How Helmet Ratings Work Here In The US
We get it. All the different Motorcycle helmet ratings found here in the good ol’ USA can seem pretty confusing. Never fear, we’re going to boil things down in a way to make things simple.
First off, it’s important to remember that just because a helmet meets the requirements of one rating, that does NOT mean it will meet the standards of any other rating. Why? Because each rating may test for different things. For example, ECE and SNELL - one tests for peak G’s and the other tests for duration at peak G’s.
Here’s a quick summary of the helmet standards we’ll cover today:
- Minimum requirement for motorcycle helmets sold in the United States.
- Determined by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT); the current standard in effect now is FMVSS 218.
- DOT does not “approve” helmets, Instead, it requires helmet manufacturers to certify each model sold meets the current DOT helmet rating FMVSS 218.
- Set by the Economic Commission for Europe.
- Multi-national standard used by most European Nations.
- The current standard is ECE 22.05.
- Set by the Snell Memorial Foundation, a private non-profit organization founded after racecar driver Pete Snell was killed in an accident while racing.
- SNELL certification is voluntary.
- The current standard is SNELL M2020.
- The newest motorcycle helmet certification.
- Set by the Federation International De Motocyclisme (FIM).
- Used for professional motorcycle racing.
Now let’s talk about testing – it’s important to understand impact zones, and the different materials that can change the outcome of some of the tests.
Let’s begin with impact zones
The next biggest zone is above the visor, receiving 18.3% of impacts from motorcycle accidents.
As you can tell, helmet coverage plays a big part in protection. A full-face DOT helmet may provide better protection than an open-face Snell or ECE rated helmet simple because it covers the chin.
For comparison, a half-shell motorcycle helmet only protects from about 37% of impacts – but it’s still street-legal so long as it passes DOT certification.
Understanding The Why Behind Helmet Construction
Your First Line Of Defense - The Shell
The shell is typically made from Polycarbonate, Kevlar, or Fiberglass. Each of these provide unique properties that render the helmet better able to pass the tests and meet standards. Here’s a rundown of each material:
- High-tech Themo-plastic.
- High Impact and Concentration Performance.
- Works well against penetration.
- Doesn’t absorb Shock well.
- Made of laminated layers.
- Doesn’t last as long as fiberglass shells.
- Water will weaken polycarbonate over time.
- Best used as an addition to fiberglass.
- Doesn’t absorb energy as well as fiberglass.
- Not as strong as Kevlar
- Exceeds Kevlar’s shock absorption capability. (Which is the most important feature of a helmet shell)
- Heavier than Kevlar.
So, which is better - Laminate or Rigid Thermoplastic?
- A rigid material has a high penetration resistance and is extraordinarily strong.
- Laminate materials absorb more of the impact and also protect your head better after impact from shock.
Bottom line: “BETTER” depends on the type of impact you experience.
The Second Line of Defense: The EPS liner
The EPS liner is designed to crush upon impact, reducing the amount of energy transferred to the brain. That’s why we recommend you ALWAYS replace your helmet after an accident.
So far, the industry hasn’t made any determinations as to what’s the best EPS foam densities for helmets. There’s just a lot of factors that play a part in how effective the EPS foam is in an impact.
- Less-dense foam collapses more easily and quickly. While this might be good at low speeds, if the impact causes the foam to collapse too quickly, a large amount of energy can be transferred to the head.
- Denser foam doesn’t collapse easily or quickly, which is better during high-impact situations. However, in low-speed impacts, the foam may not collapse at all, and a lot of the energy is transferred to the head.
So, what’s the answer?
Some higher-end motorcycle helmet manufacturers have recently started using a combination of foam densities. That way the less dense foam will collapse during moderate impacts, while the denser foam will not collapse too much during a hard impact.
Why Chinstraps are Important
Chinstraps are key to keeping your helmet from coming off during an accident. If they’re made out of poor-quality materials, they could stretch or break under pressure – and a helmet doesn’t do your head any good if it’s bouncing down the road. That’s why you want a chinstrap’s that good and strong.
