There’s some great looking helmets out there but how do you know which is safer than another and actually meets the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard?
Some people buy a helmet just because it looks good, without thinking of the consequences of getting something that perhaps might not save your life in the event of an accident. Just because a helmet looks cool doesn’t necessarily mean it’s up to scratch.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) requires that all motorcycle helmets sold in the U.S. meet a minimum performance standard and will properly protect the wearer’s head and brain in the event of a crash.
Every year the DOT does a series of compliance testing on all new helmets to determine whether they meet the basic standards required under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No: 218 (FMVSS 218).
For a helmet to pass it has to go through a series of extremely complicated and intensive durability tests, including high attenuation tests to ensure that it can actually withstand different degrees of impact.
If the helmet passes it gets to carry a DOT sticker, normally found on the outside back of a helmet, which certifies that it meets, or in some cases, exceeds FMVSS 218.But some novelty helmet sellers will also put a fake DOT sticker on a helmet.
So here’s what you also need to look out for before making your purchase:
Thick Inner Liner – Any helmet that meets the DOT standard has to have an inner liner that should be at least one inch thick and made from firm polystyrene foam. Sometimes that liner may not be visible but you should be able to check its thickness by taking a closer look inside and feeling it with your fingers. An unsafe helmet sometimes only contains soft foam padding at best, or in extreme cases just a bare plastic shell with no padding at all.
Weight of the helmet – Depending on its design, an unsafe helmet can weigh less than a pound. Helmets that actually meet the DOT requirement generally weigh at least three pounds or more. There should always be a robust, substantial feel to a DOT-approved helmet.
Chinstrap and rivets – Take time to look at the helmet’s construction. Check to see there is a sturdy, substantial chinstrap held in place by solid rivets.
Design/style of helmet – Aside from the absence of a DOT sticker on the back, a helmet’s style can also be the give away if it’s not officially approved.
Under the FMVSS 218 standard there should be nothing anywhere on a helmet’s surface above two-tenths of an inch. For example, visor fastenings are permissible, but a spike or anything else sticking out would indicate it could be an unsafe helmet.
Whilst the DOT has never come across a full-face helmet on sale that does not meet its minimum requirements, there are a lot of open and skullcap helmets that definitely do not. In particular, German army style helmets often have no official approval or any certification. That being said there are examples of these types of helmets that do meet the DOT requirements. Just be careful and check carefully.
Stickers and labels – A helmet that meets the standards should have a DOT outside, on the back. But some less scrupulous vendors will supply these to you for an unsafe helmet.
In addition to the DOT sticker look for labels inside a helmet that shows that it meets the standard of non-profit safety organizations such as Snell or the American National Standards Institute. These are good indicators that the helmet you’re considering also meets DOT’s standard. You are very unlikely to find a novelty helmet that has a fake DOT sticker as well SNELL, ECE or ANSI tags.
Manufacturers are also required under the FMVSS 218 regulation to place a label inside a helmet stating the company’s name, model, size and month of year of manufacture, construction materials and owner information. A non-DOT approved helmet usually does not have this type of labeling.
In summary, it’s best to remember that a DOT sticker on the back of a helmet and labeling inside does not necessarily indicate that it’s safe. A lot of helmets have counterfeit DOT stickers and a few have been found to even have fake manufacturer labeling.
But a couple of good checkpoints are the design and weight of a helmet. Look and feel the thickness of the inner liner and the quality of the chin straps and rivets. These are good clues that should help you distinguish between a properly approved DOT helmet that could save your life or a cheap imitation that potentially won’t.