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Somebody once suggested that riders really concerned about safety should invest more than $5 in the famous novelty helmet. In today’s column, I’d like to set the record straight: The famous novelty helmet actually costs closer to $40.

Helmets have been legally required in Canada since the 1960s. Once upon a time, our neighbour to the south had a similar national law. Then, it was decided that each state had jurisdiction and some, in their infinite wisdom, repealed the law. This is only relevant because it provides us with some irrefutable statistics.

At the time of the repeal, helmet use in Florida dropped by 50 per cent, fatalities increased by more than 70 per cent, and hospital admissions for head injuries jumped by 80 per cent. For me — as a motorcyclist, a mother and a relatively smart woman — it’s a no-brainer: Helmets save lives. (Way more obviously than loud pipes. Oops. Couldn’t resist. Didn’t.)

In B.C., helmets must meet “certified industry safety standards.” In my motorcycle instructor days, we advocated the standards set by either the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) or the U.S. Snell Memorial Foundation (the Canadian Standards Association or CSA no longer certifies helmets). There are others (BSI and ECE), but for now I’ll just keep it simple. DOT covers the basics, and Snell is more rigorous.

Certified motorcycle helmets consist of four main elements: an outer shell, a 2.5-cm thick inner impact lining, a comfortable padding and a retention system (buckle).

Novelty helmets (also called “beanies” or “brain buckets”) defy certification mainly because they lack the protective impact lining. As such, they are illegal in Canada. They consist mainly of a hard exterior shell that covers only the top part of your head, and a chin strap used to loosely connect it to the head as you parachute along the highway.

Imagine yourself in a car as a passenger, hanging your head out the window. Now, put your hand over the top of your head. That’s pretty well the level of protection these helmets offer. Two words come to mind for this incredibly useless helmet: natural selection.

The remaining helmets have all four elements.

Shorty helmets are the lowest DOT approved helmet. They cover as little of your head as do the novelty helmets, but the true shorties have some Styrofoam protection. Generally, your ears are left uncovered. Which means the ride will be pretty loud.

Alternatively, you can get ear patches that slide over the straps that straddle each ear, giving you the Erik Estrada Chips look. Either way, without earplugs you’re guaranteed hearing loss in due time. Which is OK if you’re not really interested in what your spouse is saying to you. Or your grandkids.

Three-quarter helmets are a popular choice because they are less enclosed than a full-face but still cover your ears and offer pretty good cranial protection. Still, though, it leaves your chin fully exposed, and whether it’s the pavement sliding along your chin, or raindrops slamming against it, the three-quarter still leaves you somewhat vulnerable. Some riders (like yours truly) have both a three-quarter and a full-faced helmet so they can choose depending on the weather.

Full-faced helmets offer the most protection. They cover your skull, your ears and your chin. If you object to facial road rash, they are probably your best bet.

The two biggest complaints against the full-faced helmet are that they are too heavy and that they limit your vision. Neither of which is true anymore. The materials from which they make helmets are changing and becoming even lighter. And any DOT- approved helmet must have 210 degrees of vision available.

And here’s the coolest thing: If you turn your head for a shoulder check, the (properly fitted, properly buckled) helmet moves with you. The range of vision is so wide that you will never see the edge of the helmet.

Good helmets can cost a lot of money, depending on the construction and the features. And keep in mind that you need to replace it every now and then. “How often?” you ask. Great question.

  • Every two to five years, depending on stress and usage.
  • Every year, for passengers under 18. Little heads grow fast.
  • Immediately upon impact. Whether you are in an accident or you drop your motorcycle helmet on the concrete floor of a garage, it needs to be replaced.

While loud pipes don’t save lives (in my little big book of biking), a certified three-quarter or full-faced helmet will.

– Britt Santowski

Britt Santowski is a former chief instructor with the Vancouver Island Safety Council, where she trained instructors and taught riders for almost a decade. Santowski is also a workshop facilitator, speaker, consultant and author.


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3 Responses to “If you value your brain, wear a helmet”

  1. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:44 pmD.B.

    Response received by email [note some identifiers removed]


    Hey Britt,

    D. B. here from _____. I just wanted to drop you a note letting you know that I think your ongoing motorcycle articles in the TC are bang on the money and are very needed!!! I love your no holds barred yet often humours approach to talking these well know ‘issues’. The motorcycling community needs your ‘voice’.

    Part of why I’m writing you today is I’m hoping you will continue the trend of your current articles and cover the topic of proper riding gear. I was just recently hit by a car in Vancouver while heading to the ferry. My gear is what saved me hands down and amazingly come out of it with only massive tissue damage to my right leg, but no broken bones.

    I am donating my gear to the [motorcycle school] classroom as I believe they will make a great ‘visual aid’ in showing students why they should wear proper gear. As well as it will hit home that even motorcycle instructors can get hit and we are not “invincible”.

