and we’ve pushed the force limits at which a helmet cannot prevent fatal head injuries far, far away but the Grim Reaper is unstoppable. Eventually, one way or another, he gets you.

The riding environment

I’ve often heard the argument that a street helmet should not be on track, or that people have two helmets, a cheap one for daily use and a more expensive one for touring/weekends/track use. This is crazy!

I believe my head deserves the best protection I can secure for it. So why would I use a less capable helmet in any environment at all? It doesn’t make any sense. The idiotic notion is also erroneous because all accident statistics show that you’re most likely to have an incident within 5km of your home or work – the exact environment you’ve classified as worthy of a cheap helmet!

Most helmet makers reserve their top helmets for use on the race track. That means they’re designed for that purpose. So the shell materials, EPS liners, comfort liners, visors, retention and venting are all at the very top of the component-level performance the helmet maker can muster. These are usually worn for short, intense durations so things like noise and comfort can take a back seat in the quest for protection.

helmet interior or comfort layer 2

I’ve been wearing race lids since I got my Shoei X-11 roughly seven years ago. I can tell you categorically that I will not wear anything less. My current lids, a two-year old Shoei X-12 and a year old Arai RX-7V, are used for all rides in all conditions. I never show up for a ride, on my own bike or at a manufacturers without either of these two.

My head is of great value to me. Its importance does not change based on the bike I’m riding, the speeds I am going at or the place I’m riding through. So the horses for courses argument doesn’t work in the context of motorcycle helmets.

Cheap helmets and expensive helmets

The best protection argument is easy to dissipate by saying you don’t have Rs 50,000 to spend on a good one. Well, bullshit.

First, until you have a helmet that you think matches the importance of your head, you shouldn’t be riding. Again, this is context-free. It doesn’t matter what bike you have.

Second, if you have a smartphone you did in fact have the money to purchase a really good helmet and you chose where to spend that money.


Third, you value your head for yourself. So if you ride around with a cheap helmet which you know doesn’t meet your own standard you’re just revealing how little you value your head. This is your problem, not mine. But you do have a problem that requires fixing urgently.

Finally, a cheap helmet isn’t automatically a bad one. And an expensive helmet isn’t automatically awesome either. Like every mission-critical purchase, buying a helmet needs more than a budget. It needs your time and attention, information, research, effort and only finally, money.

The helmet standards

The world is full of honour-based helmet standards systems. The Indian BSI (ISI mark) and the US DOT are both honour based. That means a helmet maker is expected to be able to certify his own helmets meet the standard using his own testing lab. If business morals and ethics as well as liability laws are strong, this model works. If not, a maker will add compliance stickers in the expectation that the statistical probability of his lax attitude killing someone is small. Oh yes. ISI isn’t good enough for me. It’s a start, but for me personally, that’s all it is.

Worse, I’ve seen a helmet maker instruct his marketing chief to start adding ISI stickers to his new line of helmets as an off-hand remark so I know the compliance process is iffy at best.

My head’s too valuable for this. If I’ve to pay a fine every day to wear a helmet that vastly exceeds this standard, I’m happy to comply.

The independently tested standards are all non-Indian. ECE22.05, UK’s SHARP and the independent American Snell standard are the most commonly discussed.

Of these SHARP is considered the most well-rounded standard. It incorporates things like comfort in addition to safety and protection. I disagree with this approach. Helmets should be certified for crash performance alone. If any other attributes are assessed they must, in my book, go into a different rating. I cannot imagine buying a helmet that gets a superb overall rating because it has average crash protection but outstanding comfort. That’s crazy!

The ECE22.05 is considered the gold standard. This has been repeatedly confirmed to me by all kinds of helmet makers.

Snell is considered to be above this. There is some criticism that meeting Snell produces hard shells that offer tremendous high impact protection but can aggravate neck injuries in smaller incidents. This is a trade-off that I am comfortable with.

I am not saying you should be, though. I am suggesting that you should care enough to find out more and make your own decision on this matter. Me? Both my helmets meet or exceed the ECE22.05 and whatever was the latest Snell test at the time when I purchased them.

Buying a helmet

There is the matter of the fit of the helmet. No matter how good the deal is, you should not be buying one if it doesn’t fit you. The biggest challenge I have with Indian brands as well as these new (unknown origin) brands is finding a helmet in a size that fits. The fit is crucial to its effectiveness so if the maker or dealer cannot be bothered to find me the fit I want, I will walk away from a great deal on an otherwise great helmet. The head rules over the wallet.

