Some years ago I was involved in a motorcycle spill. One minute I was enjoying a downhill ride on a warm summer evening; the next thing I knew, I was picking myself up off the road several yards away from my buckled machine. Apart from a broken collarbone and a few scrapes and bruises, I was lucky. But the marks on my helmet lead me to think that if it were not for that piece of head protection, I might not be writing these words today.

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novelty helmetNot all helmets are created equal, however. Novelty helmets known as “loophole lids” or “brain buckets,” sold mostly on the Internet, feature flashy designs and mohawks, spikes, horns or other additions. The National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) estimates that some 800,000 of these helmets are sold each year across the United States.

The problem is that when it comes to head safety, they’re worthless.

For motorcycle riders wearing novelty helmets, there is “100 percent probability of brain injuries and skull fracture, indicating that the person wearing the helmet will sustain fatal head injuries” if they get in an accident, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA). Motorcycle riders wearing a novelty helmet are nearly three times more likely to have a head injury than those wearing certified helmets, according to the agency. (Photo: Fair Warning)

Suzanne Randa, a California mother of four, was thrown from the back of her fiancée’s motorbike in 2013. She died when her helmet strap broke and her head struck the pavement. The driver of the motorbike, who was wearing a regulation safety helmet, survived.

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How to make sure your helmet is legit

Motorcycle helmets for on-road use must comply with mandatory federal safety standards. These are designed to keep users from getting a skull fracture or severe brain injury in the event of an accident, according to the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Some people may not realize they’re wearing a helmet that offers little more protection than a party hat. How do you know if your helmet’s legit? Experts say you should look for a Department of Transportation (DOT) label on the back, which should include the following items in this order (from top to bottom):

  • The manufacturer’s name
  • “DOT” below the manufacturer’s name
  • “FMVSS 218,” which refers to the federal helmet standard, below DOT
  • The word “Certified,” below FMVSS 218

And of course, avoid buying any helmet paired with the word “novelty,” including ones that feature ridges or mohawks. Safety officials say bumps and ridges on the helmet’s surface can interfere with head protection in a crash.

Buy your certified helmet through motorcycle store (in person or online) rather than buying it online from a dubious supplier. Some suppliers are selling novelty helmets with counterfeit labels.

Once you have a certified helmet, don’t forget to inspect it after an accident or a long period of use for defects that call for a new one:

  • Cracks in the shell or liner
  • A loose fit you can’t correct
  • Marks on the helmet liner
  • Crushed foam
  • Worn straps and missing pads

In any event, replace your trusty helmet within 5 to 10 years of buying it.

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Spread the word

If you’re a biker, encourage your friends to use certified helmets, too. NHTSA estimates that between 235 and 480 lives could be saved every year if all novelty helmet users in all states that require motorcyclists to wear helmets switched to approved helmets.

Even if just 5 percent to 10 percent of users made the switch, 12 to 48 lives annually would be saved. The agency calls this “a modest and achievable projection.”

This spring the NHTSA proposed new rules to protect motorcyclists from brain buckets, including giving police officers the ability to screen riders for these helmets.

The estimated extra cost of a DOT-approved helmet, according to the NHTSA, is $48.92.

Luke James is a freelance writer and musician who writes about music, soccer, kids, pets and life with his family in northern California.