If you ride a bike in New Jersey you are required to wear a helmet. This is not only good safety practice, it’s the law. But strapping on your old helmet may not be enough to keep your noggin’ safe in the event of a crash. Bike helmets have a limited life-span, irrespective of whether they’ve been involved in a collision, and they must also be properly sized and fitted in order to function properly.

Bike helmets use a type of semi-rigid foam to absorb impact from a crash. The foam is intended to deform when subjected to an impact and, in so doing, it acts similarly to a crumple zone on a car, absorbing some of the force from the crash. However, the foam will degrade with the passage of time and with being subjected to the elements, to the chemicals in a person’s sweat, etc., which causes the foam to become stiffer or to otherwise lose some of its ability to absorb shock. Most data suggest that helmets be replaced every 5 years even if they have not been in an accident. And every helmet which has been subjected to the force of an impact should be replaced, even if it looks fine to the eye. There may be damage to the foam that is not visible and this may limit the helmet’s ability to do its job.

In addition, it is important to insure the helmet is properly fitted. Here are some tips compiled from Consumer Reports and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to insure you get the right bike helmet:

  1. Be sure to try the helmet on before you buy it. Different brands will fit differently and will employ different adjustment systems. Experts say the helmet should fit “snugly”, but “should not feel uncomfortably tight”.
  2. Be sure the helmet is properly positioned. Many people wear the helmet improperly. Your helmet should sit level on your head with the front covering the forehead and resting just above the eyebrows. Never tilt the helmet up so the front rests above or on the top of the forehead as this leaves sensitive portions of the brain vulnerable to injury.
  3. Verify the straps are properly positioned . The side straps of most bike helments will branch out to form a “V” between the neck fastener and the helmet/strap attachment points. The bottom of the “v” should be positioned to fit comfortably below your ear. The chin strap should be tight enough that you feel the helmet pulling down on the top of your head it you open your jaw fully, and experts say you should not be able to fit more than two fingers between the strap and your chin.
  4. Kid’s helmets should fit properly NOW. Don’t buy your child a helmet that they will “eventually grow into”. It should fit them properly NOW, and should fit them the same way an adult’s helmet fits. Otherwise, it may not protect them in the event of a crash.
  5. More expensive does not necessarily mean better. So long as you are purchasing a quality helmet from a reputable manufacturer, you need not break the bank to get a good bike helmet. Like anything associated with bicycles, there are a range of prices available. Material choices, weight, options, brand, etc., will all impact the price point for a helmet. There are a number of web sites with safety and rating information on helmets you can turn to for more information. Among these are: ConsumerReports.org, BikeRadar.com, and the web sites for Bicycling magazine and Outside magazine.