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Sunday, January 29, 2023

Please Stop Wearing Your Bike Helmet the Wrong Way

Many of us at WIRED ride bikes as a part of our daily commute or for sport. So do a lot of other people in the United States. According to the cycling advocacy nonprofit People for Bikes, around 50 million Americans ride a bike regularly on their commute, for fitness, or for leisure. Bikeshare is growing in popularity too. According to the most recent data available from the US Department of Transportation, Americans took 84 million bikeshare trips in 2019.

So we're all out riding bikes a lot, which is great! But every once in a while, we notice something odd: Someone is wearing their helmet wrong. Terribly wrong.

While strapping on a brain bucket isn't a surefire route to safety—smarter streets and dedicated cycling infrastructure make a much greater positive impact on bike safety than whatever equipment the rider is using—there's no denying that in crashes, falls, and collisions, wearing a helmet can reduce one's chance of serious head injury. So if you're going to venture forth into the world on two wheels, you should wear a helmet. But you also need to make sure it fits properly and that you're wearing the thing correctly.

Check Your Head

First, make sure the helmet is not backward. Yes, it seems silly, but we've seen a good number of folks on the street wearing their helmets the wrong way. Here's how to tell front from back. While holding it level, with the straps pointed toward the ground, you'll notice the helmet is not a perfect bowl. The brim is irregular. Look for the portion of the helmet where the brim rises the highest. This is the front of the helmet. It's designed to hug your forehead just above the eyebrows, so the front will often be the section of the helmet that uses the least amount of material. The back of the helmet will usually be bulkier, and it will descend lower so it can cover most of the back of your skull. 

Other ways to tell front from back: Does your helmet have a sun visor? If so, that's the front. Also, most helmets have a plastic stabilizer on the back that the strap threads through, as well as a rotating knob for adjusting the snugness of the fit. Higher-end helmets may even have flashing red lights on the rear. Look for these features. But even on cheaper helmets, the shape of the helmet makes it obvious.

Measure Up

If your helmet is too small or too large, it's not going to adequately protect you when your noggin greets the pavement. If you're buying a new helmet and can't try it on in person, measure the circumference of your head, then pair that measurement with the sizing guide on the company's website to determine what size to buy. If you don't have flexible measuring tape, use string or a cloth, then measure that distance against a ruler or stiff measuring tape.

Another thing you'll want to check: Whether the helmet is approved by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. If it is, there will be a CPSC sticker somewhere inside. This means the helmet meets current regulatory standards.

Get Fit

Now that you've got the correct size of helmet and you know you're wearing it the right way, let's dial in the proper fit.

Put it on and stand in front of a mirror. The helmet should sit level on your head, covering most of your forehead and stopping just an inch or so above your eyebrows. It should not be tilted back toward your hairline or at some other jaunty angle. This is the most common mistake people make with helmet fit. Be sure to wear it low on your forehead or else it's not going to be able to protect you properly if you hit any part of your head.

Now snap together the chin strap. Close the buckle and adjust both sides of the strap so that the buckle hangs just under the center of your lower jaw. There are usually two adjustment points on each side of the strap: one on the lower half that makes the strap looser or more snug against your jaw and one to adjust how the top, V-shaped section of the strap fits around your ears (which we'll get to later). Use the lower adjusters to take up any slack in the strap. The strap doesn't need to be cinched super tight against your skin. In fact, it's OK if it dangles in the breeze a little bit. Just be sure there's no more than a finger's space between the strap and your skin. The strap should feel slightly snug against your jaw when you open your mouth.

Next, tighten the helmet to fit your head. Most bike helmets have a knob on the back that makes the helmet tighter or looser on your head. With one hand holding the helmet in place—hopefully you're still in front of a mirror, because visual feedback helps here—reach back with your free hand and twist the adjustment knob. When you twist it, usually clockwise, you'll feel the helmet tighten slightly. (If your helmet doesn't have a knob, it should have some other mechanism for adjusting the head circumference.) Keep going until the helmet is tight on your head but still comfortable. You don't want it move at all when you shake your head from side to side. And yes, you'll usually need to loosen that knob to get the helmet off—another signal that you've arrived at a proper fit.

Lastly, let's go back to the strap. Find those upper adjustment points—the plastic pieces where the strap turns into a V and runs up either side of your ears. Slide the plastic adjuster up or down so that the point of the V sits just below your earlobes. Try to push the helmet forward on your head, and then back. If you can move it more than an inch or so forward, tighten the straps behind your ears. If it can slide the helmet more than an inch backward, tighten the straps in front of your ears.

Check that your helmet still fits correctly before each ride. Things get loose, and they'll need to be readjusted if you ride with a cap or headband underneath your helmet. The good news is that all these tiny adjustments quickly become second nature, and you'll be able to do them with your eyes closed after just a few rides.

And remember, once you've crashed in a helmet, it's trash—or at least a slightly morbid memento. It's time to buy a new one.

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