What Are The Safety Standards for Motorcycle Helmets?

What Are The Safety Standards for Motorcycle Helmets

Have you ever wondered what those stickers at the back of your motorcycle helmet are all about?

Well, these stickers usually indicate that a helmet has been tested and approved for road use. They indicate that the helmet will protect your head against injuries and brain damage during a crash.

However, different helmets undergo varying types of tests of approval and meet different standards. This is why you’ll get stickers form different bodies such as DoT, SNELL, ECE, and so on.

In this guide, we’ll shed more light on what different motorcycle helmet safety standards stand for to help you better understand your motorcycle helmet.

What Motorcycle Safety Standards Are There?

The three widely recognized certifications for motorcycle safety—namely DoT, ECE, and SNELL. As we have just mentioned above, each of these standards has its own test methods for establishing the helmet effectiveness.

Safety-Standards-for-Motorcycle-Helmets

However, it’s worth noting that a new test body known as SHARP recently entered the market.

Let’s briefly describe each of these test bodies below:

  • DoT (Department of Transportation): The United States Department of Transportation is in charge of issuing DoT certification to various helmet brands. All helmets with DoT sticker meats the federal standard FMVSS 218 standards.
  • ECE helmet standard: ECE stands for Economic Commission of Europe. This is a multinational standard recognized in over 50 countries in Europe. All helmets with ECE sticker means they pass the ECE 22.05 standard.
  • SNELL helmet standard: SNELL standards are determined by an independent, non-profit body known SNELL Memorial Foundation. The independent body does voluntary testing procedures on helmets. The current standards set by this body include SA2015 (for race-use helmets) and SNELL M2015 (for street-use helmets).
  • SHARP: This is British government based body for testing helmet quality and the latest player in the motorcycle helmet field. SHARP is an abbreviation for Safety Helmet Assessment and Rating Programme. Unlike the other bodies, this body doesn’t issue certifications. Instead, they assign star rating to the European based helmets.

NOTE: If your helmet lacks any of these stickers, then it’s a big reason to worry. It simply means the helmet is unsafe and will offer you zero protection if you get involved in an accident. Such helmets are also illegal to wear in states that have helmet laws.

Also, NOTE that the best motorcycle helmet doesn’t have to feature all these stickers. It can pass one or two or all the above safety standards, so don’t get surprised if you see your helmet has only one, two or, all the three stickers.

Motorcycle Helmet Safety Standards Explained

In this section, we’ll get into more details about what each helmet safety standard entails and its suitability for helmets rated by each body.

(For this guide, we’ll stick to the three MAIN standards—DOT, ECE, and Snell)

1. DoT helmet standard

This particular standard applies to all the motorcycle helmets sold in the US for road use. The safety standard set here is FMVSS 218 (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard #218).

This basically means that the NHTSA (National Highway Safety Administration) is the enforcement authority for DoT certification.

DoT-helmet-standard

But unlike what you might be thinking, NHTSA doesn’t perform tests on the helmets from different manufacturers before they can be awarded the DoT compliance certification. Instead, each manufacturer making helmets for road in US tests and self-certifies their helmets and affix the DoT sticker onto them.

So, how does the enforcement body ensure that manufacturers make helmets that meet their safety standards?

It’s simple, they acquire random samples of the helmets from various manufacturers and send them to independent testing lab to see if they comply with their standards.

Any manufacturer caught marketing non-compliant helmets risks heavy penalties—up to $5,000 for each helmet! For instance, if a manufacturer sells non-compliant open face helmet and full face helmet, each type will be fined differently

The FMVSS standards revolves around these key areas of helmet performance—impact attenuation, and penetration resistance, and retention system effectiveness.

