Novelty motorcycle helmets: Some riders choosing style over safety

This report is the result of a partnership with the non-profit FairWarning.org. Read the FairWarning.org report.

(CBS News) In the U.S., 19 states require bikers to wear helmets. But a choice of style over rider safety when selecting a helmet can be deadly.

Suzanne Randa, a 49-year-old mother of four, was riding on the back of her fiance's motorcycle down a California highway last May. Randa's daughter, Kelli Meador, recalled, "As they were coming around the curve, I guess that is when he hit his breaks and lost control of the bike."

The bike hit the highway divider. Her fiance survived, but Randa died instantly when her head slammed into the pavement and her helmet snapped off. Meador said of her mother, "There's a lot of things that she's not going to be here for now."

While her fiance was wearing a certified motorcycle helmet, Randa was wearing what's called a "novelty helmet." They look like real motorcycle helmets, but don't meet the federal Department of Transportation safety standards, and are illegal to wear on motorcycles in some states where helmets are required by law.

Sold mostly on the Internet, novelty helmets come in flashy colors and are cheaper than regular helmets. Sales of the helmets are booming. The National Highway Safety Administration estimates more than 800,000 are sold annually across the U.S.

David Thom, one of the nation's leading helmet experts, told CBS News, "They're made for people who don't want to wear a helmet, and if they weren't in a helmet law state, they would be riding bare-headed. So, they are made so people don't get tickets, basically."

"CBS This Morning" ordered a novelty helmet, along with a certified helmet from one of the many web sites that sell them.

CBS News' Bill Whitaker asked Thom, "What's the biggest difference between these two (a certified helmet and a novelty helmet)?"

Thom said, "This one is a lot physically smaller."

Whitaker remarked the novelty helmet is very light. Thom replied, "Yeah, that one weighs about a pound. This one (the certified helmet) weighs about two pounds."

And there's little protective padding on the inside, as Thom showed when he conducted a safety impact test. (Watch the video in the player above.)

Thom said of the test on the novelty helmet, "The acceleration was way more than twice what is allowable under the federal standard."

He added if the helmet had been on a human head, there would likely have been skull fractures and "lots of internal brain injuries."

The regular helmet performed much better. Thom said, "That's the difference between, terrible head injury, or even death, and being dizzy for an hour."

Federal authorities have not been able to stop the sale of novelty helmets. As long as marketers don't make false claims about their safety, they are perfectly legal to sell.

Thom said, "If a piece of headgear is sold as a novelty item and not labeled as being a motorcycle helmet, then the DOT has no jurisdiction over them."

Whitaker said, "Why would you choose to wear something that won't protect you instead of going that extra step and putting on a helmet that will actually protect your head?"

Thom said, "That's a good question we ask all the time."

Todd Sobel, the founder of the Web site Iron Horse Helmets, from which CBS News ordered, declined to do a on-camera interview, but he told FairWarning.org, "They are not bought for safety. They are bought for style."

The novelty helmets he sells also have clear warnings on them, as does his web site.

Meador, however, said she believes the novelty helmets are dangerous. "I don't think they should be made," she said. "All because of that helmet, I no longer have my mother."

Watch Bill Whitaker's full report in the player above.

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