There is also the argument that such and such helmet is perfect but unavailable in India. That’s a silly argument in today’s day and age. There are enough people who will happily help you source a helmet from outside India. This is additional time and money to be sure and let’s be honest, most of us are too lazy to get in there and make the effort.

Fundamentally, if you can come up with a reason why you’re riding with a helmet even you think is substandard, I can say with great confidence that you should not be riding a two-wheeler.

Keeping a helmet

Helmets need to be kept carefully. This is not optional. My helmets don’t look brand new despite 50-70,000km of riding each year by magic or minion. I keep them clean. I keep them on the ground so they cannot fall down. I keep them away from scratches and casual knocking about. And I won’t loan them because my head – the most valuable of all my possessions – goes in it. You have to do this if the helmet is to protect you.

It also means you have to know that the helmet has a shelf life. My Shoei X-11 Kagayama is carefully preserved and kept. But it was retired as soon as it turned five. It’s never been crashed or scratched or dropped. But it’s life is over. It’s a mere bauble now. It lived a good life. It never was called upon to protect me. I’m grateful and happy about this.

Try not to crash

That’s a fantastic argument. The motorcycle has not yet reached the point where all crashes are preventable. There is an argument to be made that an un-crasheable motorcycle would be boring too but that’s a separate story. Pragmatically speaking, you will have a crash if you’re riding. Not today hopefully but eventually. Since we cannot predict the timing or circumstances, best to have the best protection whenever you’re riding.

The government is not doing enough. If the government truly cared about two-wheeler riders you’d hear a lot more about public transport than helmets and airbags. Because the best way to protect two-wheeler riders is to give them the choice of not having to ride to get around.

The Government’s role

Next comes the enforcement of helmet standards as well as helmet laws. Which we all know is not as a critical a priority as it should be given how many people die on our roads every year. This government is a lot more vocal on this subject than others so far but a lot more still needs to be done apart from talking about it.

That way I see it, every time a crash test failure of a car hijacks the two-wheeler fatality discussion, the government betrays the fact that it’s addressing the media and not the problem.

Final words

People die. Including riders wearing top of the line helmets. Probabilities are that this will not happen to any one us. But it can. We motorcyclists have at our disposal the machines that I believe are the very best at making us feel alive and free. What we are required to do, all we are required to do, is pay attention to how we prepare ourselves to enjoy them. A good helmet that you trust is a great, vital starting point.

I’m not telling you what to buy. This isn’t about Shoeis or Arais outside of them being brands I trust to protect my head. This isn’t a prescription.

But study and carefully choose the brands you trust. Wear their products because you believe they haven’t cut corners. Be hard to please in this regard – there is no such thing as too good a helmet for your head.

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  • Rajaghuru KP

    Excellent points made & so succinctly!

    We had a discussion around the safety that helmets offered & riders’ roles in crash safety, in our offline WhatsApp biking group, in light of the recent crash & loss of life. Will be sharing this article’s link with them.

    Thanks, Shumi!

    • David gotham

      Hey, does the group have a closed or ‘reserved’ environment? Asking because I would love to be an observer in the group.

      • Rajaghuru KP

        This group is only for Chennai xBhp members.

  • Ashish

    Thanks Shumi for posting this article! 2 Points I would like to take upon:
    1. ECE rating: We can see helmets available for 4-5K with this rating in Indian market. Can they be trusted? Can helmets with trusted rating come, say, cheap?
    2. Shelf life of helmet: Is there any golden rule for that?

    • http://Overdrive.in/ Shubhabrata Marmar

      Look, the ECE is a guide. It increases my confidence in the helmet immensely to be sure. I cannot look at the price when I see a helmet. It’s the same as saying my father is seriously ill but the treatment must fit my budget. This is a super crucial purchase and whether the 5,000 rupee helmet is to be trusted or not has to come from you.

    • http://Overdrive.in/ Shubhabrata Marmar

      Shelf life is a clearer thing. Most Indian helmets, I’d retire after 2 years. The high quality ones, 5 years. If it’s an ABS plastic or polycarbonate shell, stick to 2 years – they’re more sensitive to solvents and glues and stuff

  • dodosamuel .