    I can’t say enough about wearing good gear, ALL the time, even for that short trip to the store. It’s always boggled my mind that there are some out there who continue to ride wearing nothing more than a t-shirt, shorts and flip flops. Now after being involved in an accident and having my gear making the difference of me still being able to be somewhat functional, it really angers me to see these “squids” out there wearing next to nothing. Seeing as a good majority of the laws today are put in place to help protect the stupid from themselves, maybe ICBC should consider mandatory gear requirements as well.

    If you want to discuss any of this, please feel free to give me a call as I will be home for the next few weeks with not much to do. 250-xxx-xxxx.

    Thanks Britt and keep up the great articles! I know I look forward to them each week.



  2. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:45 pmR.E.Y.

    Response received by email


    Hello Britt

    Thank you for your column. You are bringing up some great riding points for the short time the column has been here.

    I have a suggestion for a future column. An article on Scooters, not the mobile wheelchairs or the 50cc mo-peds flitting around, but the Maxi-Scooters or Super Scooters over 250cc.

    Many of us “older” riders, are starting to switch over from the conventional geared MC’s to the fully automatic, leg through instead of over the4 chassis.

    I refer to the Suzuki Burgman Exec 650cc with ABS, the Suzuki Burgman 400cc, Honda Silverwing 600cc, the Yamaha Majesty 400cc, and others.

    These machines can maintain highway speeds all day in comfort. With great gas mileage.

    I’ve used my Yamaha Majesty 400cc on a 17,000 km camping touring trip through 24 US States and several long distance Scamping (Scooter + Camping) trips over 3000 kms. I’ve also written a book about Maxi/Super Scooters.

    Thank you.

  3. on 11 Feb 2011 at 4:47 pmD.G.

    Response received by email


    Good morning. Thanks for the columns. I’ve been a fan of the Times-Colonist since a kid – I was a delivery boy. Love new columns and writers!

    As well as being an ex-newspaper delivery kid I am also an aging but active motorcyclist. Thanks fo the helmet column – they mirror my sentiments totally. When I once asked a biking buddy what a person should pay for a helmet they answered “…what’s you head worth?” I’m one of those AGATT – All Gear All The Time. Yes it’s uncomfortable sometime but I’d rather do that than spend time with skin transplants and facial bone re-construction. I once heard what is probably an urban myth about an RCMP Highway patrol rider in the Fraser Valley, wearing those old “CHIPS” helmets who came unstuck at speed and first point of contact with the pavement was his chin. I’ve have a terrific imagination and that’s all it took for me to switch to full face!

    Anyway – as I may be part of this wave of aging of motorcyclists – I see us everywhere, let me pass on what’s keeping off the pavement and out of the E.R. these days. I live in the Comox Valley and I’m not aware of any ‘acceditied’ advanced motorcycle training outfits within a days drive of here so I’m into do-it-yourself mode as far as upgrading my riding skills. There are gaps in my riding resume but I started out 25 years ago with a course held at the old Boundary Bay airport. Think it was put on the either the BC Safety Council – their motorcycle branch. Anyway it was the best money I ever spent. I rode in downtown Vancouver for some years and what I learned save my butt on a daily basis. That was then. I’ve gone from 750cc Honda cafe racers to 250cc dual purpose bikes to antique enduros. Last October I bought my first new bike – Kawasaki KLR. It’s my ‘road mule’. Compared to what I have had this is a GP racer! Just got back from an impromptu 5 day trip to Lillooet & Clinton via Pemberton. My first road trip but not my last. Those roads are a great place to practice your lines, weight shifting. traction control etc. There wasn’t much traffic and the pavement was everything from running water to clean brand new ashphalt. I have three books I’d like to recommend for those is a similar postion…

    First choice “Proficient Motorcycling” by David L. Hough. Easy to read, the author expects that you know nothing but doesn’t talk down or preach. Many mysteries of bike design and handling explained in easy to digest form. I’ve been passing this one around to newbies and seasoned pros. Everyone says they’re learned or re-learned something from this book. In my library it’s a 9 out of 10.

    Second choice.Motorcycling Excellence by the Motorcycling Safety Foundation. It’s a bit drier but sings the same songs as the previous books does about saftey. It sometimes reads like the work of a committee. The drawings and illustrations are very good. 7 out of 10.

    Thirdly (and maybe I’m rating these in the order in which they should be read!) “Total Control – high performance street riding technique”. Lee Parks. This guy is a professional instructor with lots of cred. For my style of riding, which is not High Performance, this book gave me lots of info on how to be a faster and safer rider. Lots of track examples that relate to pavement riding, good info on riding gear, suspension trouble shooting, braking, throttle control, concentration and ergonomics. As I said once you’ve digested the first two you’re ready for number 3. It may sound a bit strange for a fully loaded KLR rider top be talking about high performance technique but this last week on the road was made away more fun by what I’ve learned from this book.

    That’s it. I’ve taken up a lot of your time and I apologize for being long-winded but I couldn’t do this on twitter!

    Thanks, keep on writing, keep on riding.

    (the bikes name – “el Burro Rojo” – no sexy graphics but I’m working on a little scene with a Mexican in a sombrero, sitting on a little burro with panniers like mine and a waterproof bag slung over the burro’s back.)

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