Which is best? Snell, ECE, FIM, and DOT Motorcycle Helmet Standards Compared
Motorcycle helmet certifications can be confusing because a few different standards are in common use. A helmet that meets the standards for one certificate may fail the tests for another.
Which of the several commonly used certification systems is the strictest? Is it essential to buy a helmet produced by a reputable manufacturer and with quality materials, or are all common materials good enough? Does a helmet need to pass the hardest tests, or are the more lenient tests strict enough?
Here we will talk about how motorcycle helmets work, what they are made of, how people test them, and the standards for each certification. The more you know about helmets, the easier it is to make a good purchase.
Not wearing a helmet greatly increases the chance of being killed in a motorcycle accident.
Motorcycle helmets save many people from being killed or permanently injured every year. Many motorcyclists die in crashes that they would have survived if they had have been wearing a helmet.
Every rider should wear a helmet – you never know what might happen; even if you pay attention, there are drunk and distracted drivers on the road. Do not assume that you could never make a serious mistake and remember that you can get in an accident through no fault of your own. Even if you are paying attention, many other people on the road are not.
Since full-face helmets (integral) are much better than helmets open face (jet) helmets, you should always get a full-face helmet. When motorcycle crashes occur, people often strike on their chins and faces. An impact to a motorcyclist’s head has a 45% chance of being on the part of the head that only a full-face helmet covers.
The more of your face the helmet covers, the better. An open face 3/4 helmet does not cover as much as a full-face helmet but much more than a ½ helmet. What are the different components of a helmet, and what are they made of?
Some helmets are much better than others, and if you know a little about the design and construction of helmets, you can make a better purchasing decision.
The shell – the first line of defense
The shell is the largest and one of the most important components of your helmet. It is the outer structure of the helmet that covers your head. The chin bar is part of the shell on a full-face helmet and separates on a modular design. Companies manufacturer helmet shells out of different materials, and they each have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Polycarbonate is a form of high-tech thermo- plastic that has high impact and concentration performance. While polycarbonate works well for protecting against penetration it does not absorb shock as well as shells that are made of laminated layers such as your head, it does not last as long as fiberglass shells. Water will weaken polycarbonate over time.
Kevlar is better used as an addition to a fiberglass helmet than as the sole material. It is an expensive material and very lightweight. Its disadvantage is not only that it is more expensive than other materials, but it does not absorb energy as well as conventional fiberglass.
Fiberglass is a material that is not as strong as Kevlar but exceeds Kevlar’s shock absorption capability which is the most important feature of a helmet shell. Fiberglass is a little heavier than Kevlar and offers excellent shock absorption.
Laminate vs more rigid thermoplastic materials: which is better?
Arguably, a more rigid material is not the right way to go for bike helmets. A rigid material is extraordinarily strong and has high penetration resistance. However, laminate materials absorb more of the impact and protect your head from shock after impact. Which is better depends on what type of accident and impact you have.
The foam liner – the second line of defense, and in most cases the most important.
A strong helmet shell with no padding underneath it would not be enough to save you from serious injury. Motorcycle helmets use Expanded Polystyrene Foam (EPS) to shield your head from impact. A hard impact will crush the foam – most of the impact’s energy will go throughout the foam liner and as little as possible to your head.
Not all EPS foam liners are the same
Sometimes the EPS in a motorcycle helmet is denser or less dense than average. Denser foam is not always better.
Some helmets have multi-density EPS foam liners.
The less-dense foam will collapse more easily and dissipate energy quickly when it collapses. However, the foam might collapse too quickly, leaving no remaining foam to shield your head from impact. If the impact is low enough the foam does not collapse too quickly, less dense foam is advantageous as it absorbs more energy in these circumstances.
Denser foam can be better in high impact situations because it does not collapse too quickly. The disadvantage is that it might not collapse much at all, so your head will take a hard impact in low-speed crashes. Somewhere in-between is best, and no one knows exactly how dense the foam is supposed to be for the best protection because you can’t choose your accident!