  • Impact attenuation: involves measuring the acceleration of head form inside the helmet when dropped from a fixed onto spherical, flat surfaced anvil. The standard permits a peak acceleration energy of 400G (where G stands for gravity constant) or acceleration value of ft./second times seconds.
  • Penetration test: this test involves dropping a piercing test striker onto the helmet being tested from a fixed height. The striker mustn’t penetrate soo deep into the helmet that it reaches the head form.
  • Retention system test: for this test, the helmet retention straps are placed under load in tension. The test starts with a load of 49.9lbs for 30 seconds. The load is then increased to 299.2lbs for 120 seconds

Other requirements for helmets to pass this standard include… a helmet offer a compliant helmet offer peripheral vision of not less than 210 degrees from helmet midline. Any projections from the helmets, say rivets, snaps, etc., shouldn’t exceed 5mm.

Some years back, the NTHSA also made changes to how the DoT-approved stickers appear as a measure to fight the counterfeit labeling of non-compliant helmets.

You’ll find a DoT label at the back of your helmet. And it must include the following details in the given order (from top to bottom):

  • Model Number or name
  • DoT below helmet manufacturer’s name
  • “FMVSS 218” should be centered below “DoT” 
  • “Certified” should appear below FMVSS 218

2. ECE helmet standard

The manner in which ECE 22.05 motorcycle safety standard is set is similar to DoT FMVSS218 standard in many ways.

ECE-helmet-standard

For instance, all helmets compliant with ECE standard must offer a peripheral vision through an arc of up to 210 degrees from the helmet midline. The environmental conditioning of helmets to be ECE certified is also required, just like in the DoT standard.

The tests carried out for ECE standard (impact attention and retention system) also sound almost similar to what we’ve seen in the case of DOT above.

This is how the ECE carries out their test:

  • Impact absorption test: the helmet is dropped from a given height on steel anvil with head form fitted inside to determine the amount of energy transmitted. Peak acceleration energy permitted for a helmet to pass this test is 275G. Keep in mind that impact absorption as well as rotational forces tests are also conducted at all points where a surface or a part projects from the helmet shell.
  • Retention system test: here, a free fall drop of up to 22.0lbs from a height of 29.5in attached to a fastened chin strap is made. For the strap to pass this strap, it should register a displacement of attachment of not more than 1.37 inches.

In ECE standard, the chin strap buckle also gets tested for slippage under load. The strap material is also tested for abrasion resistance as well as tension failure load (shouldn’t be less than 674.4lbs). The ease of release and quick-release buckle systems durability tests are also conducted.

ECE, unlike DoT, doesn’t conduct penetration tests.

Unlike DOT standard, ECE conducts even more tests for helmets before labeling them as ECE-compliant.

These additional tests include helmet surface abrasion resistance test, rigidity of the helmet shell (determined by measuring the shell deformation when load is progressively applied to it), and visor performance test (DOT has different standard for visor tests).

Another area where DoT and ECE sharply differ is that the latter subjects the helmets to 3rd party testing before being released into the market. when the production starts, the manufacturer has to submit up to 50 sample helmets/visors to a designated lab that works for the government. The lab uses the ECE standards for quality control during on-going production.

ECE also makes a point of specifying the type of helmet their approval applies to. This is labeled in alphabet codes as outlined below:

  • J denotes a helmet without lower face cover, e.g. ECE 22.05J
  • P denotes a helmet with protective lower face cover, e.g. ECE 22.05P
  • NP denotes helmet with non-protective lower face cover, e.g. 22.05NP

3. SNELL helmet standard

As we mentioned earlier on, SNELL is a private, non-profit organization that’s dedicated to improving the quality of helmets.

This body goes beyond the government (or the ECE and DOT) testing approach and is always ready to help manufacturers with helmet development by providing them with prototype testing.

SNELL-helmet-standard

In the case of SNELL, the manufacturer seeking their approval seal sends their complete helmets to the body for testing. The body then conduct tests on the helmets using their standardized tests. If the helmet passes the tests, it receives certification and the manufacturer is given a go-ahead to label their products as Snell certified.

Once a product gets Snell approval, however, it can’t be altered in production in any way! The foundation goes the extra mile to perform post-market random tests to see of the manufacturers still complies to their standards. During these tests, any helmet that fails to pass the tests might become de-certified.

