Motorcycle Half Helmets vs. Three-Quarters vs. Full Face: Pros & Cons

Reviewing the protection levels and preferences to help choose headgear

Motorcycle helmets save lives and reduce severe injuries, which is why 47 US states have universal or partial laws requiring DOT-approved helmets. Once those minimum protection standards are met, riders can choose between motorcycle half helmets, three-quarter models, and full-face motorcycle helmets.

Which one is the safest? And, more subjectively, which type is the “best?”

Let's compare the stats, options, benefits, and drawbacks.

The basic helmet types

Riders have three main alternatives when it comes to protective headgear:

  • Full-face motorcycle helmets cover the entire head and face. Their fundamental difference is that a face shield and chin bar provide complete frontal protection. 
  • 3/4 motorcycle helmets, aka jet helmets, leave the face open while covering the ears and back of the head. They may or may not have a windscreen.
  • Motorcycle half helmets, sometimes called “brain buckets” or “half shells,” provide the least coverage, leaving the ears and lower back of the head exposed. But they offer more visibility and, for many riders, greater comfort.

Motorcycle riders with half helmets

Half helmets weigh significantly less than full-face versions. The range for various types is from about 2 to 4 lbs.

However, there are additional options:

  • Flip-uphelmets, often called modular, have a chin bar and face shield that rotate up and out of the way, basically giving riders the option to convert gear into a different type.
  • A newer category is modular helmets that have detachable accessories, such as a half-helmet with an optional face shield or chin bar.

Modular helmet

Some modular helmets, like this HHV prototype, allow individuals to attach and remove face protection.

Nevertheless, the big difference between all varieties is how much surface area each protects, primarily whether the headgear protects the face.

Safety research: motorcycle half helmets and 3/4 vs. full

First, we’ll restate the obvious: all rated headgear saves lives and reduces injuries, and any good helmet is far safer than none.

In the US, all mandated helmets must meet the minimum performance specs of Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 218 issued by the Department of Transportation (DOT). Other international authorities and private organizations, like the Snell Memorial Foundation, have their own testing schemes and ratings. So, as long as a helmet bears DOT, Snell, or other marks, it’s likely been tested to offer pretty good protection.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of safety studies reveals motorcycle helmets lower fatalities by 73% and reduce the rate of “severe, serious, and critical injuries” by 85%. Other reviews have found a 42% lower risk of fatal injury and a 69% lower risk of head injury. Nevertheless, the research all agrees that helmets vastly improve safety.

Motorcycle accident

Every safety-rated headgear type, including this 3/4 motorcycle helmet, significantly reduces the odds of death and injury. However, a key factor is whether it stays on the wearer’s head during an accident.

There’s less research on accident outcomes by helmet type. However, some studies have compared at least full-face headgear vs. open-face models, the latter category including both half and 3/4 motorcycle helmets.

For example, a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology looked at how helmet types and usage impacted “head injuries among motorcyclists in Taiwan.” Some key results:

  • “Non-helmeted motorcyclists were more than four times as likely to have head injuries” and “ten times as likely to have brain injuries.”
  • Wearers of half-coverage helmets “were more than twice as likely to have head injuries” or “brain injuries” than those wearing full-face models.
  • A crucial metric was whether the helmet stayed on during an accident; riders with “loosely fastened helmets” almost doubled their head injury risk.

In contrast, a 2008 review of studies found “insufficient evidence to demonstrate whether differences in helmet type confer more or less advantage in injury reduction.”

However, perhaps the most well-known numbers from biomechanics and accident analysis expert Dietmar Otte came to a different conclusion. In the 1980s, Otte compared full-face helmets to open-face versions and determined complete coverage headgear was 45.3% safer. This number stems from the percentage of impacts to the face and chin, illustrated in a diagram reproduced many times over the years:

Helmet impact points diagram

If you add up all the numbers in yellow, they total 45.3%, the percentage of impacts that Otte found to the face. Image source: Main Biker Network web forum via Visual Rhetoric

This study’s injury proportions aren’t definitive. For example, NHSTA data from 2003–2005 estimates facial injuries at just over 20%, another study had combined face and neck injuries at 20-30%, and a third had “jaw and face” injuries at just below 20%.