    Awesome dawsome! This was a good article at the very right time, given the useless conversations on so many forums.

    Nice one Shumi.

    • http://Overdrive.in/ Shubhabrata Marmar

      Thanks Dodo! This is your first public comment on any article of mine if memory serves. I’m walking on air today! 😀

  • Om_Shanti

    Very good article Shumi ! I think it was about time for an article like this to come out. Thanks a bunch.

  • Deepak Dongre

    “Second, if you have a smartphone you did in fact have the money to purchase a really good helmet and you chose where to spend that money.”

    Bang on!

    Excellent article there!

  • Sachin

    Hi, nice article and very informative. I use an ARAI Chaser and I love it. I got it even before I got delivery of my bike. After 5 years i decided to phase it out and got myself a Shoei GT Air and breaking in the liner with every ride, fits snug. I’m gonna read the article again so that some points stick with me permanently.
    P.S. in the 5th line I think ‘and’ conditioned is supposed to be ‘are’ conditioned?

    • Sachin

      And you’re welcome!

    • http://Overdrive.in/ Shubhabrata Marmar

      Thank you! I believe the error has now been fixed

  • Aneesh Patnaik

    Wonderful article. Can overdrive do an article as a follow up giving a list of Helmets that are ECE22.05 Compliant and Above. A list with chart with check boxes for say, ISI, DOT, SNELL, ECE22.05 (like features in cars like power windows, radio, usb, cd etc) will be helpful. The indian market is seeing a lot of international manufacturers come in with Shark, Arai, AGV etc. An article with the most commonly available ones showing compliance will be a great article.

    • http://Overdrive.in/ Shubhabrata Marmar

      Hi Aneesh. I am afraid tracking the helmet scene to tell you which one meets which standard isn’t something I’m happy to do. It means more spoon-feeding for the lazy bunch. All of the standards have easy to use websites (perhaps except ISI). I am sure we all know how to deploy Google to find what we are looking for.

      If you or someone would like to do the legwork and share it with us, I am happy to publish with full credit to the author.

  • The Dukeist

    A Youtube video or on the Overdrive show could also be helpful to more masses

    • http://Overdrive.in/ Shubhabrata Marmar

      Thank you. Good idea!

  • Nitin Kumar G

    I’ve mentioned this before, and am happy to be called a fool for it. About two decades ago, I accumulated two years of pocket money to buy a helmet for myself. It was the best money could buy in the market open to me at the time. Qualities I valued in a helmet from reading authors like yourself talking about riding safety. I was 15 then, and a good three years before my father let me ride. My argument at the time (for “wasting money”), I still get to sit behind people on their two wheelers. It wasn’t for another 6 years that I would be able to afford a two wheeler of my own.

    I started reading this article and for perhaps the first time was about to write to disagree with you. Your strong sense of putting across things sometimes for me loses the value of what you are saying. But I digress. I think it’s a well rounded article. The most value is in the middle and end.

    My two (three) cents.
    Fit and comfort in the value you choose.
    Less isn’t always bad, great helmets are available for not as high a price point.

    There is more to fit than size.
    Primary function of protective gear is to protect. So you must strike an acceptable balance. Acceptable to oneself. Don’t skimp on fit, Please. A great helmet can do more harm than good just because it’s not the right fit.

    Would be nice if some enterprising fellow(s) started manufacturing or importing the right kinds of helmets, we know there’s plenty of good will going around. Would be really nice if magazines did today what they did for me back when i got my first helmet. Help bridge a gap. Would you consider an article about how to fit a helmet, what specifically to do when trying to ship something from abroad? I’ve told many of my friends to not buy online or have someone bring them something, because if they can’t try it and ensure good fit, then it might be an expensive accident. Sure sell it off in india for a small profit if it doesn’t fit you and pass on the responsibility of fit and safety to someone else.

    PS: Can I just say, “as much as I like the articles you write, I think this site is enough of a nightmare for me to keep away from it”. If only the magazine published all your articles. We all have excuses, what’s yours today?

    • http://Overdrive.in/ Shubhabrata Marmar

      I don’t have excuses. I don’t seem to need them.

      Try using the OVERDRIVE app. Seems to be easier to navigate and use. It’s an Android and iOS both.