Unlike ECE and DOT, Snell is 100% voluntary and isn’t a requirement by federal or any international authorities. However, you may find some competition sanctioning bodies listing it as one of the requirements.

So, what tests are conducted for helmets to be Snell-certified?

The foundation subjects all helmets to 4 main test areas, and also uses pre-test environmental conditioning of helmets.

Just like the ECE and DOT standards, Snell also requires a helmet to feature 210-degrees peripheral vision from the midline.

The key test areas for Snell-compliant helmets include:

  • Impact absorption testing: this is done just like we saw in ECE and DoT, where a free-fall drop test is made from a fixed height with a head form fitted in the helmet. The test measures the energy impact transferred to the helmet interior when dropped onto fixed anvil surface.

Up to 5 anvil shapes are used here, and the peak acceleration energy permitted for a helmet to pass this test is 300G (though this value depends on the specific test being conducted).

The height from which a helmet is dropped from also varies. The test specifications usually specific the velocity attained by the impact point—it can range from 5 to 8m/s for certified tests.

  • Penetration test: a penetration test is also done on the helmets to see if they’ll protected your head during a crash. Here, a pointed striker (weighing 6.6lbs) gets dropped to the helmet from a height of 3m.

If the striker penetrates the helmet shell and makes contact with the head form inside, then is means the helmet has failed this test.

The face shields also undergo penetration resistance test, where the shields is shot in 3 spots along the centerline using an air rifle (loaded with pointed lead pellet traveling at a velocity of approx. 500kph).

The bump creates by the shorts on the inner side of the shield shouldn’t excess a height of 2.5mm. If the penetrate penetrates this shield, then the helmet is labeled as unsafe.

  • Positional stability test: here, a helmet roll-off test is tested by attaching 8.8lb weight to the first rear edge of a given helmet using a cord, with the helmet positioned and properly strapped on head form facing down at angle of 135 degrees.

The idea here is to release the weight and try to dislodge the helmet from its position on the head form inside it.

The helmet then gets rotated through 180 degrees, weight gets attached to its front edge and the test is repeated.

For a helmet to pass this test, it shouldn’t roll off the head form.

  • Retention system test: similar to what we saw in DoT and ECE, Snell also subjects its helmets to retention system testing.  A 50.6lbs tension load is applied to a fastened chin strap for 60 seconds, and then simultaneously removing the load and imparting 83.6lbs guided fall load to closed strap system.

If the strap breaks or deflects in excess of 30mm, then it means the helmet has failed this test.

While still at it, the full face helmets also undergo test for the strength of their chin bars strength. Here, the helmet is mounted with its chin bar facing up in a jig and then 11lb weight is dropped onto the bar midpoint from a fixed height. The amount of deflection resulting form the impact is measured (the deflection shouldn’t go past 2.3-inches).

Just like in the other safety standards for motorcycles, all these Snell tests apply to different types of helmets, whether it’s a modular helmet, Bluetooth helmet, and so on.

Other additional tests carried out by Snell include flame resistance (applies to specific types of racing helmets)

Snell also uses specific codes to indicate the type of application given helmet is approved for as outlined below:

  • M: motorcycle
  • CMS: children’s motorsport standard
  • CMR: children’s motorsport restricted
  • SA: special application
  • SAH: special application frontal head restraint system
  • K: karting

Final Verdict

DoT, ECE, and Snell are the main bodies used for motorcycle safety standards. Each of these bodies have their own standardized tests for all helmets. The ECE and DoT safety standards are similar in many ways, though they have a few differences on how they test helmets.

Snell is an independent body that’s dedicated to improving the safety of motorcycle helmets. Their work is purely voluntary and they perform even more intensive tests than the Dot and ECE.

A helmet with DoT-approval is suitable for road use in the US. A helmet with ECE is suitable for road use in all the 50plus European countries that recognize this safety standard.

A helmet doesn’t necessarily have to be approved by all these safety standards. It can pass only one of these safety standards, two, or all the three of them.

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