Nevertheless, the overall conclusion is clear: a decent proportion of hits happen in places that full-face helmets protect.

Other pros and cons—safety and beyond

So, if full-face helmets are safer, why doesn’t everyone wear them? And why don’t governments mandate them?

The choice comes down to a mix of safety, comfort, awareness, and compliance. Full-face helmets offer greater coverage and protection but also more weight and, for many riders, less comfort and awareness. Here are some of the pros and cons:

Full-face motorcycle helmets


  • The most coverage area and protection
  • More likely to stay on during an accident
  • Less noise—no earplugs necessary
  • A face shield protects the rider from wind, insects, and debris
  • Better insulation from winter weather


  • Less visibility, especially peripheral vision
  • Some riders find them claustrophobic
  • Reduced airflow, which can be a problem in hot weather
  • Reduced ability to communicate with fellow riders, nearby drivers, and pedestrians
  • Heavier—full-face helmets weigh 3+ lbs. 

3/4 motorcycle helmets


  • Better visibility, communication, and hearing, which may be why many US police departments still use them
  • More airflow, which is especially beneficial on hot days
  • Lighter weight
  • Adaptability—some modular headgear offers options to add face shields and chin bars
  • Adaptable modular flip-up helmets are essentially full-face helmets that convert into 3/4 headgear


  • Less coverage and protection than full-face helmets
  • They can be less likely to stay on during an accident, though it depends on the retention system
  • Many lack a face shield, and anyone who’s swallowed a bug knows the value of that!
  • Less cold weather protection than full-face helmets

Motorcycle half-helmets


  • The most visibility, communication, and hearing
  • The greatest airflow
  • The smallest size and lightest weight—some half-helmets weigh as little as 2 lbs.
  • Adaptability—modular half-helmets may offer attachable face shields and chin bars


  • The least coverage and protection
  • They can be less likely to stay on during an accident, though it depends on the quality and use of the retention system
  • Earplugs are recommended when riding
  • Most lack a face shield
  • The least insulation in cold weather

Motorcycle rider wearing open-face helmet

Some riders who wear open-face helmets prioritize greater visibility and the feel of the wind on their face.

Additional pros and cons include the ease of putting a helmet on and taking it off and the feeling of freedom some motorcyclists prioritize when wearing 3/4 or half helmets. Many riders opt for the smallest rated helmet to meet the essential requirements of helmet laws.

Ultimately, some form of compliance is the biggest factor in reducing head injuries. It’s why governments with universal helmet laws don't currently mandate what type of headgear people wear beyond DOT testing and approval.

Even the California Department of Motor Vehicles, an agency in a state embracing many of the strictest safety regulations, notes "three types of helmets to consider." The CA DMV states that "whichever style you choose," riders should make sure it:

  • “Meets U.S. DOT safety standards
  • Fits snugly, all the way around.
  • Has no obvious defects such as cracks, loose padding, or frayed straps.
  • Is securely fastened on your head when you ride.”

Choosing the right protection

Ultimately, opting for motorcycle half helmets, three-quarters, or full-face is an individual choice. As long as it’s an informed decision evaluating the risks vs. rewards and involves rated headgear, riders using any helmet type are far safer than those without one.

Again, different research states a 42% to 73% reduced risk of death and 69% to 85% fewer injuries, with one review concluding that both full-face and open-face “were found protective against head injury.”

In addition, modular helmets allow users to adapt a single piece of equipment. For example, a rider might use a chin bar and face shield during winter months or hard riding and remove it for leisurely rides on hot summer days.

Riders should pick quality headgear that’s tested to relevant safety standards and meets their style, comfort, awareness, and protection preferences.

Check out the rest of the Hard Head Veterans blog to learn more about helmet safety, including how PPE mitigates TBIs and other wounds, how motorcycle helmets manage head injury risks, and a rundown of the most relevant motorcycle helmet safety ratings and tests.