      • Nitin Kumar G


  • Ram

    Is AXR helmets a good one…???

    • http://Overdrive.in/ Shubhabrata Marmar

      Who is AXR helmets?

  • prem

    Shumi, am surprised that you don’t have a single article anywhere on the Overdrive website about Mahindra acquiring BSA.. and that too after many of the “general” news sites started showing this information 2 days ago. Overdrive should attempt to remain more current.

    • http://Overdrive.in/ Shubhabrata Marmar

      I don’t speculate about motorcycles. I write articles when I know enough. Google would like us to write any old thing as soon as possible. But we’d rather be accurate than as you put it “current.”

      • prem

        Are you saying that you are not sure that Mahindra has purchased BSA? That has been confirmed through multiple sources.

        • http://Overdrive.in/ Shubhabrata Marmar

          Oh that you can read wherever you like, including here.

          But how will Mahindra turn a firm that currently sells what BSA-branded tee shirts, but no motorcycles into a living motorcycle brand? That will take time to think about write.

          • prem

            True, the BSA purchase is strange because they haven’t produced motorcycles in a while.

            No offense meant, but my point wasn’t that. My point is that a website like Overdrive ought to remain current. I think everyone understands it when an article is published a day late.. but 2 to 3 days late in a world like us.. well, that is too late.

            Yes, that is feedback from a person who visits your website multiple times a week. It isn’t positive feedback, but I hope it is constructive.. because I do like this site and your work. Thanks.

          • http://Overdrive.in/ Shubhabrata Marmar

            No offence taken, Prem.

            But I’m not in the rat race to produce the first article on anything. I would like to try and make the best article on everything. That’s what I think I ought to do.

  • Siddharth Shyamsundar

    What’s your take on LS2 Helmets? I am currently using a high end Vega, that has had two crashes and looking to upgrade. I’d love to get Shoei’s and ARAIs but can only afford around 5 to 6k at the moment?

    • Siddharth Shyamsundar


      • http://Overdrive.in/ Shubhabrata Marmar

        Sorry Siddarth, I was on leave and didn’t see this. I am told they are okay but there isn’t much information on any of these brands outside of empirical evidence and the ISI mark (if it has one). Honestly, I would get another Vega and start saving for something from a more trustworthy brand.

  • Priyankka Dutta

    Hey Schumi, I enjoyed your article as I have reiterated on my other social media forums. I’d probably add my 2 bits here as well since my biggest challenge so far has been fit and comfort. Since I mostly rode pillion up until a while ago, I ensured that the least I could do is get a helmet for me. I endured and part enjoyed my foray with a Spartan (Kranos; M) and occasionally a THH half face (both loose fitting).
    Since I started riding, I prioritized investing in a good helmet. My problem has translated to size and comfort. Its unfortunate that in India, finding S and XS is near impossible. I’m also tired of being told (and this is generally with my full gear), that I will have to make do with any available or coincidentally present size in the the store. At which point, I’m sad to say, money becomes an issue – I am the sole customer probably for that size so why not leach out xxx amount.
    I also hate the idea doled out by helmet distributors and stores that extra or custom padding will help. This is downright annoying and despite my insistance that I do not wish to fidget with the stock makeup and design of the helmet, they persist and then irritatedly give up. Not sure if anyone else has faced this but this has been my experience so far.
    Our attitude with ‘jugaad’ and makedo never ceases to end. As someone rightfully pointed out in the comments, an ill fitted helmet purchased online or through someone is an expensive risk especially for someone like me who collects pennies to make that big investment. I want to understand that is fit universal in a brand? E.g. if I tried on an ARAI at performance racing and figured ‘S’ is perfect for me, then is it safe to get an ‘S’ from any helmet in the ARAI range from someone traveling back? Or is that a risk too? This is a grey area and one that I have not received a definitive answer for. I’d like some insight on my predicament. I am prepared to spend a little outside my comfort zone after I save enough but I’m sure its natural to imagine that aside from the checkbox specs, some aesthetics do come into play especially since I treat my bikes and gear as few but valuable and durable.

    • http://Overdrive.in/ Shubhabrata Marmar

      Hi! Sorry this was sitting in moderation for some reason.

      Yes. If a small Arai fit, I would be happy to order a different Arai model in the same size from someone coming back from outside. The exact fit might feel different but the sizing wouldn’t vary significantly.

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