How Proper Fit Impacts Testing
If your helmet’s loose, your head can shift and move around – meaning your head can slam against the inside of the helmet in a crash, definitely NOT good. Additionally, riding while wearing an ill-fitting helmet can lead to neck fatigue. Plus, they’re just noisier due to the gap that can allow in wind and sound.
The Importance Of the Face Shield
Face Shields typically use Polycarbonate or Acrylic. Polycarbonate doesn’t distort your vision and it doesn’t scratch as easily as Acrylic. Both are strong enough to protect your face from the wind, rain, insects, rocks and road debris, but it’s important to look for one that also offers UV protection.
A Quick Trip Through Motorcycle Safety Standards
As we’ve mentioned earlier, safety standards can be confusing. So is there a best? The obvious answer is yes, but this may change based on the type of crash.
Remember – just because a helmet meets one safety standard, it doesn’t mean it will pass another. However, there’s one standard ALL US helmets need to meet…
Department of Transportation (DOT FMVSS-218)
This one is required for all motorcycle helmets sold in the United States.
Due to weak laws regarding the sale of novelty helmets, (Washington State has a clause preventing the sale of them) the DOT standard can weed out inferior helmets. The DOT standard uses four separate tests that must be passed to qualify for the DOT Certification:
- Retention Strap
- And Peripheral Vision Tests.
While these tests are a bit more lenient than other motorcycle helmet standards, they do offer a good baseline to separate real motorcycle helmets from the fake ones.
The Impact Test involves both a flat and rounded anvil and require striking the helmet against it to determine how hard of a crash it can withstand. This is simulated in adverse conditions such as humidity, hot and cold weather and wet, because the helmet needs to work in all these conditions.
The Penetration Test typically requires a helmet to withstand a six-pound pointed object dropped from a height of 10 feet 10 inches onto the helmet. This test must be passed when the helmet is hot, cold, and wet.
The Retention Strap Test uses weights to test the strap. It must not stretch beyond limits or – if it is within limits – it must not break to pass this test.
The Peripheral Vision Test requires the wearer’s field of vision be at least 105 degrees from the center when looking left and right.
REMEMBER – all other standards for US helmets must at least meet DOT FMVSS-218 standards. However, many will be even stricter and will test for additional things.
Snell Memorial Foundation Certification (SNELL M2020)
The Snell tests are stricter than DOT testing standards, supplementing them by offering even stricter criteria. This means you’re more likely to survive an accident with a head impact, with less significant injuries on average.
- Impact Testing: This test involves striking the helmet against different surfaces to simulate an accident. The helmet fails this test if it detects that a rider’s head would accelerate too fast during an accident.
- Roll-Off Test: This test checks to see how likely the helmet is to remain on a rider’s head during a crash. Snell uses realistic head forms to make the test more accurate.
- Dynamic Retention Test: This tests for the ability of the chin strap to hold a weight without stretching or breaking over a specific period of time. The strap must hold 23-kilograms for 30 seconds then withstand a 38-kilogram weight free-falling. It can’t stretch more than 3 centimeters, or it fails.
- Chin Bar Impact Test: Most tests use a 5-kilogram weight dropped onto the chin bar. If there’s too much deflection, the helmet fails.
- Two Separate Penetration Tests: One penetration test for the shell, the other for the face-shield. The shell penetration test is like the DOT penetration test. A 3-kilogram striker is dropped onto the helmet. The face-shield penetration tests can vary a bit. For Snell, a pellet is fired from an air rifle to see if it can penetrate it. The face-shield must be able to stop a lead pellet traveling at 500-kilometers per hour.
Because Snell has more thorough testing and is harder to meet, helmets that meet both Snell and DOT are a better choice than helmets that meet DOT only.
Economic Commission for Europe (ECE 22.05)
While the ECE standards don’t involve as many tests as Snell, their advantage is they test under more realistic conditions.