Higher-end motorcycle helmets may combine denser foam with more collapsible foam. This way, the less dense foam will collapse if the impact is moderate, and the denser foam will not collapse too much if the impact is hard.
The chin strap matters and must fit properly.
If your chin strap is weak or does not fit properly, a crash might pull your helmet off your head. A good, properly fitting chin strap can save your life. A helmet is useless if it does not remain on your head in the event of an accident.
A proper fitting motorcycle helmet is necessary for maximum protection
A loose-fitting helmet will not protect your head properly. If you crash with a loose-fitting helmet on, your head will slam against the side of your helmet.
A properly fitting helmet prevents your head from moving around, is more comfortable, and can save you from serious injury. Make sure that the interior liner is the right thickness and prevents your head from moving around inside your helmet. A helmet can also come off during a crash if it does not fit snugly.
A quality face shield is a must
The main purpose of a face shield is to protect the rider from the wind, rain, insects, even rocks and road debris. Since it is common to strike the front of the helmet during a crash, you need a face shield for extra protection. Polycarbonate is a better material for face shields than acrylic.
Acrylic distorts your vision to some extent and is easier to scratch than polycarbonate. Both acrylic and poly-carbonate visors are strong enough to protect your face. Some of them also offer UV protection.
Motorcycle Helmet safety standards
Motorcycle safety standards can be confusing because there are quite a few different boards that certify Motorcycle helmets worldwide. While they have many things in common with each other, but there are also important differences. A helmet that passes according to one standard may fail according to another.
Department of Transportation (FMVSS-218)
The FMVSS-218 certification, better known as DOT certification, is the legal minimum standard that helmets must pass in the United States.
Theoretically, it is illegal to sell helmets that do not pass DOT tests in the US. However, some manufacturers get around this by selling helmets that are not described as real motorcycle helmets and are sold as novelty helmets instead. The laws are weak enough that companies can get away with selling helmets that do not meet DOT standards.
Despite the weakness of the laws, the DOT standard is the most important standard for helmets to meet in the United States as it is a mandatory requirement. Most real motorcycle helmets used in the USA meet DOT standards. The Department of Transportation tests are less strict than some other tests but still weed out inferior helmets.
There are four separate tests that a helmet must pass to qualify for DOT certification. A helmet must pass an impact test, a penetration test, a retention strap test, and a peripheral vision test. While these tests are not easy to pass, the standards are somewhat more lenient than for some other motorcycle helmet certificates.
The impact test involves striking the helmet against an anvil to see how hard of a crash it could take. Both a flat anvil and a rounded anvil are used.
It is not enough for the helmet to be able to resist impacts and absorb shock in ideal conditions. The helmet must work in humidity, in hot or cold weather, and if the helmet is wet. Safety tests simulate these adverse conditions to make sure the helmet will work regardless of the situation.
The penetration test is rigorous. A typical test requires a helmet must be able to withstand a six-pound pointed object dropping from a height of 10 feet 10 inches onto the helmet. The helmet must also pass the penetration test even if it is wet, hot, or cold.
Weights are also used to test the strap. If the strap does not break but does stretch by more than is allowed, the helmet fails the retention strap test. There is only a limited amount of tolerance for the strap lengthening when pulled on.
Finally, any helmet that interferes with the wearer’s vision will not pass. Generally, a helmet must allow for at least 105 degrees of peripheral vision from the center to as far as you can see right or left.
Other tests are not vastly different from the standard Department of Transportation test. A helmet must be able to stand up to impact and pointed objects and must work despite moisture, wetness, heat, and cold. Standards are sometimes stricter, and testers may put helmets through other tests that are not necessary for DOT certification.
Snell Memorial Foundation Certification
The Snell Foundation tests are somewhat stricter than the DOT tests. While the Snell tests do not affect what is legal to sell anywhere in the United States, a Snell (M-95 / M2000) test proves that a helmet goes beyond the usual standard and offers excellent protection. The Snell Foundation puts a helmet through more tests than the DOT does.
