Despite the fact that manufacturers and road safety agencies heavily rely on them, it’s a known fact that motorcycle helmet safety standards are a little all up in the air. In the U.S., there are two main certifications offered: DOT, which is mandatory for all helmets sold in the country, and Snell, a non-mandatory tag awarded by the eponymous non-profit organization. Across the pond, 47 countries rely on the Economic Commission for Europe’s (ECE) R 22.05 certification and require riders to wear an ECE homologate helmet.
Despite the agencies’ seemingly good intentions, there is one major issue with all of them: the standards are grossly inconsistent and, in many cases, obsolete. In February 2020, we documented the results of a series of independent tests conducted by Act Labs that resulted in a number of DOT-certified helmets underperforming and even failing the tests altogether. DOT helmets are actually tested by the manufacturers and if they meet the minimum requirements, they get their sticker. Easy peasy, lemon (and head) squeezy.
While Snell has a reputation for being more rigorous, the certification is only voluntary and not as thorough as its European counterpart. ECE takes things a step further (with an anticipated upgrade to an R 22.06 standard this year) by combining criteria of the DOT and Snell certifications, sprinkled with a few additional criteria of its own. That’s why it's considered the most rigorous standard of the bunch, yet, there are still gaps that need to be bridged.
Imagine that the NHTSA only tested cars for head-on collisions without taking 75-degree and T-bone impacts or rollovers into consideration. How reliable would the safety ratings really be? This is more or less what the situation is for motorcycle helmets at the moment.
To address these inconsistencies, in 2019, the International Motorcycling Federation (FIM) stepped in and decided to impose its own certification to make sure that all its racers received the same level of protection, regardless of who the gear sponsors are. This meant that the teams in the Federation's portfolio were forced to equip their racers with FIM-certified helmets.
Those lids are now making their way out of the paddocks and on the civilian market. This means that you and I can now get our hands on one of the few models that sport the fancy holographic tag—provided you have $1,000-2,000 to spare to own one.
It's All About The Tests
What’s so special about the FIM certification? There are two major things that discern this new standard from the existing ones. First, the most obvious difference between the tests conducted by the FIM and the other agencies is speed. Because the focus is to ensure that racers receive top notch noggin protection, the FIM-certified helmets have been tested for higher speed impacts. It might seem overkill since most of us won’t ever get to go nearly as fast as MotoGP racers but it’s not a bad thing for a helmet to over-perform in that regard, no?
More importantly, the FIM not only tests the helmets’ performance in linear impacts but it also looks at how the shell and foam perform in oblique impacts, when the force of the impact is distributed unevenly. Not all crashes are equal; not all head impacts come at the same angle, and that’s where the FIM’s tests are superior.
Interestingly, only helmets that are already ECE, Snell, or JIS (Japanese safety standards) certified can be FIM homologated—yet another proof that DOT doesn’t cut it. The Federation also only certifies full-face, non-modular helmets with a D-ring closing system.The Federation has even announced that it will release increasingly more stringent levels of certifications to cover other spheres of motorcycle riding such as off-roading where, once again, the type of impact greatly varies. There is no say whether the criteria will eventually expand to include different types of helmets including open-face and modular.
The FIM certification is currently the most rigorous in the industry. Granted, the helmets that currently meet those standards cost a pretty penny and are not an option for everyone but I see two advantages to this. It allow riders to make an informed decision on the type of helmet they chose—even if they can't afford an AGV Pista GP RR or a Shoei X-Fourteen, at least they know that superior protection is available. It could also encourage helmet manufacturers to improve their process and materials to meet the new standards and eventually offer cheaper but also safer helmets.
I’m all for a single, consistent, and reliable helmet certification standard. We should be able to trust the stickers slapped on the back of our helmets and not have to read horror stories about certified helmets offering sub-par protection.