Motorcyclists are the most vulnerable group of road users: we’re exposed AND we’re going at high speeds. Most of us accept that it isn’t about “if” we will get into a crash of some kind, but “when.” For that reason, it makes sense to get the most out of available safety gear, starting with our helmets.
Helmets work in several ways to help save our most important and delicate asset. They absorb the energy of impact from crashes and flying objects by staying intact, but also by dispersing that energy to guard against concussions. They also need to stay in place while also not limiting visibility to do their job.
Thanks to research and standards set by the Department of Transportation (DOT), Snell Memorial Foundation (Snell), Economic Commission for Europe (ECE), and Safety Helmet Assessment and Rating Programme (SHARP), the safety ratings of motorcycles helmets are continuously being upgraded. The differences between the tests are difficult to decipher for non-engineers, and since each organization maintains that its own is the most extensive and dependable, it's best to do your own research.
In the US, a DOT certification is all you need. Most import to remember is that they are a government regulation agency, not a testing facility. Manufacturers take care of testing their own helmets for impact absorption (as opposed to deflection), but not on the chin bar, which is why a half helmet can be DOT certified. As an incentive to maintain the standards, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration randomly selects helmets off the shelves to be tested by independent and manufacturers are fined $5,000 per lid that doesn’t pass. Watch for counterfeit (or very old) DOT stickers that don’t contain the make and model of the helmet, and FMVSS 218; the name and number of the legislation.
Snell is a private organization that tests and certifies helmets. It is concerned with impact absorption from a crash, and protecting your face and head from objects—large or small—hitting and possibly penetrating any area of the helmet, including the visor. Manufacturers apply to be certified, and the rigorous testing includes “materials deflection tests” and stress tests done when helmets are in all their states—frozen, hot, rain-soaked, etc. Snell also tests to make sure if the helmets stay in place during a crash (assuming you’ve purchased the right size and shape).
The ECE test, as the name implies, is the standard for European countries. It combines the Snell and DOT tests, plus some other apparently “more up to date” tests. Also, the certification is granted before the helmets arrive to the shelves, using batch testing. The ECE approach to lessening impact absorption results in slimmer helmets, and they also assume a far lower average collision speed for their case studies.
The most accessible safety information comes from Sharp, in the UK. That testing, inspired by a 2001 study of motorcycle crashes–the most comprehensive study that had been done in Europe to that date, focuses on g-force and which part of the head is most at risk and most susceptible to being jostled and causing concussions. Sharp makes available on its website:
- clear advice on how to select a helmet that fits correctly and is comfortable,
- consumers with clear, impartial and objective information about the relative safety of motorcycle helmets available to riders in the UK.
Remember that wearing a helmet that fits comfortably is the first step for safety. If your helmet is giving you a headache because it’s too tight or hits pressure points, if it is too hot because it lacks ventilation, or falls over your eyes because it’s too big, it is going to create a constant distraction that will put you at risk of a crash. That said, these ratings can help too. If you ride in many different countries, make sure that your helmet is compliant with local laws so that your insurance will not be voided, and to avoid incurring expensive fines.
The takeaway from all of this information is that there are many agencies in place, working to improve methods of helmet production to help keep riders as safe as possible. So, if you can find that perfect lid that you almost forget you’re wearing, and it does the best job possible to protect your face and noggin in the event of impact, you’re more likely to be able to keep on riding for years to come-which is what we’re all striving for in the end, isn’t it?