The Snell Foundation strikes a helmet against a few different surfaces to simulate crashes. If the Snell Foundation detects that a rider’s brain would accelerate too fast during a crash, the helmet fails.
- Roll-off test:
This is a test of whether a helmet will remain on a rider’s head during a crash. Motorcycle helmet testers use head forms in their tests, including the Snell Foundation’s roll-off test or positional stability test. These realistic human head forms make the tests more accurate.
The helmet is placed upside down at an angle of 135 degrees with a head form inside it. Testers then use a mechanism with weights and a wire rope to flip the helmet over. The helmet can move around to some extent, but it must remain on the head form to pass the test.
- Dynamic retention test:
This is a rigorous test of the chin strap, which must hold a weight for a long enough time without breaking or stretching much. First, the strap must hold a 23-kilogram weight for 30 seconds, and then it must withstand a falling 38-kilogram weight. If the strap stretches by more than three centimeters, it fails.
- Chin bar impact test:
Helmet safety standards require a helmet to have a strong and shock absorbent chin bar that can handle having a weight dropped on it. Many tests drop a five-kilogram weight on the chin bar, which cannot deflect much, or else the helmet fails.
- Two separate penetration tests:
A helmet must pass at least one penetration test for the shell and another penetration test for the face shield. The shell penetration test is similar between different test programs. o the DOT penetration test. Testers drop a three-kilogram striker on the helmet.
The face shield penetration tests can vary quite a bit. For example, in the Snell certification, they fire a pellet from an air rifle at the face shield to see if it penetrates. The face shield must be able to stop a lead pellet traveling at 500 kilometers per hour.
Since the Snell Foundation puts the helmets through more tests than the DOT does, it is harder to meet their standards. A helmet that boasts Snell and not only DOT certification is a helmet you can trust.
European Standard (22.05 ECE)
European ECE motorcycle helmet standards are like American DOT standards and do not involve as many different tests as the Snell Foundation uses. An advantage of the ECE test is that they test for more real-life environmental factors than the DOT test.
Unlike the DOT, the ECE tests to see if the helmet works despite exposure to ultraviolet light. The ECE also exposes helmets to solvents that may weaken the helmet and make it fail its tests. As helmets come in different sizes, the ECE always tests the size of each helmet that is most likely to fail.
The ECE also tests more than one helmet in each production run. This is to make sure that the helmets’ quality remains the same instead of decreasing after the first batch. The ECE is thorough enough that even safety stickers are tested to see if they reflect enough light.
The ECE penetration test is rigorous as the ECE tests many different parts of the helmet to see how well it stands up to impact in different places on the shell. The chin guard is tested against impact as part of the penetration tests.
The ECE tests also involve testing the chin strap by using a testing machine to jerk the helmet backward, with the helmet passing if the strap does not break or fall off. The ECE also tests the face shield for durability and whether it interferes with vision.
European BSI tests
The BSI 6658-85 is a separate European certification that is less well known but still relevant. The BSI standard is more like the Snell Foundation standard than the ECE standard. Some of the measurements that the BSI considers minimum for a helmet to pass are the same as what the Snell Foundation uses.
UK SHARP Motorcycle Helmet Certification
Before SHARP tests a motorcycle helmet, the helmet must have already passed the European ECE tests. The UK government funds the SHARP tests. The UK government pays for extra tests that go beyond what the ECE administers.
The SHARP tests’ biggest advantage is that every helmet gets a rating, from 1 to 5 stars, instead of only a pass or fail. With SHARP tests, a customer can differentiate between the best helmets and those that are merely good enough. While SHARP tests are only for helmets sold in the UK, people elsewhere can look up the SHARP ratings to compare helmets.
SHARP impact tests occur at three different speeds. The helmets are tested against pointed as well as flat surfaces. There are also rotational tests to see how much rotational energy would be transferred to a rider’s head during a crash.
