Any full faced Helmet that passes DOT certification will be “safe enough”. Snell certified helmets are stronger (they must withstand higher impacts than just DOT have to) – but stronger is not always safer (less likely to have something penetrate your head, more likely to break your neck). There are very big discussions going on between people who know far more than I do regarding what is really the safest helmet. Thankfully, what all the geniouses agree on is that a DOT certified FULL FACED helmet is going to be a safe helmet.
There are some excellent reviews on helmets at webbikeworld.com
The gmax (a pretty cheap helmet) got their helmet of the year award this past year:
Don’t look for “durable” in helmets. Helmets are like air-bags. One use. Once you crash, you replace your helmet. They save your head by breaking apart inside. Even if they look fine after a crash, the foam in them might be filled with micro fractures. Much like a tiny crack in a window, you may never see it, but with only a little bit of force the whole thing could split.
Because of this, never buy a used helmet. You are trusting your life to the person that claims it has “never been dropped”. It would really suck if they lied to you.
The big thing with helmets is comfort. Go to a good shop, try on a bunch. Wear each one for at least 5 minutes. When you have a few you really ike, wear them on for longer (as much as 20 minutes). If there are any pressure points, you want to know about them before you buy the helmet (what might be comfortable for 5 minutes can turn into torture after 20).
My local shop suggests: come when the store is quiet so you can get a salesperson all to yourself, and plan on spending over an hour looking at helmets. Thankfully my salesgirl was plenty of fun while I felt like an idiot wearing dozens of helmets. It also gave me a chance to sit on a bunch of bikes I’ll never be able to afford
Finding a good bike shop, and having a good relationship with them is truely priceless.
So, get a helmet that is comfortable, meets DOT (and Snell if you want that extra bit of assurance), has a face shield (so if you go down on your face, you keep your pretty nose attached), and costs what you feel is fair.
I personally bought a Snell approved Arai. It cost me more than $500. If my head fit into a scorpion I’d have gotten one of those. My head is definitely worth $500 to me, but if I could be just as safe and comfortable in a $300 helmet, I’d rather spend the $300.
Also a small side story about helmets:
I ride mountain bikes, usually down mountains. This past summer I took a trip to whistler and vancouver BC. While in vancouver I crashed hard. I fell 5 feet on the to top of my head. I destroyed a $120 fibre-glass full faced mountain bike helmet. Every inch of my body hurt (I had a pretty severe concussion). But I tell ya, when I wiggled my toes it was the greatest feeling in my life. I spent the whole day in the ER. All the nurses kept saying it was such a shame that I’d destroyed such a nice (and expensive) helmet. I just kept telling them it did exactly what I bought it for, and it was worth every penny. That helmet now hangs behind me in my cubicle.
Looking at the damage to the fibreglass, I have no doubt that without a helmet I’d be dead right now.
I used to tease a climbing buddy of mine because he always told his rope “I love you” when he put it away. He explained that no matter how much you love your wife, and no matter how much she says she loves you, when you fall, she won’t save you. But yor rope will always save you. The rope loves you more than anyone in the world.
I love my helmet, and it loves me.