The Battle Between Safety and Style: Open-Face vs. Full-Coverage Motorcycle Helmets

Motorcycle helmet on yellow divider line.

Motorcycle helmets are a crucial element in rider safety. But what type of helmet is best? The question is a source of much debate among riders and experts alike. This article will examine the issue of open-face versus full-coverage motorcycle helmets and analyze two studies on the effectiveness and safety of each.

The first study, published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2007, assessed the implications of motorcyclist safety after the repeal of helmet laws in 6 states. The objective of the study was to evaluate the impact of universal helmet laws on motorcycle fatalities. The study examined data from 50 states from 1974 to 2004.

The results were striking.

The study found that universal helmet laws were associated with an 11% reduction in motorcycle fatalities. In contrast, having no helmet law was statistically the same as having a partial law, which is the case in Pennsylvania. Repeals of universal helmet laws were associated with a 12% increase in motorcycle fatalities.

The Statistical Importance of Wearing a Helmet

The 2007 study also found that head injuries were a primary cause of death in motorcycle accidents, and lack of helmet use was a key factor in head injury-related fatalities. Between 1979 and 1986, head injury was a factor in 53% of motorcycle fatalities, and in 34% of cases, head injury was the sole cause of death. In fatalities with one or more diagnoses, head injury was the primary cause of death in 83% of cases and among the top two causes of death in 95% of cases. The most telling fact was that riders who lacked a helmet were four times more likely to incur a serious head injury than helmeted riders.

The 2007 study found that motorcycle helmets were 37% effective in reducing head injuries. In other words, if 100 non-helmeted riders died, 37 might have lived if they had worn a helmet. Despite the evidence that helmets are objectively safer than the alternative, helmet use is declining.

An Even Larger Study Shows Advantage of Full-Face Helmets

The second study, published in Accident Analysis and Prevention in 2021, aimed to evaluate the effectiveness of different types of motorcycle helmets. The study reviewed data from 137 different studies with motorcycle crash data from 1965 to 2019, so it has an even broader scope than the 2007 study.

The results were nuanced. While there was limited evidence that full-face helmets provided better protection than open-face or half-coverage helmets, there was scarce evidence that any type of helmet was more effective than others at neck protection. The study found that how a helmet was secured to the rider’s head was a more important factor in preventing head injuries.

The evidence from both studies suggests that helmets are critical in reducing the risk of head injuries and fatalities in motorcycle crashes. However, the debate over open-face versus full-coverage helmets remains. Full-face helmets may protect the head and face slightly better than other types of motorcycle helmets, but there is not enough evidence to say they provide better neck protection.

Next Steps for Motorcycle Riders

Motorcycle riders are more equipped to make an informed decision when selecting a helmet than in prior decades. While universal helmet laws have been shown to reduce fatalities, the choice of helmet type is ultimately up to the rider. However, choosing a helmet with an effective retention system can prevent head injuries—or even save a life.

When making a decision, riders should take into account the evidence that helmets are critical in preventing serious injuries and fatalities, and the fact that helmet use is declining despite this evidence.

In conclusion, the debate over open-face versus full-coverage motorcycle helmets is an ongoing one. While the evidence suggests that helmets are critical in reducing the risk of head injuries and fatalities in motorcycle crashes, the effectiveness of different helmet types is still an area of ongoing research. What we do know is if you want to survive a motorcycle crash, a helmet is non-negotiable.

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