Because of the quality of the tests performed and the star rating system, the SHARP system might be the best. It gives you more information than a simple pass/fail grade. You may be able to use the SHARP ratings to differentiate between two helmets that both pass another test.
What is the FIM helmet standard?
FIM is a new European safety certification for Motorcycle Racing that is harder to pass than the usual ECE tests. FIM only tests full-face helmets and emphasizes a helmet’s resistance to rotational forces, which may account for most injuries. FIM must approve any helmets used in the world championship level races.
Which certification systems cover the most helmets?
In the United States, you are most likely to find helmets with DOT stickers on them. Helmets in Europe are more likely to have ECE stickers.
While the Snell, BSM, and FIM certifications have their advantages, they do not cover as many helmets as DOT and ECE tests do. They are optional higher-end tests. In the United States, the Snell certification is the current favorite for high-end helmets and racing helmets. For most typical helmets sold to the public, there is no testing other than the common DOT or ECE testing.
Many companies also make slightly different helmets for the European market and the North American market. A helmet sometimes needs to be changed to pass different testing standards. The two standards are not interchangeable – at least in theory, it is not legal to sell a helmet that is certified by the ECE but not by the DOT in the United States.
Are different standards better for different situations?
Since riders cannot be expected to wear absurdly thick and bulky or unreasonably expensive helmets, stricter standards are not always better. The FIM has much stricter requirements for racing than DOT or ECE does for street motorcycle use. The typical rider would not be willing to pay the prices of an FIM certified helmet.
One could argue that the standard American DOT standards are too lenient and should be made stricter. Before the FIM looks at a helmet, it must have already passed ECE, Japanese JIS, or Snell certification. The FIM will not test a helmet that has only passed DOT, implying that DOT is too lenient.
A significant flaw in the DOT certification is that manufacturers can test their own helmets themselves and state they meet the standard. This is not true for Snell Foundation tests, which are never done by manufacturers. Manufacturers being allowed to test their own helmets could create the risk of less than objective results.
On another level, it is not necessarily true that DOT standards are too lenient. If a company tests their helmets honestly, a bad helmet will fail a DOT test.
How hard is it to survive a motorcycle crash?
Motorcycles are almost always more dangerous than cars, even if there are many ways to reduce the risks. Riders die in a much higher percentage of accidents than in automobile crashes.
While people can recover from broken bones, a brain injury can be permanent. A helmet can save your life – it will not always save you, but hopefully it can turn a fatal blow into a temporary injury.
An impact of 200 to 250 g’s to the head is likely to seriously injure but not kill a rider. An impact of 250 to 300 g’s will cause a critical injury that the rider might not survive. Sometimes, a relatively weak impact can cause a lasting injury, brain injury is a very complex subject.
There are many types of head injuries that you might suffer if you get in an accident. You might suffer from a concussion (usually something you fully recover from, but not always) or a contusion (bleeding and bruising inside the brain, which sounds severe, but can be fully recovered from much of the time).
Another type of brain injury is a Diffuse Axonal Injury. If your head moves faster than your brain during an impact, nerves may tear. When nerve tissue tears inside your brain, chemicals can be released, which may do further harm.
These injuries can lead to permanent disability, but many people manage to recover partly or mostly. Many people can gradually learn to live with the problems their brain injury causes.
There are also often fatal penetration injuries, where an object pierces the skull and enters the brain. As is the case for other types of injuries, some people are luckier than others and can mostly or fully recover.
Penetration injuries are not common in motorcycle crashes; injuries from blunt impact are more commonplace. All the different motorcycle helmet certification tests take resistance to impact seriously.
For more detailed information please see the websites of the following:
Snell Memorial Foundation: https://smf.org/
- Written by Michael Parrotte, November 2020 – former importer, Vice President of AGV Helmets, and consultant work for KBC Helmets, Sparx Helmets, Fox Helmets, Vemar Helmets, Marushin Helmets, and Suomy Helmets.