For example, ECE tests to see if the helmet will work despite exposure to UV light (unlike DOT). ECE tests exposure to solvents that may weaken the helmet. ECE also tests see which size helmet is most likely to fail its tests.
ECE also tests multiple helmets from a production run to make sure quality remains consistent throughout. (They even test the certification stickers to ensure they reflect enough light!)
ECE’s penetration test assesses different parts of the helmet to see how well it stands up to impact. Even the chin bar is tested.
The ECE Chin Strap test uses a machine to jerk the helmet backwards. It will only pass if the strap does not break or come off.
ECE also tests the face shield for durability and whether it interferes with vision.
Federation International De Motocyclisme (FIM Racing Homologate Helmet)
This standard is the new European safety certification for Motorcycle Racing. It’s harder to pass than ECE tests. FIM only tests full-face helmets with an emphasis on rotational forces. Rotational forces may account for most injuries, and FIM must approve any helmet used in World Championship level races.
Which Certifications Cover The Most Helmets?
In the United States DOT covers all motorcycle helmets, while in Europe ECE is the dominant certification. However, it is becoming increasingly more common in the United States to find dual certified helmets with DOT and ECE, which has less production costs and makes the helmet available to the largest number of users.
What Situations Are Best For Each Certification?
For street use, DOT and ECE are the best when you consider the balance between protection and cost. (Most riders aren’t willing to pay the higher price of a FIM-certified helmet.)
The two big knocks on DOT are:
- A helmet does NOT need to be tested BEFORE to being released to the public.
- The standards don’t get updated frequently enough. (The last update to the DOT Standards was in May 2013.)
FIM on the other hand requires a helmet to have passed ECE, Snell, or the Japanese JIS standard (not discussed here), before being tested for FIM. FIM does not test helmets that have ONLY passed DOT, which implies that from their point of view, the DOT standards may be a bit too lenient. Helmet manufacturers are able to run their own testing and certify that a helmet indeed meets the DOT standard. (Any reputable helmet company will NOT pass a helmet that fails the DOT test.)
Keys to Surviving A Motorcycle Crash?
It is no surprise that motorcycle riders are more likely to be injured (even die) in an accident than a citizen riding in a car.
Now most injuries, like broken bones and road-rash, heal over time and don’t change your personality.
Head trauma, however, can be a totally different story.
Impacts to the head of 200 to 250 G’s can cause a serious injury, but probably won’t kill you. At 250 to 300 G’s, however, you’re looking at serious injuries that you might not survive. At 450 G’s, it’s almost certainly goodbye.
An accident can cause many different types of head injuries, including concussions and bleeding inside the brain. Those you can typically recover from.
A whole different story is Diffuse Axonal Injury, where the head moves faster than the brain, causing nerves to tear. When nerves tear, chemicals can get released into the brain that cause even further harm.
While those injuries can lead to permanent disability, many people manage to recover to some degree. In fact, with persistence, some even manage to live with their disability.
Penetration injuries in motorcycle crashes don’t happen as often as blunt impact injuries, and all the helmet certification tests take resistance to impact seriously.
Why Care about DOT, SNELL, or ECE, or FIM helmets?
All the motorcycle helmet certifications have standards. By now you have likely ruled out a DOT-only certified helmet for various reasons. ECE and SNELL offer similar tests but test for different outcomes – SNELL has more rigorous tests, while ECE is the most up to date and is recognized in more countries. (One knock on SNELL is their tests don’t necessarily reflect real-world circumstances.)
Because FIM only tests helmets that have passed SNELL or ECE, this implies it’s a higher difficulty standard than DOT, ECE, and SNELL.
By now you should have a pretty good handle on how these standards stack up.
FIM at the top, followed by ECE and SNELL in the middle, and DOT as the baseline all US helmets HAVE to meet.
If you would like to read the official standards for each of the Motorcycle Helmet Standards discussed in this article, click the links below.
Or if you'd like to know more about Motorcycle Helmets, you can read these articles.
As always have a comment, question, or know something we missed leave your comment below.