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Is there any real difference between the cheap and expensive cycling helmets? Is it really worth buying a helmet at say 3 or 4 times the price of a cheap helmet? Will that helmet really give you 3 or 4 times more protection?

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A lot of people wonder this and there are a lot of helmet choices out there. The extra expense for ventilation often does not occur to new riders or riders who rarely travel great distances. I am glad you brought up this question. –  DC_CARR Nov 24 '10 at 17:08
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One has to strike a balance between affordability and safety features. The fact remains that helmets aren't designed to last and that, after a serious crash, ALL helmets should go into the garbage. –  WTHarper Dec 8 '12 at 4:07
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5 Answers 5

up vote 28 down vote accepted

No, usually expensive helmets are lighter and more comfortable because have more ventilation.

So, if you plan to ride for long hours it's better to buy the more expensive helmet that you can afford, otherwise - for short rides - a cheap helmet will do the job.

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The same standard of safety achieved by a helmet with more holes in it is a real accomplishment on the part of helmet manufacturers. Any dummy could probably stuff foam into a hemispherical mold, put a strap on it, and call it a helmet. A good quality helmet is one that you forget you're wearing. –  DC_CARR Nov 24 '10 at 17:10
    
Helmets are also a lot like clothing, in that what's comfortable for one person often isn't for another. That aside, yeah, the cheap helmets are usually horribly uncomfortable. –  Neil Fein Nov 24 '10 at 18:50
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And cheap ones, as with much cheap attire, will degrade, the buckles will likely fall apart, the covering will tarnish. And we haven't even hinted on low prices due to sweat shops ... –  Unsliced Nov 25 '10 at 10:35
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The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute did a impact test of two sets of helmets. One of them cheap (US$20.00) the other expensive (US$200.00). The results are clear: there's no difference. Buy from a reputable brand.

Just check:

BTW, they give nice and reasonable tips:

"Beware of gimmicks. You want a smoothly rounded outer shell, with no sharp ribs or snag points. Excessive vents mean less foam contacting your head, which could concentrate force on one point. "Aero" helmets are not noticeably faster, and in a crash the "tail" could snag or knock the helmet aside. Skinny straps are less comfortable. Dark helmets are hard for motorists to see. Rigid visors can snag or shatter in a fall. Helmet standards do not address these problems--it's up to you!"

Their site is really informative. It's worth to spend half an hour browsing it.

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From a safety standpoint there's no difference, but that's not the only factor to judge a helmet on. How did they compare regarding lightness, bulkiness, comfort and ventilation? –  GordonM Dec 10 '12 at 8:24
    
I don't know if its safe to conclude that theres no difference just based on this test (given the few number of helmets tested and lack of curbstone anvil) - sure, they all meet the minimum requirements which are set for helmets, but not everything that passes is the same (for example, in car crash tests, there are a lot of 5 star cars, but some of them will leave you better off than others after crashing if you watch the test videos!). –  Batman Jan 29 at 9:46
    
The debate over rigid visors goes on and on for kayaking helmets as well. The counter argument is that the protrusion may protect your glasses (therefore eyes from bits of glasses) and nose in a face plant situation. –  Chris H Jan 29 at 10:50
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There is actually some misinformation here. It is true that both cheap and expensive helmets must conform with CE-certifications and EU-regulations etc. but the Swedish insurance company Folksam did a more comprehensive test of bicycle helmets. While the best helmet was a relatively cheap one (if you don't consider the airbag helmet), there was a large difference between the amount of protection they each offered.

Here is a link to the test, but unfortunately it is in Swedish. Google translate was not to keen to parse the link either.

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The reason for these differences is that the CE test is not so much more than dropping a melon in a helmet on the ground from 1m height, which is not too realistic compared to real bicycle crashes. –  arne Jan 29 at 9:23
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From the same manufacturer (or similar reputable) the safety is the same.

This years model costs more, mostly to make up for selling last years model at half price! The top end ranges do have better ventilation, more comfortable or more adjustable padding and straps and have a logo on the box that says they were endorsed by this years Tour de France winner (unless they have just been caught taking drugs)

Personally I buy last year's model from a reputable maker when the LBS has them on sale.

Since helmets need to be replaced every few years (the plastic degrades) I don't worry about how long a better quality helmet will last. For me the padding and straps become horribly degraded from sweat long before the impact foam chemically degrades.

I also buy two helmets for summer use and alternate them so they at least have a chance to dry out. Older ones get relegated to winter use with the padding removed when I wear a hat.

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Trust.

Of course the manufacturers trade on that, but would you trust a helmet that cost a meagre amount?

The more expensive helmets are generally sculpted and designed to have more ventilation, be lighter, be more adjustable, be more comfortable, but ultimately, do you trust them to do the job.

I wear a helmet because when I race I have to and when I commute I'm under personal pressure to wear one. (To be fair I did recently have a crash and my forehead would have looked worse had I not been wearing one - it at least protected me from a longer cut.)

Personally I spent more money because I wanted light and comfortable, but I also figure that something that costs the same as a big lunch cannot have been designed, tested and built properly.

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Personally, yes, I'd trust a helmet that cost a meagre amount; they're all tested against the same standard (CPSC in the US). –  freiheit Nov 24 '10 at 18:47
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@freiheit - yes, for the first few time you wear it; but after sustained use, for hours a day, days a week, weeks a year? The old cliché "you get what you pay for" isn't always true, but more often than not. If you're going to wear a helmet (see elsewhere for values of 'if') it just doesn't seem right to me to just spend a minimum amount without thinking about why it's so cheap. –  Unsliced Nov 25 '10 at 10:33
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Adjustability is a big point here. If it isn't adjustable, it won't sit properly on your head, and won't protect you as well. –  Kibbee Dec 7 '12 at 20:28
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@kibbee - A fully adjustable helmet will fit more people properly - true. If you are lucky enough that a less adjustable helment fits well, then theres no benefit spending more money on a more adjustable one. –  mattnz Dec 11 '12 at 20:42
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