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Is there any substantial difference between city (on the left) and mountain bike helmets (just examples)?

black city (urban) helmet red mountain bike helmet

I understand that cycling in mountains is different in terms of risks from city commuting, however, my impression is that the safety standards do not distinguish the two.

In my case, I am looking for a helmet for city commuting. Can one say that a city helmet is provably safer in this case? What are its advantages and disadvantages?

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    Are you looking for answers specifically about safety and protection? – Argenti Apparatus Apr 10 '18 at 19:33
  • Not only. Convenience and any other factors are of interest as well. Safety and protection are just important. – Howdedo Apr 10 '18 at 19:42
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    "Mountain bike" is something of a misnomer -- "off-road bike" would be closer to what they're designed for. Most of the people I see wearing helmets on city streets are wearing something much more like the thing you call a mountain bike helmet than the thing you call a city helmet. – David Richerby Apr 10 '18 at 20:07
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    Where I live bicycle helmets are compulsory on the road. I have seen helmets that do not meet our countries list of acceptable standards sold as "MTB/Offroad only". Some of these are good helmets that meet recognized standards from other countries, some are cheap and nasty ones I would not use on my dog. :) – mattnz Apr 11 '18 at 0:01
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In my impression the differences are:

  • Look: as a commuter/city biker you don't want to appear as colourful weirdo / stick out in the supermarket. The colours are therefore more casual. (I actually heard the industry believes one of the main reasons people don't wear helmets is their looks, and invested into designing them like beanies; I myself believe they are compared to scooter helmets unpractical - you cannot store them on the bike and have to carry them around)

  • Ventilation: as commuting is not considered a sport, you're expected to sweat less and in need of less ventilation. Some commuter helmets have (similar to ski helmets) even closable vents. Bear in mind, outdoor sport is biased towards nice weather. Commuting is done in any season. Probably many sport cyclists just skip rain cycling, where a commuter doesn't want to compromise safety (helmet) and a dry head (hat).

All studies concerning safety and protection don't indicate a difference. But some reports point out that the (European) safety standard for bike helmets has its flaws: only central hit from the top is tested, no side coverage tests, impact corresponds to a fall from 1.5m height (5 feet) and speed somewhere around 20 km/h (12.5 mph). The report claimed that side impact and higher speed impacts are where high price helmets and low price helmets differ, but it didn't get more specific. I am not aware of a safety difference as function of target user group.

EDIT: It appears the report I meant is not online anymore. There are traces of it here https://erfolgsebook.de/teuer-oder-billig-fahrradhelme-wiso-zdf/ (it was German public television who're not allowed to keep their material online).

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I've never seen bike helmets described as "city" vs "off-road" or "mountain bike." I can see where one might trade off between the amount of ventilation offered by a particular brand of bike helmet, perhaps even by season. But the only relevant data I can think of are the crash ratings--if you hit the ground, to what extent is the helmet judged to have helped prevent some injury. I've had two bike crashes. I attribute the greater damage in one to the fact that I did not have the helmet well-tightened on/fitted to my head. Not sure that the type of helmet was as big a factor.

There seems to be growing evidence that current helmets don't prevent the brain from slamming around inside your skull; there may be newer helmets that help make that less traumatic.

So, fit and crash-ratings are what I'd look for. I'm not aware (but open to being better informed) of any differences, per se, between helmets marketed to mountain bike/off-ride riders vs. those marketed to commuters.

  • There are different "crash ratings" for downhill full-face helmets and lighter all-mountain ones, but standards make no difference between city helmets and all-mountain ones. Many bicycle shops (online and offline) put MTB and commuter helmets into different product categories, but there is also intersection, i.e. some models belong to both categories. – Grigory Rechistov Apr 10 '18 at 20:41
  • Looking at any major cycling helmet manufacturers web page will show they all offer helmets putatively for different riding types – Argenti Apparatus Apr 10 '18 at 20:54
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    But, those categories seem to have more to do with style than with functionality. I don't know of any functional differences. – Ari Davidow Apr 10 '18 at 23:41
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    Given many roadies will not tolerate a MTBer in their mist, and vs versa, by distinguishing helmets a rider that enjoy both styles must buy two helmets, meaning more sales and higher profits for the industry. – mattnz Apr 11 '18 at 0:04
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    @mattnz that's a useful distinction. For me it's a good role of thumb to avoid those intolerant people - maybe I'd be faster with them but I wouldn't be happier! – Chris H Apr 13 '18 at 7:17
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A helmet should be capable of protecting your head on impact. Nothing more and especially nothing less. So based on this requirement you would always go for the full-face helmet used by downhillers, because it protects the largest area of your head. The reasons for choosing lighter helmets are just ventilation and a lower risk of injury based on the type of riding you do.

On an Enduro helmet you ditch the front part of the helmet because you don't do extremely hard downhill tracks and such big jumps where you can expect unreasonably high forces on impact, and you also need more ventilation on the uphills. However these helmets still cover a larger area on the back of your head! On a road bike you don't expect a crash on rough underground and for flat roads, a lighter road bike helmet is sufficient. If you look closely these helmets do cover less area on the back than usual mountainbike helmets.

This would imply a safety ranking like this: Full-Face > Enduro > Road Helmet

You can use the mountainbike helmet for commuting without any worries, just be sure you don't to the opposite. I even used a snowboard helmet for mountainbiking: The covered area is pretty similar to an enduro helmet, the safety standards are even higher because these helmets also have to work in cold conditions. However there is less ventilation which is why I will probably buy a specific enduro helmet.

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