It’s a well-documented fact that helmets save lives. Of the 700-plus bicycle deaths each year, approximately three-quarters are from head injuries. A 2016 study of more than 64,000 cyclists found that wearing a helmet can reduce the risk of fatal head injury by nearly 70 percent.
But it’s not enough to simply wear a helmet—to get full noggin protection, the helmet must be worn correctly. Though most cycling and triathlon enthusiasts assume they’re doing it right—after all, they log a lot of miles in helmets—Randy Swart of the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute says to think again. Even the most seasoned cyclists are likely making one or more mistakes with their helmets, which can nullify the helmet’s protective factors. The most common mistakes he sees:
Buying the Wrong Size
Helmet size is like a hat, explains Swart: “If the helmet is sized right, it touches your head all the way around, but does not put too much pressure on any one area.” When trying on helmets, make sure you’re purchasing the correct size to accommodate any headwear or hairstyles typically worn while riding, like a sweatband, cap, braids, or a ponytail. If you remove your headgear or change your hairstyle, only to discover your helmet is too loose, purchase a smaller size.
“If the helmet doesn’t fit well, it can be out of position. That’s when you hit your bare head on the pavement. The comfort stabilizer in the rear will not hold on to your helmet in a crash. Only the chin straps can do that,” says Swart, which brings him to the next mistake:
Letting the Chin Strap Loose
“Many riders don’t pay enough attention to strap adjustment,” says Swart. “Strap fittings often slip, and you have to readjust.”
Straps should be snug, but not tight enough to distract—Swart compares it to the feeling of a seatbelt. “Adjust until you get only about an inch of movement in all directions.”
Donning a Dark Color
Everything you wear on a bike, from your jersey to your socks, should enhance visibility for motorists. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be a neon spandex cowboy, it’s not a bad idea to invest in a helmet that has bright colors, reflective properties, and/or a lighted element.
Putting it in the Spin Cycle
Yes, your helmet can get grody, and yes, you can (and probably should) clean it. But please do it by hand, says Swart. Testing by the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute reveals the washing machine and dishwasher are no place for a bike helmet.
Re-Wearing After a Crash
“After a crash, check the helmet,” says Swart. If you have any marks at all on the shell it’s worth replacing the helmet, since sometimes the damage to the foam is not visible.”
Even if you have a low-speed tipover, replace the helmet if it hit the ground. “If the foam is compromised in a crash and you are unlucky enough to hit on the same spot again, the helmet will not protect as it normally would,” says Swart. “Add a brain injury to your road rash and broken collarbone, and suddenly it’s a whole new situation. You won’t be going to work the next day.”