You’ve probably internalized how vital it is to wear a protective helmet when you ride your motorcycle. And it shouldn’t be some random lid you fancy just because it’s dirt cheap and looks cool. You’ve been told to purchase from reputable brands and you’re aware of the importance of safety ratings. After all, you’re smart, sensible, and responsible enough to safeguard your brain, right? You might be familiar with DOT, ECE, Snell, etc. — but what do they really mean? Here are the basics behind the most common helmet safety certifications.
Helmets are 37% effective in preventing motorcycle deaths and 67% effective in preventing brain injuries, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of the USA. You can typically find these certifications on either the back of the helmet or inside, stitched into the helmet liner or on the foam itself in the form of a sticker.
Most helmet tests revolve around the use of a head form. These are test instruments, in the form of a human head, fitted with an accelerometer to measure peak G force or acceleration which is measured in Gravitational units, i.e. the speed of gravitational acceleration, which is 9.764 m/s2. How hard the helmets are impacted is unique to each standard. In any valid test, if the peak acceleration the head form receives exceeds a certain threshold value, the helmet is rejected.
DOT stands for the “Department of Transportation” (USA) and this certification follows Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard #218 (FMVSS 218). The NHTSA enforces this by sending product samples to an independent lab for random testing. However, the honor system mostly applies and manufacturers are expected to get their helmets tested before sale. Unfortunately since 2014, 41.9% of DOT-marked helmets that were subjected to post-marketing testing failed.
DOT tests impact attenuation, penetration, and the retention system on each size of head form after environmental conditioning. Impact attenuation is measured by determining the acceleration imparted to a test headform when each helmet is impacted at four sites onto hemispherical or flat steel anvils, via a monorail drop system. Peak acceleration must not exceed 400 Gs.
Meanwhile for DOT, two penetration blows by a test striker make sure that the head form is not pierced or contacted. The retention system is tested by subjecting the helmet straps to loads — 22.7 kg for 30 seconds at first, followed by 113.4 kg for 120 seconds. DOT helmets are tested after environmental conditioning (heat, humidity, etc.) and must have peripheral vision clearance of at least 105°. Rigid projections outside the shell can’t protrude more than 5 mm. Visors must comply with a separate standard called VESC 8 (Vehicle Equipment Safety Commission).
ECE stands for “Economic Commission for Europe” which falls under the UN. The ECE standard for helmets is numbered 22.05. Up to 50 samples are sent to an ECE certified lab for batch testing. There are ECE subcategories of helmets: “J” for helmets without lower covers; “P” for those with protective lowers; and “NP” for helmets with non-protective lower covers.
ECE is similar to DOT when it comes to 105° peripheral vision and environmental conditioning. Its penetration testing allows a peak acceleration of 275 Gs. The helmet is also tested at surface points where there are protruding projections. ECE tests for abrasion resistance, requiring that the surface of the helmet strips away or allows the surface to successfully slip past — minimizing twisting forces applied to the rider’s head and neck.
ECE further measures the deformation of the helmet under progressively more load (up to 630 N). The retention system for ECE is tested with a 10 kg weight from 0.75 m. The attachment point cannot be displaced for more than 25 mm. The helmet strap is also tested for abrasion resistance and the fastener is tested for slippage. Quick-release buckles are tested for ease and durability. Projections on an ECE helmet cannot exceed 2 mm. ECE examines the visor if it is a vital component.
Snell testing is independent, offering manufacturers a way to test prototypes for product development. Helmet manufacturers send samples to the non-profit Snell Memorial Foundation. Founded in 1957, the foundation is named after William "Pete" Snell, a popular sports car racer who died in 1956 of head injuries he received when the racing helmet he wore failed to protect his head. A group of friends, scientists, physicians, and others joined together to create a group that would promote research and education as well as test and develop standards to improve the effectiveness of helmets.
Snell certification is designated M2015, and the foundation follows up with future random testing. Some competitions require the use of Snell certified helmets. Under Snell, “M” means motorcycle; “SA” means special application; “SAH” stands for special application with a frontal head restraint system; “K” is for karting; “CMR” stands for children’s motorsports restricted; and “CMS” means children motorsports standard.
Snell sets peak acceleration during impact testing to 243 to 275 Gs, depending on head form size. The foundation goes further by using five anvil shapes, six head form sizes, various drop heights (3.06 m and 2.3 m), and different specified velocities. For penetration testing, Snell drops a 3 kg striker on the helmet from 38 mm. Snell also tests the chin bar of a full face helmets, requiring less than 60 mm of deflection caused by the impact of a 5 kg weight. Flip-up chin bars follow different criteria. Snell also subjects helmet shields to penetration testing by shooting lead pellets at three different spots, with a velocity of 500 kph, and any bumps created on a racing helmet’s shield cannot exceed 2.5 mm.
Snell tests for positional stability by subjecting the helmet to weights at different points, to ensure that it does not roll off the head form. Retention system testing uses a 23 kg static load, and a 38 kg shock load applied to the closure. Deflection of the strap cannot exceed 30 mm. Emergency workers must be able to remove a helmet in 30 seconds or less. Like DOT and ECE, Snell helmets must provide 105° of peripheral vision. Snell’s environmental testing include solvents common in motorsports which may degrade helmet components.
There are many other regulations found around the world which deal with helmet quality. There’s the FIM’s FRHPhe-01 for homologation, the UK’s BS 6658:1985, Japan’s JIS T8133 2015, and India’s 4151 to name a few. SHARP has also recently entered the independent safety certification industry.
In the Philippines
The Philippines has a mandatory helmet safety law for motorcycle riders. Republic Act No. 10054 states, “All motorcycle riders, including drivers and back riders, shall at all times wear standard protective motorcycle helmets while driving, whether long or short drives, in any type of road and highway.” Standard protective motorcycle helmets refer to products that bear legitimate Philippine Standard (PS) or Import Commodity Clearance (ICC) marks. These are provided by the Bureau of Product Standards (BPS) under the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).
Manufacturers and importers can apply for PS and ICC marks to prove that they’re selling safe lids to local consumers. DTI publishes lists of certified helmet brands and their distributors. Meanwhile, motorcycle riders who’ve bought safety rated helmets from abroad that don’t have locally accepted stickers are invited to apply for them. Yes, technically you can be apprehended for not wearing an ICC sticker in the Philippines— even if you’re wearing a super safe Snell-certified, FIM homologated helmet.
While DOT-approved helmets are relatively safe, we recomment purchasing ECE- or Snell-approved helmets as these have passed a higher standard of testing.